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Chinatown or Bust PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
April 2017

City councilman says with or without investors, North Miami will have its Chinatown

FChinatown_1ueled by catered food and fruit drinks, and motivated by energetic consultants, dozens of people gathered at the Joseph Celestin Community Center in North Miami on March 1 to discuss how to transform a drab commercial corridor, in a predominately African-American and Haitian area, into an exciting Chinatown that would attract real estate investors, entrepreneurs, and tourists.

The corridor in question consists of 93 acres of privately owned land between NW 119th and 135th streets along NW 7th Avenue, a stretch of territory dominated by one-story retail centers. Since February 2016, the City of North Miami, at the behest of Councilman Alix Desulme, has been on a quest to turn NW 7th Avenue into a new Chinatown Cultural Arts and Innovation District.

To help make this happen, Keith and Schnars, an engineering consulting company based in Fort Lauderdale, was given a $175,000 contract to help draft a master plan that would make the street actually look like a Chinatown.

And that was the purpose of the March meeting -- to give Keith and Schnars suggestions on how to craft that master plan. So the crowd of real estate agents, business owners, and North Dade dwellers were divided into teams, handed markers and pads, and given an hour to brainstorm while being taped by a camera supposedly live-streaming to potential investors in China. The ideas this crowd came up with included towers adapted to sea level rise, parking garages, canals, flashing lights along I-95, artistic murals, nightclubs, student housing, international language schools, and pocket parks.

But one team, made up entirely of North Miami residents, rebelled.

Rather than dream up big ideas, the table’s representative, Belkis Zarate, said they weren’t qualified to provide guidance on creating a Chinatown because “none of us are Chinese.” Instead they complained that Desulme -- whose district includes the Westside/Sunkist Grove area on the west side of NW 7th Avenue, and Alhambra Heights on the avenue’s east -- had declared Chinatown “a go” without giving many residents enough notice. Zarate also asked a number of questions.

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“What we would like to know is, how is the City of North Miami going to pay for this master plan should there be no investors?” asked Zarate, a resident of North Miami’s Central neighborhood. “What about the existing culture in the corridor? Will they be helped to stay? Or moved along? Or do you not care?”

Elaborating for the BT, Zarate notes, “They should have properly notified us from Day One a year ago, when they went to China,” referencing the China tour that Desulme and other North Miami officials undertook in May 2016 at a cost of $45,700 to taxpayers.

Regardless of how Zarate and her compatriots feel, Desulme and other city officials continue to pursue a Chinatown master plan for NW 7th Avenue. The city set up a website called NorthMiamiFuture.com that explains the aspirations for a Chinatown district and asks for suggestions for what people want in a Chinatown. Another design workshop is being planned for some date in May, states Francisco Medranda, the city’s constituent services aide and public records liaison.

A final Chinatown report will be presented in June to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which is governed by North Miami’s mayor and city council, Medranda adds.

Desulme insists that the Chinatown concept is only meant to make the street more attractive for real estate developers and entrepreneurs who will bring jobs to a mainly depressed area. Residents and current business owners, Desulme declares, will not be forced out by the city.

Instead Desulme envisions a scheme that uses Chinese architecture -- plus a pair of Chinese archways at the district’s entrances -- to attract new restaurants, shops, companies, and wealthy Chinese investors.

“I think everybody wants to see this area moved up,” he tells the BT.

Desulme has been championing NW 7th Avenue’s conversion to a Chinatown soon after meeting with representatives from American Da Tang Group, a real estate company headed by Shan-Jie Li that, according to its website, “provides a membership-based and comprehensive set of real estate services to the Chinese elite that are about to arrive in the United States and those who have already settled in the States.” (For more on the origins of North Miami’s quest for a Chinatown, see “Chasing Magic Dragons,” January 2017, and “North Miami’s Fortune Cookie,” June 2016.)

Chinatown_3

Wenjun Lin, American Da Tang’s general manager of real estate sales, claims her company can bring wealthy Chinese investors to North Miami. She points out that her company’s Brickell Chinese restaurant, Da Tang Unique, hosted Desulme and 35 businessmen from China soon after the March 1 workshop. (The restaurant, which opened in May 2016, has been closed to the public since February.)

