More than a year after the initial proposal of bringing Far East influences to the west side of North Miami, city leaders are set to approve a master plan for the Chinatown arts district.
The master plan estimates about $300 million in potential development along the corridor, according to a study by Fishkind and Associates. And the designs for the district include pagodas, statues, elaborate entrance gateways, Chinese characters on storefronts, rooftop gardens and a large central park.
City officials expect to see the corridor built out in the next 20 years and think it can be a major tourist destination with a major anchor hotel and conference center. The City Council, acting as the board of the city’s redevelopment agency, will vote on the plan Tuesday.
Some locals and city officials question if the concept can realistically provide growth and investment in an area that hasn’t seen much development over the years and does not have a large Asian population.
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Councilman Alix Desulme represents District 4, where Chinatown would be developed, and said the city’s initial presentation of the idea could have been better.
“I think people would have been OK with it if not for that name,” Desulme said. “It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t Chinatown, we had to do something.”
Desulme thinks the promise of any kind of development along busy Northwest Seventh Avenue has changed the mind of some skeptics.
Outside of the DJ Khaled-endorsed Finga Licking restaurant and a few renovated storefronts, the North Miami portion of the street is mostly mom-and-pop stores, churches, fast food restaurants and some auto repair shops.
“The people who have had some concerns, we’ve met with them,” Desulme said. “At the beginning a lot of people thought we were going to get people from China to come in and buy up their houses.”
Chinatown would stretch from Northwest 119th to 135th Street and is projected to include several new design elements and facade changes but also improvements like pedestrian walkways, several parks and green space and bike lanes. The central park will be in the middle of the district and run from 130th to 126th streets.
The city’s planning firm, Keith and Schnars, estimates that the plans could cost nearly $60 million. Separate recurring costs like beautification and facade improvements and demolition work are estimated at about $2 million.
Some longtime residentsremain doubtful and wonder why the $3 million the community redevelopment agency has budgeted for street improvements on Seventh Avenue couldn’t go toward things like senior assistance programs, hiring more code enforcement officers or replacing old water meters.
Agency staff said that money was already designated for street improvements through a partnership with the county.
“It’s a perfect waste of [redevelopment agency] funds. We are spending our money for a facade,” said resident Judy Brown, who has been critical of the project since it was introduced.
Brown, a homeowners association president in the city’s working-class west side, also questioned why the redevelopment agency is providing millions of dollars and if there will truly be outside investment.
“When you look back at this money you should look at how it made things better for the citizens of District 4. How will putting in a bunch of statues create jobs?” Brown said.
Desulme said that Chinese investors and others have expressed interest in the district. The city also plans to fund the district through public-private partnerships, tax increment funding and potentially through bonds.
When asked about specific investors, Desulme only noted that “the folks that are interested have money.”
At community meetings in the past year there have been some Chinese investors present and the city has worked with the local branch of the American Da Tang Group, a firm that works with wealthy Chinese investors looking to invest in U.S. real estate.
While there the city officials participated in a Florida International University graduation at the school’s Tianjin, China campus. The group also visited Shanghai and Beijing.
In an online survey about the project there was mostly skepticism and numerous responders said that the concept was “not inclusive of current community” and noted that it was “offensive to think you can create a Chinatown out of thin air.”
“No Chinese theme. It is a ridiculous idea. Chinatowns across the world grew around Chinese communities. A fake Chinatown will fail,” wrote one responder.
The city has a population of about 60,000 residents and Asians represent about 2.2 percent of those residents. Countywide that number is about 1.6 percent.
City leaders argue that those numbers don’t factor in Asian students attending FIU, particularly through the school’s partnership with Tianjin. And Desulme thinks the district will be able to draw in those students from the school’s bayside campus and others from across South Florida.
“I wanted something so that people on this side of town and people on Biscayne Boulevard could be equal,” Desulme said. “They’ll be able to get off on 119th Street and walk up and down and enjoy the corridor.”
If you go
The community redevelopment agency will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at North Miami City Hall, 776 NE 125th St.