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Miami Herald - August 7, 2006

Conflict slows Overtown project

Two years after the city of Miami
announced a plan to overhaul a part of Overtown, the project lies dormant.


It's been two years since Miami Mayor Manny Diaz unveiled an ambitious plan that would in one swoop transform the long-hollow heart of Overtown, the city's poorest neighborhood.

On four publicly owned blocks that had long lain mostly vacant, a Michigan developer proposed a $200 million project: 1,050 condos -- 160 of them priced for working people, 50 more discounted for poor Overtown residents -- as well as shops and offices. The design: pedestrian-friendly, evocative of the historically black neighborhood's heyday more than 40 years ago.

To Diaz, Crosswinds Communities' proposal -- solicited not by the city but by a nonprofit group, the Collins Center for Public Policy -- was a windfall. Diaz said it would lure middle-class people, and their incomes and tax revenue, back to Overtown, administering a revitalizing jolt to a depressed area.

But today, as luxury condo towers rise along Biscayne Boulevard just blocks away, not a speck of dirt has been turned on Sawyer's Walk, the Crosswinds project.

Prospects for a quick realization are uncertain. What once seemed a slam-dunk for the city has been complicated by new litigation, turnover in the commission seat that represents Overtown, and steadfast opposition from at least part of the community the project was supposed to benefit.

Now a critical deadline approaches: Ownership of three of the parcels would revert to Miami-Dade County, which gave the city the land two decades ago, if construction is not substantially under way by Aug. 1, 2007, a prospect that seems unlikely. A City Commission vote on Sawyer's Walk was postponed from July until the end of September.

Diaz and Crosswinds' director of urban development, Matthew Schwartz, say they're confident the project will go forward. The developers hired architects and have building plans, Schwartz said.

The proposal is advancing, but slowly. The city's Planning Advisory Board in June endorsed Sawyer's Walk by a 6-1 vote after a drawn-out and emotional debate at City Hall.


Underpinning the debate are sharp differences over whether private, market-rate developments like Sawyer's Walk -- even with affordable housing included -- will help or hurt a poor community like Overtown.

First came a lawsuit from Glenn Straub, owner of nearby Miami Arena, who contends the city should have put the land up for bid. He claims he would have offered a higher financial return to taxpayers and more affordable units.

A second suit came from Power U, a community group led by professional organizers who have rallied considerable neighborhood opposition.

Power U leaders and supporters call Sawyer's Walk ''racist and classist'' because its condos are unaffordable to most Overtown residents. They say redevelopment will spur higher land values that will eventually push out blacks, who would likely be replaced by nonblacks.

Power U also says the city should not be proffering 12 acres of public land to condo developers when many Overtown residents are living in abject conditions. Instead, they argue, the city should team with developers to build rental housing suitable for Overtown's 8,000 residents, whose median household income is barely over $17,000 a year.

''Why are they so hellbent on Crosswinds? It's willful disregard for the community that lives here now,'' said Power U spokeswoman Bernadette Armand.

Both suits are pending, but city officials are addressing a key demand of Power U's suit by conducting a new analysis of the project's potential impact on the neighborhood.

Diaz says he is frustrated by Power U's arguments. If they succeed in blocking Crosswinds, he contends, little or nothing will happen on those parcels for several more years.

''The model there today, vacant parcels, hasn't worked that well,'' Diaz said. ``People in Overtown would love to get restaurants and retail, a CVS, and create jobs, but to do that you have got to have a critical mass of people and buying power.''

Moreover, Diaz said in an interview, Crosswinds' critics overlook city efforts, in tandem with developers, to finance a variety of affordable housing projects in Overtown.

According to city figures, six projects comprising 567 rental and homeownership units are under construction or were recently finished by developers in Overtown, using, in part, nearly $7 million in federal funds allocated by the city.

''And there is more to come,'' Diaz said. ``That's a story you don't get from Power U.''

Diaz said changes in the commission seat have also contributed to delays. Since he announced the plan, Overtown has been represented by three commissioners with differing views on it -- from the late Arthur Teele Jr., whose objections to its scope delayed an agreement for months, to his successor, Jeffrey Allen, who embraced it.

The current commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, expressed misgivings as a candidate last year. And while legally she can't speak about the project until public hearings are held, she says she remains concerned by the gentrifying effects of market-rate housing.

But Spence-Jones also sees benefit in private development: Because Overtown is a special taxing district, revenue could be poured back into the area by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, possibly in the form of bonds, for affordable housing. Those should be primarily rentals, because that's all that most Overtown residents could afford, she said.

''Before we can talk about doing something else, we have to stabilize the people who have been there forever,'' she said.

The Crosswinds lots belong to the city's CRA, which obtained them from the county after substandard apartment buildings were demolished in the 1980s. The city planned to replace the housing with a mix of middle-class and affordable housing. But construction of Poinciana Village, an affordable-condo development, was halted in 1991.

About three years ago, Collins Center advertised for proposals for the land without telling the city. Crosswinds' was one of two responses.


The Crosswinds plan was crafted to meet critical needs, city and CRA officials say: 160 badly needed affordable units would be purchased by people with modest incomes, like police officers, teachers and clerical workers. Fifty more units, indistinguishable from the rest, would be given to the city to sell at sharply discounted prices, with a preference for Overtown residents. The rest would be moderately priced by current standards -- $130,000 to $300,000.

Crosswinds officials say they believe it's the first project in the city that mixes market-rate and affordable housing -- a model that other cities are increasingly adopting. ''The city is not giving anything away. The city struck a good deal,'' said Schwartz of Crosswinds.

City officials believe the project would attract blacks whose families have Overtown roots, as well as downtown workers who simply want to be close to work.

But others say that, inevitably, the project will be more racially and economically mixed than the current Overtown population.

''Most people in Overtown are like me, and I'm afraid the condos will cause the prices to rise and we will have to leave,'' Angela Reeves, a 40-year Overtown resident, told planning board members at last month's hearing.