But first, NW 7th Avenue needs a master plan, Lin insists. “Without it we can’t calculate the margins that we will receive from redevelopment,” she says.

Right now there are 128 businesses employing 851 people along NW 7th Avenue’s proposed Chinatown, according to Keith and Schnars. Those businesses serve an area where 21.7 percent of the population make less than $15,000 a year. Within that corridor, retail rental prices range from $12 to $16 per square foot, says Ronald Platt, broker associate at Keller Williams Realty. Properties sold along the street traded at an average of $40.68 per square foot, Platt adds.

Last year North Miami approved zoning that will allow developers to build commercial office and retail buildings up to 200 feet in height. However, Debbie Love, director of planning for Keith and Schnars, explained at the March 1 workshop that without an enticing master plan, the street can only expect to see 26,000 square feet of new development over the next 20 years added to the existing 800,000 square feet of commercial. That, she claimed, would prevent many new jobs from coming into the area.

But, she said, if a master plan is created with a themed “attraction,” NW 7th Avenue could expect to see a 600 percent increase in retail activity in the area, the development of 218,000 square feet of retail, and 261,360 square feet of new office space in the next two decades.

Love argued that a Chinatown could work on NW 7th Avenue because it is in the same city as Florida International University’s Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, which enrolls 350 students from China each year. Miami-Dade County received 1.2 million Asian tourists in 2015, while PortMiami received 1 million containers from Asia that same year, according to the Keith and Schnars presentation.

Some North Miami residents questioned whether a Chinatown-themed “innovation district” was really a good fit for NW 7th Avenue in a municipality where only 2.2 percent of the population identifies as Asian.

Chinatown_4“I think these people [consultants from Keith and Schnars] are doing a bang-up job to earn their money. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do, and they have allowed people to have an input and have ideas,” says Judy Brown, president of the Sunkist Grove Neighborhood Association.

But Brown adds, “I still can’t wrap my head around creating a Chinatown on NW 7th Avenue. I just can’t see it.... Where are these customers going to come from? This is why I keep asking. The demographics of our neighborhood are basically Haitian.”

Ronald Platt, the Keller Williams broker who lives near North Miami’s Central neighborhood, is doubtful this plan will bring either Chinese investors or much prosperity at all.

“Most Chinatowns [in the United States] are not in particularly great neighborhoods and don’t have well-established retail operators,” he notes. Instead, Platt asserts, many Chinatowns, such as the one in New York, have Chinese restaurants, “tchotchke shops that sell tourist-type things,” and vendors selling reproductions (sometimes illegal) of name-brand products. “I’m not sure why they are pushing this so hard,” he says.

It could be because China is the second-largest economy in the world, with a rising wealthy class whose members are eager to invest their currency abroad. American Da Tang, which has an office in Brickell, as well as offices in California and New York, is a conduit for that money. Two years ago, according to local media reports, Chinese City Construction (CCC), a China-based construction and development company, bought a 2.4-acre parcel in Brickell for $74.2 million, and a one-acre site near Miami Beach’s Bath Club for $38.5 million.

Then last year, Chinese City Construction was restructured after defaulting on approximately $1.2 billion worth of bonds. Lin, however, insists that American Da Tang is “fine” without CCC.

In fact, Lin says, her company regularly educates wealthy investors about how diverse a place Greater Miami is. “They didn’t even know about Brickell, a place we like to call Little Wall Street,” says Lin. “They think Miami is just somewhere to lay on the beach.”

The relatively cheap value of land along NW 7th Avenue makes the area a tempting place to redevelop, Lin says. But the company needs more details on how the city sees the corridor being redeveloped, including whether or not property tax incentives will be offered.

For his part, Desulme says he’s committed to Chinatown, with or without Chinese people or Chinese investors.

“If you don’t have Chinese investors coming in, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have a Chinatown. It just means we won’t have any Chinese investors. But we are going to have an actual Chinatown,” Desulme declared at the March workshop. “The concept is more of the actual architecture, the look and feel of a Chinatown. That’s what this is all about.”

Upon hearing that, Zarate raised her brows. “That line, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ that’s from a movie,” she later tells the BT. “It doesn’t necessarily happen in real life.

 

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