|Chasing Magic Dragons|
|Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros|
North Miami plans to transform scruffy NW 7th Avenue into a shiny new “Chinatown”
Fifty-one years ago a cartoonist set out to build an amusement park amid the orange groves of central Florida. Walt Disney didn’t live to see the park’s opening, yet his Magic Kingdom gambit would become a huge commercial success in a state whose very existence is tied to fantasy and magic.
“Florida is fertile territory for all these kinds of projects,” says John Rothchild, author of Up For Grabs: A Trip Through Time and Space in the Sunshine State, a chronicle of Florida’s development by means of hyperbole and subterfuge.
Rothchild, a veteran journalist who grew up in the Sunshine State, points out in Up For Grabs that Florida, at the close of the 19th century, was still “liquefied in primeval stew, populated with less than a half million residents.” Radical change can be attributed to schemes by Florida’s true pioneers -- the real estate developers who circulated tales of an ever-green paradise resistant to winter.
Carl Fisher used polo fields, elephants, and other stunts to persuade tycoons to build stately manors on what was once a mosquito-infested sandbar now called Miami Beach.
Barron Collier used hunting clubs and a road paved across the Everglades (Tamiami Trail) to develop much of Collier County.
Aviator-turned-developer Glenn Curtiss employed Moorish architecture and Arabian Nights festivals to promote his village of Opa-locka.
Even in older places like St. Petersburg and St. Augustine, the landowners created pirate myths and exaggerated historical claims to promote their respective communities.
Juan Mullerat, director of the Miami-based architecture and planning firm PlusUrbia, agrees that the practice of creating communities based on fantasy concepts was commonly used by developers forging communities from brush and swampland.
“Coral Gables was an attempt to re-create Mediterranean villages,” Mullerat says. But Coral Gables founding developer George Merrick didn’t just settle for the Mediterranean. “There was a Chinese village, there was a Dutch South African village, a French village,” Mullerat says. “Coral Gables is sprinkled with villages from all over the world.”
You don’t have to read up on Florida history, however, to learn how developers use simulacrum -- an imitation of reality -- as a sales tool.
You can witness it.
Officials from the City of North Miami want to build a Chinatown -- from scratch -- in an area that’s predominately Haitian and African American, along a street where the only obvious signs of China are a few Chinese takeout joints. It’s North Miami’s version of Walt Disney World, only without the rides -- at least, not yet.
What exactly will be built within this Chinatown? That’s still up in the air. However, city manager Larry Spring tells the
“The goal is making a more walkable and entertainment- and business-friendly environment with an Asian aesthetic,” Spring explains. If successful, Spring says, the endeavor will create jobs, increase property values, and become “an asset not only for the city and the immediate area, but also the region.”
Spearheading this effort is Alix Desulme, city councilman and vice mayor, who insists that NW 7th Avenue is desperate for development. “I’ve been living [near] there for 20 years,” says Desulme, “and I think one new building went up -- a storage facility.”
Locals point out that, in the past couple of years, a 7-Eleven convenience store has gone up on NW 7th Avenue, too, as has a Pollo Tropical restaurant. There was also the conversion of the old Royal Castle burger joint at 12490 NW 7th Ave. into Miami Finga Licking, one of three Miami restaurants owned by music producer Eric “E Class” Prince and DJ Khaled that serves soul and Caribbean food, along with specialty soft drinks with names like “Mystery Punch.”
Also found on NW 7th Avenue are other convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, gas stations, family-owned restaurants, car repair shops, clothing boutiques, and various service providers like barber shops, beauty salons, income tax preparers, and plaque engravers. There’s a discount grocery store and (just outside North Miami’s city limits) a Winn-Dixie.
It can be a rough area, too. There are news reports and anecdotes of dollar stores being held up along this corridor. Small stores have elevated display counters to deter smash and grabs. One Chinese takeout restaurant has bullet-proof glass.
You won’t find a Whole Foods Market or a Publix on NW 7th Avenue. Unlike Wynwood and Little Haiti, or even North Miami’s downtown area, NW 7th Avenue hasn’t attracted artists, hip businesses, or developers, in spite of recently enacted zoning codes allowing commercial buildings up to 200 feet in height along that corridor.
But ever since North Miami opted to turn the place into a Chinatown, Desulme asserts, interest has surged.
