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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.
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
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
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
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.
HELPFUL OR HURTFUL?
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
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
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
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,
''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
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