The Biscayne Times

Jun 06th
An Existential Question, but No Master Plan PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
November 2018

Promises, mega-projects, and the future of Little Haiti

MProjects_1iami city officials may soon hear two separate proposed projects, each with a massive number of new apartments, retail, office, hotel rooms, and other uses in Little Haiti, a working-class neighborhood that is already experiencing major changes.

On November 13, a partnership of four real estate and investment companies is scheduled to ask the Miami City Commission for its blessing to build a 7.8-million-square-foot “mixed-use urban campus environment,” called the Magic City Innovation District, near 60th Street and NE 2nd Avenue, just a couple of blocks  from the landmark Caribbean Marketplace and the Little Haiti Cultural Center.

And on December 5, representatives of the Podolsky family are expected to make their own pitch to replace Design Place, a low-rise apartment complex at 51st Street and NE 2nd Avenue with a 5.4-million-square-foot community, Eastside Ridge.

Both applications are known as special area plans, or SAPs, under an application process that allows property owners with more than nine acres of land to seek massive development rights in exchange for public benefits.

If approved, these projects would add another 13 million-plus square feet of residential and commercial development to northeast Miami, and that makes residents and activists in Little Haiti, Buena Vista, and the Upper Eastside nervous.

“There is much opposition to both projects,” states Morningside activist Elvis Cruz in an e-mail to the BT. “They are enormous projects that will forever change the character of the area.”

But the developers of these two projects aim to change that perception by negotiating directly with local organizations, mainly within Little Haiti. They’re also doling out money to groups in the Little Haiti area.

“We are committed to the economic, social, and cultural prosperity of Little Haiti, and the diverse population of people who live and work there,” declares Neil Fairman, one of the developers of the proposed Magic City Innovation District.

Eastside Ridge and Magic City aren’t the only mega-projects planned in northeast Miami.

Last year, the operators of Miami Jewish Health Systems, a 20-acre healthcare facility for the elderly just west of Design Place, won city approval for its “Empathic Village” redevelopment plan that includes a new three-story complex for dementia patients, a 140-roon hotel, and a conference center.


There’s also anticipation that the 15.6-acre shuttered Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School will become a SAP, too, being marketed for sale by the Archdiocese of Miami. Triple Five Group, the Canadian developers of the proposed 6.2-million-square-foot American Dream project near Miami Lakes, was interested in buying the school property, but has since backed out of its purchase contract. The Real Deal recently reported that there may be a “backup” contract with another developer.

Some nearby residents fear that these mega projects will further congest roads in the northeast sector of Miami, force out low-income renters and homeowners as property values rise, and encourage more high-rise development.

“No one is saying we don’t want development. It just needs to be restricted,” says Robin Porter, president of the Buena Vista East Historic Neighborhood Association. “The city is using SAPs as a large Band-Aid to let developers do what they want without a holistic look at the impacts.”

Ric Katz, a Miami publicist representing the New York-based Podolsky family, says Eastside Ridge would have a positive impact. His clients would offer an “enormous benefits package” in exchange for support for the zoning increase, including a $10 million contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund, the majority of which would be earmarked for Little Haiti. Katz also says that construction jobs, hotel jobs, and retail jobs will be reserved for Little Haiti residents.

“We sat down and discussed [a benefits plan], but we don’t have anything yet,” Jules says, adding that they plan to continue talking about a package that will include affordable housing and jobs.Katz also says his clients are still negotiating the exact terms of that package with the city and community leaders, such as Father Reginald “Reggie” Jean-Mary, pastor of the Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church. Attempts to reach Jean-Mary through his employer, the Archdiocese of Miami, were unsuccessful. However, Pastor Erick Jules of the One God in Three Persons First Baptist Church tells the BT that he and Jean-Mary spoke to Eastside Ridge’s representatives as recently as two months ago.

Neil Fairman says his team is negotiating with the city. “They have required the inclusion of infrastructure improvements, workforce housing, affordable housing, and job creation to name a few,” Fairman states in an e-mail to the BT.

And, Fairman insists, the Magic City Innovation District will provide such benefits, forming entrepreneur programs for locals and artists, providing 18,600 “direct and indirect” jobs, and reserving 21 percent of the nearly 2700 residential units he wants to build for affordable and workforce housing.

Fairman is co-founder of Plaza Equity Partners (PEP), a real estate company that counts Marina Palms Yacht Club & Residences in North Miami Beach as one of its projects. To build the Magic City Innovation District, PEP teamed up with Metro1 Properties CEO Tony Cho, Dragon Global chairman Bob Zangrillo, and Lune Rouge founder (and Cirque du Soleil partner) Guy Laliberte. It was Cho and Zangrillo who assembled 17.8 acres of territory in Little Haiti, including the old Magic City Trailer Park, the circa-1902 DuPuis Medical Office and Drugstore, and various warehouses.