“This is why Chinatown is a perfect fit, because we’re getting calls from everywhere in the country and internationally,” he says.
The Chinatown idea, Desulme claims, came from representatives affiliated with American Da Tang, a real estate company that specializes in investing money from individuals and companies in China, which has the second largest economy in the world.
Technically a communist country that has opened its markets, China has a lot of capitalists and state-owned enterprises wanting to invest abroad.
“Everybody is now after Chinese money because, at this particular point, there is a tremendous exodus of capital away from China for all kinds of reasons,” says Peter Kwong, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College in New York.
“Everybody” includes American real estate brokers who are eager to assist Chinese entities and wealthy individuals by selling them income-producing properties like condos and apartment buildings, as well as second homes.
South Florida developers are among those American real estate professionals who are striving to gain the attention of moneyed Chinese. They’ve had success attracting Chinese investment money, thanks to the federal government’s EB-5 program, which issues foreigners green cards if they invest more than $500,000 in an endeavor that employs at least ten permanent residents.
Examples of projects funded by Chinese money include the proposed 1000-foot observation tower called Skyrise at Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami, the transformation of the former INS building at 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard into the Triton Center, and the construction of a planned community in El Portal where Little Farm Trailer Park once stood.
American Da Tang, headed by CEO Li Shanjie, made headlines two years ago when it partnered with China City Construction in the purchase of a 2.4-acre parcel in Brickell for $74.2 million. That purchase was followed by Da Tang and China City acquiring the one-acre Bath Club in Miami Beach from R. Donahue Peebles for $38.5 million last year. Both properties are zoned for high-rises. But Li isn’t just planning towers -- he’s also opened a Chinese restaurant at another Brickell property called Da Tang Unique.
On NW 7th Avenue, Li envisions building new retail complexes that won’t just include restaurants and stores to attract tourists, but also banks, schools, travel agencies, galleries, tech startups, and other businesses owned by Chinese and geared toward Chinese.
“Miami doesn’t have a place that is Chinese-oriented,” says Wenjun Lin, American Da Tang’s general manager of real estate sales. But before her company can build such a place on NW 7th Avenue, there must be a master plan that encourages an Asian design motif, Lin insists.
“We need to have the Chinese element in the architecture and design,” she says. “Otherwise, why call it a Chinatown?”
The city also paid $45,700 in travel expenses incurred last May by North Miami officials (including Desulme and Councilwoman Carol Keys) and other delegates while visiting business contacts in Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. (For more on the trip, see “Mr. Fang Goes to China,” June 2016.)
And that’s just the start. Desulme says the city is willing to invest as much as $40 million, providing incentives and improving the street’s infrastructure over the next 30 years in an effort to attract developers. Among the envisioned improvements are a pair of paifangs (Chinese arches) to be constructed over NW 7th Avenue as gateways of the future Chinatown.
There’s already been a fair amount of schmoozing between North Miami officials and Chinese business executives. This past July, North Miami officials and American Da Tang executives threw a reception for private company executives from Shanghai at city hall, Moca Café, and other venues. (The city uploaded excerpts of these receptions and tours of North Miami on YouTube.)
The prospect of investment pleases some merchants along NW 7th Avenue. “Anything to beautify this strip of NW 7th Avenue, I’m all for it,” says Sharrod Robinson, manager of Miami Finga Licking.
But there’s skepticism and uncertainty, too. “I would love for some economic development in Sunkist Grove and on the Westside,” says Judy Brown, president of the North Miami Sunkist Grove Neighborhood Association, referring to the residential neighborhoods west of NW 7th Avenue. “This district is in the poorest in North Miami,” she adds.
But a Chinatown on NW 7th Avenue?
“I just don’t see it,” Brown says. The neighborhoods that surround NW 7th Avenue -- Alhambra Heights, Westside, and Sunkist Grove -- are predominately working-class Haitian and African-American neighborhoods, she says.
Many merchants along NW 7th Avenue are perplexed as well. “I don’t see Chinese people around here,” says Deborah Rose, a fashion designer from Guyana who sells her clothing at a shop at 13060 NW 7th Ave. “I see maybe one Chinese restaurant. Where did this idea come from?”
Only around three percent of North Miami’s 62,000 residents are Asian, according to the U.S. Census. Of that three percent, roughly 600 are Filipino. Another 400 are “Asian Indians.” As for North Miamians claiming Chinese origin or descent, the census estimates there were just 120 living in the city as of 2015.
