The city of Miami’s recent proposal to rezone part of East Little Havana has caused great concern among citizens and preservationists.
City officials argue that the buildings in the area do not conform to the existing zoning, and that zoning changes are needed to encourage development more in tune with the existing character of the area. Activists are afraid more density will reduce affordability, displace existing residents and destroy its unique character and the remaining historic buildings.
To objectively analyze the proposed changes, we must answer two simple questions: 1.What makes Little Havana special? 2. Does the proposal support or detract from the character that makes the neighborhood unique? This rational approach to the upzoning should guarantee that land-use changes will truly improve East Little Havana and the city as a whole.
Little Havana is as historic as Miami gets. Located across the Miami River, adjacent to downtown and the city’s Financial District, its heritage dates back to the early 1900s. It has always been the heart of Miami’s immigration waves: first as “RiverSide“ and “RiverView” for southerners and Jewish migrants.
It became “Little Havana” when it served as the Ellis Island for the thousands of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime. The most recent immigration wave has been Central and South Americans drawn to it by its affordability and central location. Many of these recent immigrants inhabit iconic 1920s three-story apartment buildings such as the Woodward and the Belmont, which are excellent examples of early 20th-century development in Miami, as are the architecturally significant ’20s and ’30s bungalows.
East Little Havana’s Mediterranean and Art Deco buildings rival those in Miami Beach’s Historic District. Before any upzoning is enacted, we must catalog, protect and repair these buildings.
East Little Havana’s density has grown over time as additional homes were wedged into small lots, apartments subdivided and garages converted into new homes by people’s need to house more family members arriving each day. This has created high density without towering buildings.
The approximate 0.25-square-mile planned for upzoning is home to almost 12,000 people, making it one of the densest in the United States. The neighborhood’s population density is far higher than the existing zoning or the city’s 65-units-per-acre proposed upzoning. Density is in Little Havana’s DNA. It is supported by transit and in close proximity to jobs Downtown and in the Financial and Health Districts.
Little Havana’s small, affordable apartments must remain the norm, not the exception.
East Little Havana’s new zoning must preserve the neighborhood’s low-scale character. Little to no parking should be required to prevent out-of-scale development while preserving the pedestrian character of the neighborhood. The use of public transportation should be reinforced.
Many cities have successfully preserved authentic neighborhoods from super-block redevelopment by creating centralized parking garages while crafting zoning codes that discourage developers from building garages within their buildings. European cities have protected their iconic historic neighborhoods by limiting parking and selling spaces separately from apartments as a bonus amenity. New zoning regulations — that encourage affordable development and transportation solutions such as biking, walking and car sharing — can preserve character while encouraging re-investment in Little Havana.
This is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country. Calle Ocho, one of the most visited streets in Florida, is experiencing a renaissance because of a few visionary developers who have preserved great buildings and retrofitted them with unique restaurants, shops and apartments.
Little Havana deserves visionary zoning that preserves its historic buildings, embraces new modes of transportation and provides affordable, low-scale, dense housing that enhances the character of the neighborhood. Miami city leaders must steer Little Havana’s rebirth by enacting new zoning that preserves the neighborhood’s scale and prevents the parking podium and tower, block-wide development that would destroy its character.
Juan Mullerat and Steve Wright are part of the collaborative team at PlusUrbia, an award-winning design firm in Coconut Grove.