Recently, as I drove past a new construction project just north of the Lyric Theater, I was reminded of a 2003 front-page article in the Miami Herald. The headline said Visions of a New Overtown. The story articulated a hope for the transformation of Overtown’s core into a “multiracial, mixed-income bustle of condos, apartments, houses, retail shops and offices.”
The story detailed eight projects that were to form the nucleus of the physical redevelopment of Overtown. All have been completed, including 80 single-family homes at the Villages of St. Agnes, twin 17-story office towers, the New Arena Square Apartments, the Lyric Theater expansion, Habitat for Humanity homes, beautification of the Folklife redevelopment area, expansion of the Ninth Street pedestrian mall (home to the First Fridays food and retail festival), and the Gatehouse project.
The Community Redevelopment Agency is about to close on three additional affordable-housing projects, adding more than 400 units of housing. Additional commercial and residential rehabilitation projects have also been permitted and financed.
The now defunct Collins Center, then under the leadership of Rod Petrey, developed an initiative called The Growth Partnership, funded primarily by the Knight Foundation. Its purpose was to help residents proactively reimagine the redevelopment of their community ahead of the inevitable pressures of growth, gentrification and the need for sustainable economic vitality and environmentally friendly affordable housing. While there is still much to do, it was gratifying to know that The Growth Partnership, with sub-initiatives the Overtown Civic Partnership and the South Florida Smart Growth Land Trust, have succeeded in helping to bring about a vision for sustainable redevelopment.
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The thrust of this vision was the hope that redevelopment would provide mixed-income housing that would help repopulate the community to its historic levels of between 35,000 to 40,000 residents. In 2003, this vision was supported by a study by Dover Kohl that showed vacant parcels in Overtown could support more than 17,000 new housing units. This could accommodate more than 39,000 new residents, given the average household size of 2.3 persons from the 2000 census. The same study indicated that there was an unfulfilled demand of 1,165 units in Overtown. People bring demand for goods and services as well as a vibrant economy.
There were a lot of bumps and bruises along the way and, 12 years later, we have learned some valuable lessons: First, change happens slowly and is dependent upon the market and availability of capital.
Second, real change happens quietly and after the debate. Private interests drive redevelopment and public debate reacts to those interests. Third, CRAs, land trusts and other nonprofits do protect the interest of residents and can be effective as a barrier to displacement of residents. Last, stakeholders should recognize that redevelopment is a long-term commitment that can be accelerated by endorsing groups that contribute to community problem-solving and consensus-building.
We must support those who are willing to collaborate with other community groups toward a common goal and who pursue, not shun, mutually beneficial relationships with development interests.
In the final analysis, it is the people of Overtown who will enable the area to prosper. It will be the richness of their heritage and their culture that will differentiate the area from its Brickell, downtown and uptown competition. Regardless of the facility — whether it’s Jackson’s Soul Food Restaurant, the Lyric Theater, the Carver Building or other projects — people will come for the art, food, culture and the feeling that they are in an authentic urban place and not something that was manufactured on a Hollywood back lot.
The purpose of redevelopment in Overtown has always been to provide facilities for people and businesses, a community where residents can live, work and play and claim their rightful place in the myriad of cultures and subcultures in what we recognize as Miami.
The people and the talent are there. Perhaps the redevelopment will provide the facilities to showcase it.
Philip Bacon is president of the South Florida Smart Growth Land Trust and Urban Philanthropies. He has promoted community redevelopment efforts in Overtown for more than 20 years.