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Transit hub and affordable homes to revitalize Miami’s Liberty City

Rocked by scandal and delayed for more than a decade, the construction of a long-sought Liberty City transit hub that will also offer shopping and affordable housing is finally under way.

Workers are steering bulldozers and wielding wrecking balls, tearing down what remains of 13 decayed businesses in a run-down neighborhood that for decades has fought crime, drugs and worn-out roads.

The goal: To combine transit, retail and housing into one liveable urban village where people can eat, shop, live and hop on public transportation. Planners hope to create enough pedestrian traffic to return at least one small section of Liberty City to the glory days of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it was one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in all of Miami.

“I was raised there. This used to be such a thriving intersection, and it just fell under,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who has fought to build the village since she took office in 2005.

Back in the day, the busy Seventh Avenue corridor near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where the transit village will be built, boasted a Byron’s department store, tailor shops, photography studios, a Frederick’s of Hollywood and a Winn-Dixie supermarket.

Those stores are gone now and pedestrian traffic almost non-existent, thanks mostly to the construction of Interstate 95 in the ‘70s, and the 1980 McDuffie riots, when Miami’s urban core was torn to shreds and burned down after a group of police officers who beat motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie to death were acquitted at trial.

Now, almost 15 years since former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek set her sights on revitalization, and six years since the plan was put on hold after the county’s inspector general accused the former developer of questionable billing practices, one block is about to get a much-needed makeover.

The $54 million project is located between Northwest Sixth Court and Seventh Avenue, and 61st and 62nd streets. When complete, by the end of next year, its five bus bays will serve as a major transfer site with shuttles to downtown Miami and Metrorail stations. It will also have a large transit office for ticket buyers.

Aside from transportation, the complex will include a 22,000-square-foot playhouse theater for small productions, 8,000 square feet on the ground floor for retail, and more than 160 affordable apartments on the second floor that will rent for between $280 and $853 a month.

“It’s going to be the catalyst and economic driver in this corridor,” Edmonson said.

Getting everyone on board with the project hasn’t been easy.

Before development plans were set in stone, Miami-Dade and the Carlisle Development Group — partners on the project — had to get the 13 property owners on the block to sell, and work out agreements with some of their tenants.

One shop keeper who had been there for decades refused to move, demanding $5 million, then $2 million, said Kenneth Naylor, chief operating officer of Carlisle. When the city of Miami finally declared the shoe-repair shop, which was on county-owned property, an unsafe structure, the retailer left and Carlisle tore it down.

Then there are Rafael Koblence and Markera Galustyants, owners of three pieces of property facing Seventh Avenue, two of them empty, the other a barber shop known as a community fixture. So far they’ve refused to sell. At one point, Koblence said, the sides had agreed on a deal for $2.1 million, but when Carlisle came back with an offer of $620,000 due to a lowered property assessment, it only angered the duo.

Now the asking price is $5 million, so Naylor said he plans to build around and over the three storefronts.

“They can build, that’s fine,” Galustyants said. “It’s only going to be a plus for me.”

The man who owns the barber shop on Galustyants’s property is Johnny Cheeley, who has been cutting hair at Mop City Unisex Hairstyle Center for 42 years. One recent day, Cheeley focused intently on an older man with speckled gray hair seated in a barbershop chair, even as noisy trucks tossed dirt and tore down plaster walls outside. Cheeley said he’s cut the hair of Muhammad Ali, Jesse Jackson, and Billy Dee Williams.

Asked if he could continue to wait out the construction, Cheeley would only say: “Time will tell. I’ve just got to wait and see. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The transit hub’s beginnings date back to the late ‘90s when Meek first advocated for the site. Her cause was later picked up by her son, Kendrick Meek, when he succeeded her in November 2002. With his aid, Congress appropriated $10 million to the venture. Carlisle is investing $24 million, and the county another $20 million in bonds and grants.

The plan almost went south in 2007 when a county inspector general’s report found fault with the previous developer. The county returned the federal money and then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez warned the neighborhood of a trimmed-down plan, leaving some tenants who had already downsized staff and inventory in a quandary.

Edmonson, though, kept plugging away. The county retrieved the $10 million from the federal government, and Carlisle Development joined the effort. Edmonson made the transit hub the centerpiece of her reelection bid last year, posing for photos while seated in the big bulldozer that swung the initial wrecking ball blow to one of the buildings.

For a peek into the possibilities of the project, Carlisle representatives point 20 blocks west to Northwest 61st Street and 27th Avenue in Brownsville, where the developer recently completed a renewal of commercial space and living units for the elderly at another transit hub that has seen ridership increase almost 30 percent in the past year. Most of the Brownsville Transit Village was built in the former parking lot for the Metrorail station.

“Street-level retail and widening the sidewalks, which will create more pedestrian life and plays right into the buses, those are some of the tenets of urbanism,” Naylor said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be an amazing place to live.”

Alison Austin remains skeptical. The chief executive of the Belafonte Tacolcy Center, which offers help to families and needy kids, understands the need for economic development and agrees that the community was invited to dozens of meetings about the pending hub. Despite that, she says, residents had little say in the final plans.

Austin said she would rather have seen a job training center than a performing arts space in the complex.

Nathaniel Wilcox, a community organizer and executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, said he can’t understand the naysayers.

“For too long we’ve had to settle for the ragged, the tattered,” Wilcox said of inner-city residents. “This will bring new life to the area.”