In contrast, 57 percent are non-Hispanic black, 27 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are non-Hispanic white.
Figures on North Miami’s Haitian population are not available from the Census Bureau since Haitians are categorized as blacks and West Indians. However, the bureau estimates that 44 percent of North Miami’s population is West Indian. Another clue on the size of North Miami’s Haitian-American population is the fact that three of North Miami’s five councilmembers, including Mayor Smith Joseph and Councilman Desulme, were born in Haiti.
There aren’t many Asians elsewhere in Miami-Dade County either, according to the census. The census estimates that around 52,000 people out of the county’s population of 2.6 million were of full or partial Asian ancestry in 2015. That’s just two percent of the population. The census also estimates that just 0.5 percent of the county’s population, or just over 13,000 people, is Chinese.
But local Asian activists in Miami-Dade told a Miami Today reporter this past October that the number of people with Asian ancestry might be under-counted. That’s because many Asians who came to Miami, especially Chinese, were born in Cuba, Jamaica, and other Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Johnson Ng, executive director of the Miami Gardens-based Asian Community Resource Center and publisher of United Chinese News of Florida, says thousands of Chinese people journeyed to Miami more than 50 years ago. “They were from Cuba,” Ng, a Doral resident who emigrated from Hong Kong to South Florida in 1992, explains to the BT. “When, in 1959, Castro took over Cuba, a lot of Chinese came to Miami as refugees.”
Mohammad Shakir, director of the county’s Asian-American Advisory Board, told Miami Today that he thinks there are as many as 250,000 Asians living in Miami-Dade.
Desulme suspects North Miami’s Chinese population has been under-counted, too. “There are 400 or 500 Chinese students at FIU, which the census didn’t count,” he says, referring to Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus.
(FIU, which has a partnership with Tianjin University of Commerce, has also helped North Miami establish ties with Chinese business leaders. Fang Shu, manager of China Programs for FIU’s hospitality school, was among the delegates who visited China last May.)
Desulme, for his part, doesn’t think North Miami needs a significant Chinese population to start building a Chinatown. “There are two types of Chinatowns,” the councilman says. “There’s the organic kind formed when Chinese form their own enclaves, and there are the ones that are created through the passage of legislation.”
North Miami is obviously taking the legislation route. This is Florida, after all, where image often shapes reality.
That isn’t the case anymore. Now China-themed malls are being built in places like Las Vegas, Houston, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Albany, and Raleigh-Durham.
Still, the aim of these places is not simply to appeal to tourists or visiting Chinese rich people, but to service those regions’ growing Asian populations. “In recent years, China-themed shopping centers have been created in places like Las Vegas to draw and unify a more scattered but still-present Chinese-American community,” Tsui states in an e-mail to the BT.
That’s why Tsui believes labeling the NW 7th Avenue development scheme a “Chinatown” is misleading. North Miami’s proposed Chinatown, Tsui opines, “is primarily an investment plan to attract business. That’s not what a Chinatown is. That’s not why people come to a Chinatown. And it’s not clear to me who the audience is for this.”
North Miami’s plan isn’t the first time a Chinatown has been proposed in Miami-Dade.
The defunct Miami News reported back in 1976 that the owners of the Freedom Tower proposed turning their building into a “‘Chinatown’ center with shops and restaurants.” The shops would feature goods imported from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea, the article stated.
In 1990, New York-based developer Isaac Shih proposed forging a Chinatown in Edgewater along Biscayne Boulevard between NE 18th and 19th streets. Shih demolished a number of architecturally significant residential buildings, and the lots remain vacant to this day.
In 2003 there was a proposal to build a Chinatown in Homestead, “complete with replicas of the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, and a live panda exhibit,” a recent Miami Herald article recounted.
While none of those plans succeeded, an unofficial Chinatown has evolved between Biscayne Boulevard and the Golden Glades Interchange along 163rd and 167th streets in the City of North Miami Beach.
“Chinese restaurants and supermarkets have operated there for years,” Johnson Ng says.
Not just Chinese restaurants and supermarkets, but also Vietnamese markets, Indian restaurants, and a smattering of Asian massage spas.
