A Miami anti-poverty agency is poised to turn over two city blocks in the blighted but historic heart of Overtown to a prominent developer, who promises to spend $250 million to build apartments, a hotel, shops, restaurants and music venues on the long-vacant land.
The Miami City Commission, sitting as the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency board, is set to vote Thursday on the bid by R. Donahue Peebles, whose Overtown Gateway plan scored the highest among three proposals submitted in response to an advertised request by the city.
City officials described the ambitious plan as potentially transformational for the impoverished, mostly black Overtown district, where numerous redevelopment efforts in the past have run aground or failed to deliver on promises of revitalization.
But some critics question whether the CRA is getting enough in return for surrendering control of the property, which was valued at around $20 million by two appraisals commissioned by the agency, and which holds symbolic significance for longtime Overtown residents. The lots along Northwest Second Avenue formed part of Overtowns legendary but long-gone Little Broadway, the row of nightclubs, theaters and hotels where stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Sam Cooke and Count Basie performed until the areas decline in the 1960s.
At a community forum hosted by district commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones last week, some Overtown residents asked that the CRA retain ownership of the land. Many asked that the agency also make sure that Peebles fulfills promises outlined in his plan to fill construction and permanent jobs, as well as affordable apartments, with Overtown residents.
We should never give up that land, said activist Grady Muhammad. It is too valuable to this community.
He added, referring to past promises of affordable housing in the neighborhood: Its usually affordable, but not for us.
Peebles local partner in the proposal, developer Barron Channer, said the project would provide housing affordable to working people and generate millions in tax revenue and direct payments to the CRA and Miami-Dade County, which ceded several parcels to the agency. The precise terms of the land transfer would be negotiated later, but would likely entail giving the CRA a percentage of rents generated by the project under a long-term agreement, he said. The agency would also collect about $2.3 million in property taxes annually to invest in further neighborhood improvements, he said.
Channer said he and Peebles are acutely sensitive to the history of Overtown and the needs of its residents, and added its time they participate in the resurgent development that is revitalizing nearby downtown Miami. The project would help re-establish Overtown as an attraction for visitors and as a place to live while retaining its historic character, he said.
We can build something that is modern and metropolitan, but fits into an area that is soulful, and gives you an introduction to a culture that is different, Channer said.
Despite the skeptics, the Peebles plan has not generated anywhere near the level of organized opposition that helped sink a previous proposal for the CRA properties by Detroit-based Crosswinds Communities, strongly supported by then-Mayor Manny Diaz. That plan, which like the Peebles project would have mixed market-rate housing, affordable apartments and commercial development, did not go through competitive bidding, however.