Projects_3Fairman states that he and his partners are already fixing up the DuPuis building and converting the 200,000 square feet of warehouses into commercial spaces. Two former warehouses already serve as the home for two technology companies: Motorsport Network and Online Global. The next phase will be turning the old trailer park into the Magic City Park, an outdoor interactive area run by Lune Rouge that will “showcase the work of international and local artists, as well as food and beverage outlets within unique temporary structures,” Fairman adds.

But ultimately the developers want the zoning to build their pedestrian-friendly “cultural campus,” which would include 2630 residential units, 2.2 million square feet of office space, 520,970 square feet of retail space, 201,600 square feet of hotel space, 119,610 square feet of expo space, and 215,493 square feet of civic space in buildings up to 25 stories tall.

The land’s current zoning allows commercial and light-industrial uses, but caps height at ten stories and limits residential to just 381 units, according to a city report.

Fairman states that his team has already invested $100 million on property acquisition, renovations, and “programs that benefit the local community and facilitate sustainable growth through the Magic City.”

The partners also set up the Magic City Foundation, explains Tony Cho in an e-mail to the BT, which has given money to Sounds of Little Haiti, Little Haiti Football Club, Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, Women of Tomorrow Mentorship Program, Little Haiti Optimists Club, various local artists, and annual Thanksgiving events.

Magic City Innovation District does have supporters. They include Ashlee Thomas, president of the Little Haiti-based arts group Miami Urban Contemporary Experience, or MUCE. Thomas says she attended several community meetings where the developers promised to hire workers, contractors, and subcontractors from Little Haiti and other poor communities like Liberty City. Another beneficiary, Thomas argues, would be artists who help set up the interactive park. “They’re working with a lot of community artists to get that space activated,” she says.

One of those artists is Serge Toussaint, who has painted many of Little Haiti’s murals. Toussaint says Magic City is paying him $17,000 to paint “whatever I want” on a wall near Little Haiti Park. “I’ve been painting here for 30 years,” he says, “and I never made that much painting 100 murals.”

Toussaint says Magic City would provide what the area needs most: employment. “People complain that change is coming to Little Haiti,” he says. “But they’re here to rebuild. To make Little Haiti a better place to live and visit.”

Jan Mapou has operated a Creole language book store at 5919 NE 2nd Ave. since 1990. He thinks that Magic City Innovation District will overwhelm Little Haiti.

“It’s a major development,” he says. “We’re talking about commercial and residential. People coming to this, they’re going to say, ‘I came to see Magic City.’ It won’t be Little Haiti anymore.” And the name, Mapou adds, is all too similar to Magic City Casino in Little Havana. “It has a negative connotation,” he warns.

But what makes Mapou particularly anxious is that property owners around the Magic City Innovation District are knocking down old apartment buildings and retail, places that once had affordable rents and housed Haitian residents and businesses, in anticipation that their properties will be purchased by developers. “They’re tearing everything up so they can start development,” he says.

Projects_4There are similar worries that Eastside Ridge would also spark a wave of gentrification. Now known as Design Place, the sprawling, walled 22-acre property has been owned by the Podolsky family since 2000, and consists of 100 two-story apartment buildings with more than 400 units. Current zoning allows 380,901 square feet of commercial space and 1691 residential units in buildings up to five stories high.

The Eastside Ridge SAP now calls for at least 2600 residential units, around 390,000 square feet of retail, some 400 hotel rooms, and perhaps a train station.

Publicist Ric Katz says Eastside Ridge would be a positive addition, providing jobs, taxes, and impact fees. Its two hotels would hire from the Little Haiti area, he adds. Katz says the Podolskys have also given money to local organizations, including Sounds of Little Haiti and Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church. The Podolsky family even contributed to the annual dinner for the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in North Miami, Katz adds, which is run by prominent Haitian activist Gepsie Metellus. (Metellus did not return a phone call from the BT.)

But most of all, Katz says, his clients are more than willing to talk to Haitian activists. “We continue to speak to anyone we can in the Haitian community,” he says.

Katz notes that his clients would especially love to talk to Marlene Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement (FANM). One of the loudest critics of the mega-projects, Bastien has repeatedly called for a comprehensive look at the potential impacts Eastside Ridge and Magic City would have on Little Haiti.

“The City of Miami’s Planning Department failed to do its job in planning for the future of Little Haiti,” Bastien declared in an open letter to Mayor Francis Suarez and the Miami City Commission in September. “It must develop a comprehensive master plan for the future of Little Haiti. It must develop a comprehensive master plan for the area involving all sectors. SAPs should be assessed collectively to assess the impact on residents, small businesses, and the infrastructure.”

In a text to the BT, Bastien says that FANM’s attorneys are talking to the representatives of both projects “to see if we can reach common ground.” But she still wants a community meeting to discuss both projects: “We want the community to be at the table and part of the decision-making processes.”


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