Little Havana, perhaps Miami’s most storied neighborhood, is under threat. So much so, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, that it’s put Little Havana on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The National Trust, the country’s principal preservation organization, says the neighborhood’s historic scale and character are imperiled by two main factors: a controversial upzoning of East Little Havana under consideration by the city of Miami, and a lack of legal protection for the broader area’s extensive and architecturally diverse collection of early to mid-20th Century homes and apartment and commercial buildings.
Inclusion on the list puts a city that prides itself on Little Havana’s history as the principal entry point for Cuban refugees in an awkward spot. The list is meant to draw attention to architectural, cultural and natural sites of national significance that are in danger of being irreparably harmed or destroyed by neglect or incompatible development.
The city, under pressure from a coalition of preservationists and neighborhood activists, recently created a small historic district in East Little Havana encompassing a bit over three blocks. But it’s also pushing forward with an upzoning of 32 surrounding blocks of mostly low-rise, small-scale buildings in the neighborhood, a bustling working-class enclave peppered with vacant lots and rundown buildings.
The upzoning, which city officials contend would revitalize the area by replacing outdated buildings, would allow taller, denser development in residential and commercial areas. Critics say it would result only in gentrification and extensive demolition as development encroaches into East Little Havana from adjacent West Brickell, pushing out its mostly immigrant residents and wiping out its human scale and architectural legacy.
“The most well known Cuban-American enclave in the United States and a symbol of the immigrant experience and the American melting pot, Little Havana remains a thriving, diverse urban area,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, in a statement. “Across the country, cities are looking for creative ways to ensure that new development is compatible with existing neighborhoods, and we urge Miami to explore zoning policies that respect the historic character of this beloved urban area.”
Little Havana is the second Miami-Dade County neighborhood in two years to make the 11 Most Endangered List, which the National Trust says has helped save many other historic places. Last year’s list included the town of Bay Harbor Islands’ East Island, where a wave of condo development and opposition to preservation by town officials has led to the decimation of a collection of Miami Modern apartment buildings that preservationists say remains among the most distinctive anywhere.
The listing infuriated Bay Harbor leaders and prompted a still-unresolved battle over preservation. It helped prompt the county’s preservation board, which has authority over municipalities without their own preservation programs, to designate one building historic, nominate a second for historic status and begin studying numerous others for protection amid heated opposition by town officials, some Bay Harbor residents and Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, whose district includes the town.
In contrast, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said he welcomes Little Havana’s inclusion on the list, calling it “fantastic.”
He said it underscores Little Havana’s national importance and will help drum up support for expanding historic designations to foster renovation and protect quality of life in the neighborhood. He noted that owners of designated properties can sell their unused “air rights” to developers to fund renovations and can qualify for tax abatements and other benefits for improvements.
Regalado, who last week hosted a forum on preservation of Little Havana at City Hall, said any changes in zoning should come only after properties eligible for historic designation are identified and protected.
“Unfortunately some people have looked at Little Havana with a little disdain in the past, but with this push I think they will look at it different,” Regalado said. “This could be a game-changer for property owners. The key is to get them on board. They are too busy just renting their properties and have forgotten Little Havana is an important place.”
Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo, whose district includes Little Havana and who has supported the upzoning, did not respond to a request for an interview.
The neighborhood was nominated for the list by the Dade Heritage Trust and the Miami Design Preservation League, working with historian Arva Moore Parks, who grew up in the area when it was called Riverside, and Little Havana teacher and activist Marta Zayas, among others.
Though pleased by creation of the new Riverview Historic District in East Little Havana, the activists say it didn’t go nearly far enough. Coalition members recently surveyed the upzoning area block by block on foot, identifying 150 buildings within the 600-building area that could qualify for historic designation, and they’re pushing the city preservation office to protect other sections as well.
The buildings date to Miami’s early days, when Riverside was one of the city’s earliest moderate-income suburbs, attracting initially a large Jewish population. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, it was the first home for thousands of Cuban refugees. Though many of them remain, Little Havana has taken on an increasingly Central American immigrant flavor since the 1980s.
The activists say upzoning is a bad idea absent a broader strategy to encourage preservation of East Little Havana’s tight-knit urbanism and its characteristic buildings — bungalows from the 1910s and 1920s, walk-up Mission and Mediterranean-style apartment houses from the 1920s and 1930s, and garden-style apartment buildings through the post-World War II era.
The new zoning would allow buildings up to five stories and 65 units per acre in an area dominated by buildings of one to three stories. That would only encourage tear-downs, land assemblages and intrusive development, preservationists say.
“We’re talking about acres and scores and scores of bungalows, and of those beautiful, iconic central-hall walk-up apartments in the Mission and Mediterranean adaptation, which makes them a true Miami type,” said Laura Lavernia, director of Dade Heritage Trust. “All these resources are not protected.”
The problem, Lavernia acknowledges, is that few of the modest buildings would qualify for individual historic status, yet they’re too scattered throughout the neighborhood to make up a cohesive historic district. Instead, activists are asking the city to expand its preservation ordinance to allow scattered buildings to be designated historic, possibly by architectural theme.
She said she hoped the publicity over inclusion on the National Trust list will encourage the city to consider alternatives to straight-up upzoning.
“I’ve spoken with the city and there is interest in doing it. It’s the only way these properties can be protected and rehabilitated,” Lavernia said. “This is a special area. This is the heart of Miami. I think a growing number of people are concerned and wanting to see something positive happen.”
Also on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places:
▪ The Grand Canyon, Arizona
▪ Old U.S. Mint, San Francisco
▪ South Street Seaport, New York City
For the full list and a description of the threats, go to www.preservationnation.org.