It’s this four-mile stretch of road (also known as North Miami Beach Boulevard) that Ng would like to see officially designated as a Chinatown. Toward that end, Ng and his allies are lobbying Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and NMB Mayor George Vallejo for that street’s official designation.
But that’s not all. Ng says small-business owners and residents are trying to raise $1 million to build a Chinese arch above NE 167th Street near NE 6th Avenue, where a 30,000-square-foot New York Mart Chinese grocery store is slated to be built.
Asians of all backgrounds make up around three percent of NMB’s population. However, more than 670 people, or 1.5 percent of NMB’s residents, are of Chinese origin or ancestry, according to the census bureau.
Ng insists that North Miami Beach Boulevard is a far better contender to become a Chinatown than NW 7th Avenue. “How can you have a Chinatown without Chinese people living there?” he asks.
Desulme argues that Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown hardly has any Chinese people. Instead, that Chinatown’s architectural style and aesthetic were created by actions from D.C.’s city council during the 1980s. Those efforts include building a $1 million, 60-foot “friendship arch,” and the passage of laws requiring that commercial signs be written in English and Chinese.
There was a time in the D.C. Chinatown’s past when there were as many as 3000 people living in the neighborhood. It came into existence in the 1930s, long before the D.C. city council built an arch or passed any Chinatown-related legislation. But the Chinese started migrating away from Chinatown for other areas near the Beltway following the 1968 riots that occurred in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Gentrification quickened the exodus, and today there are only 300 Chinese, many of whom are working-class individuals and retirees, living in D.C.’s Chinatown. Half of them, 150 people, live in a lone Section 8 apartment building called Mission Square, according to the Washington Post. A developer is trying to replace it with a high-end apartment building.
“We believe that every great city has a Chinatown,” Spiegelman says -- especially if that city wants to attract investment from China. He just doesn’t think NW 7th Avenue is the right place for it. “It’s always been a secondary or tertiary location,” Spiegelman says.
Spiegelman believes that Chinatown should be on Biscayne Boulevard. “That gives you great exposure and easy access to a commercial pulse,” he declares.
The problem with that idea, counters Wenjun Lin of American Da Tang, is that prices for land along Biscayne Boulevard are extremely high, while NW 7th Avenue property is affordable. Plus, the company’s potential partners are more interested in redeveloping blighted NW 7th Avenue, Lin adds, than the booming Boulevard.
Desulme dismisses analyses like Spiegelman’s as prejudiced: “You have some people who are racist who say, ‘Why would they put it [Chinatown] there, in a black area?’” This isn’t the first time Desulme has accused people of racism when they question the NW 7th Avenue project. The Herald reported this past summer that, during a presentation to the Sunkist Grove Homeowners Association, Desulme accused Jessica Alston (a former political rival) of racism after she voiced concerns about residents being displaced by Chinatown.
Desulme doesn’t foresee Chinese investors moving into or near NW 7th Avenue. Unlike Chinatowns in the past, North Miami’s Chinatown won’t have a residential component, Desulme stresses. Wealthy Chinese executives and investors who build their offices and restaurants on NW 7th Avenue will be encouraged to live a few miles away, east of Biscayne Boulevard, in neighborhoods like San Souci Estates, Keystone Point, and the future 10-million-square-foot SoLēMia project slated to be built at 151st Street and Biscayne Boulevard. “We introduced that as part of the package,” Desulme says.
Indeed, the city invited Michael Tillman, managing director of the LeFrak Organization, to talk about SoLēMia during its May shindig with Shanghai investors.
Even if Chinese investors end up buying residences far from NW 7th Avenue, a few North Miami residents remain nervous that a Chinatown will price people out of the area, much as development in Washington, D.C. priced out many of the original Chinese inhabitants of Chinatown.
City manager Larry Spring, however, insists that North Miami aspires to create an environment where displacement is kept to a minimum within the commercial corridor, and that the people living in neighborhoods surrounding NW 7th Avenue will remain. He says the signage for North Miami’s Chinatown will likely be in three languages: English, Creole, and Chinese. The objective, Spring emphasizes, is to “grow” the area and create opportunity.
Judy Brown of Sunkist Grove isn’t too worried about an influx of Chinese displacing her African-American or Haitian neighbors. “We own our own homes here,” she says.
Most of the businesses on NW 7th Avenue, though, rent from landlords.
Robert Nussbaum, acquisitions and property manager for Gator Investments, says his company owns three commercial centers along NW 7th Avenue. “Anytime anyone wants to put any money into an area, I think it’s great,” he says. But Gator won’t be selling its properties to American Da Tang or anyone else. “We buy, we renovate,” Nussbaum says. “But we rarely sell.”
“They’re not selling, which is fine, but there are people who are willing to sell,” Desulme says. Who exactly are those people eager to sell their shopping plazas to Da Tang? Desulme declines to say.
“It has the same counters that were used in 1964,” explains Claudio Motta, a stocky, bearded Brazilian who has managed Professional Engraving and Trophies since 1997. The shop even uses the original pantograph machine to produce plaques. Hanging above his head are plaques honoring the achievements of various individuals. “These are my mistakes,” he smiles. “When I do mistakes, I redo the plaques and hang them up here. It’s sort of a joke.”
A joke is about how Motta sees North Miami’s plans for NW 7th Avenue. “This will never be a Chinatown,” scoffs Motta, a former journalist, noting that “90 percent of my customers are of Haitian background.”
Shelly Gonzalez isn’t laughing. For the past 12 years she has run a flower stand in what used to be a gas station by the Shoprite Center at 119th Street and NW 7th Avenue. The parking lot where her flower stand now operates will likely be where the city places its Chinese arch. “If the Chinatown comes here, I would have to go because they would tear everything down,” says Gonzalez, who is originally from Uruguay. “You know how Chinatowns are? Ever been in New York? All the business owners, all the people, are from China.
“I hope it doesn’t come,” she continues. “We don’t need no Chinese people here.”
Fashion designer Deborah Rose is a bit apprehensive about the proposed Chinatown, as well. “It’s not going to be beneficial for the area because most times, when you name a place like Chinatown, you are going to have an influx of people coming in running restaurants, they will run the [current] local restaurants out of business, and that’s what really happens. I’ve seen it happen.”
But there’s optimism along NW 7th Avenue, as well, especially at the Black and White Barber Shop, which has operated in the Shoprite Center since 1989.
“It’s wonderful. People will have a lot of opportunities,” says barber Julio Bone. “A lot of people are going to [come] here. We’re going to have a Chinatown just like every big city. New York has a Chinatown. San Francisco has a Chinatown. Denver is going to have a Chinatown.”
Elijah Murphy, a 46-year-old security professional, grew up in North Miami and even worked at a Winn-Dixie that once operated at the Shoprite Center. (Winn-Dixie’s former space is currently occupied by an Auto Center.) Now residing in Coral Springs, Murphy only visits NW 7th Avenue to get a haircut.
“It just kind of stayed stagnant and there has been no real growth in the area,” Murphy says.
Murphy sees Chinatown as North Miami’s version of Midtown Miami, a former rail yard that was transformed into an urban community of high-rises with ground-level retail. “It took five years before anything started, but look at it now. It’s gorgeous now,” he says. Murphy admits he wouldn’t mind if everything was ripped down along NW 7th Avenue, “except,” he half-jokes, “for this barber shop.”
“They can tear down every building from 103rd Street to 135th Street, and I wouldn’t have an issue as long as things get rebuilt,” Murphy says.
That’s pretty much what could happen along NW 7th Avenue if the Chinatown takes off, although not right away. Peter Kwong of Hunter College says because the goal is to attract massive amounts of foreign capital, the city must assume that gentrification will follow, even if it won’t openly admit it. “Commercial rents will go up, slowly squeezing people out,” Kwong says.
But that’s if the Chinatown project goes forward. There’s plenty of uncertainty around it. For one thing, the incoming Trump Administration has hinted it will renegotiate trade deals with China, which could result in retaliatory measures. That gives some real estate professionals pause, although Kwong believes Trump won’t make too many waves.
“We owe China half a trillion dollars over the national debt,” Kwong says. “They’re holding our Treasury bonds.”
More likely is that China will clamp down on the exodus of money. For the past two years, China has begun to restrict the flow of capital out of the country, Kwong notes, in an effort to prevent further devaluation of Chinese currency.
That has caused many Chinese investors to be more particular about how their money is used. Building a faux Chinatown in a blighted area miles away from the beach may be a bit far-fetched.
“This is one of thousands of schemes in different localities around the world,” Kwong says, referring to the global interest in attracting Chinese investment money. “And there are many schemes that are probably more realistic.”
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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