Miami-Dade County

A plan to save Little Havana from big development?

A view in 2015 of an early 20th Century apartment building in a historic district in Little Havana.
A view in 2015 of an early 20th Century apartment building in a historic district in Little Havana. El Nuevo Herald

The National Trust for Historic Preservation will sponsor a major plan to help guide the preservation and revitalization of Little Havana, the storied neighborhood where activists have been battling to stave off large-scale development from adjacent Brickell.

The Trust’s announcement, scheduled for Friday morning, will come a day after the city of Miami officially scrapped a controversial two-year-old proposal that would have upzoned much of East Little Havana with the aim of encouraging redevelopment. Preservationists and activists complained the upzoning would have led to displacement of the neighborhood’s working-class residents and the destruction of an architecturally valuable collection of early 20th century homes and commercial buildings.

Group fights to save Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, considered one of the 11 most threatened historic cites in the country, from developers.

Instead, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and his administration have pledged to work with the Trust, the nation’s leading preservation group, and its local planning consultants to devise a new zoning and revitalization plan that protects the scale, culture and texture of Little Havana, the historic heart of the city’s Cuban exile community.

At the same time, the study will also develop strategies to encourage new, appropriately scaled residential and commercial development that both enhances and fits in with the neighborhood, Trust and city officials said. The Trust recommendations would inform a city plan that could be enacted as a new special zoning district for the neighborhood.

“Preservation doesn’t necessarily mean we put everything in a freezer and preserve it for all time,” said Juan Mullerat, principal at Miami firm PlusUrbia, the Trust’s zoning and planning consultant, adding that the goal is “to propose new legislation that will guide the future development in a contextual manner.”

Regalado said he appreciates the national focus and resources the Trust will bring to Little Havana, the neighborhood where he spent part of his youth after arriving in Miami from Cuba as a refugee. The Trust on Friday will name Little Havana to its list of National Treasures, a campaign to save about 75 buildings, neighborhoods and natural landscapes across the country that the organization considers to be threatened by development or neglect.

The Trust named Little Havana to its list of 11 most endangered historic sites in the country two years ago. The historic Miami Marine Stadium, the restoration of which Regalado has made a priority, is also on the National Treasures list.

“For the national trust to get involved in Little Havana, that should be an honor for the city of Miami and for Little Havana,” Regalado said in an interview. “It brings a lot of hopes and a lot of attention, national attention.”

The study covers virtually all of what’s considered to be Little Havana, an area spanning from Northwest 27th to the Miami River and Interstate 95 on the east, and from State Road 836 and the river on the north to Southwest Ninth and Southwest 11th Streets.

Developers have been pushing into the neighborhood, attracted by relatively low land prices, hundreds of vacant lots and proximity to booming Brickell. But high minimum parking requirements, small lot sizes and current zoning restrictions have discouraged redevelopment, something the withdrawn upzoning plan sought to address by increasing allowable heights and densities. Activists argued, though, that it would have wiped out much of the neighborhood’s historic fabric and its residents.

Instead, city planners have said, they will look to increase density by allowing more units per acre while backing down on height increases to encourage compatible, small-lot infill development. A booklet produced by the Trust suggests Little Havana already demonstrates it can comfortably accommodate significant numbers of people in “human-scaled buildings.”

The document says some blocks in Little Havana have the same population density as Brickell, and the densest blocks have two-and-a-half times the average density of San Francisco.

“Everybody’s on board with this,” said Frank Schnidman, a recently retired urban planning professor at Florida Atlantic University who has coordinated a series of extensively researched student projects on the neighborhood. “What you will see come out of it is a community consensus on preserving Little Havana. You are going to witness a unique thing for Miami.”

A third participant in the Trust study, which will also cover neighborhood health concerns, will be Live Healthy Little Havana, an initiative of the city and the Health Foundation of South Florida. Trust officials said Dade Heritage Trust, Miami-Dade’s main preservation group, and other preservationists will also be closely consulted, as will Little Havana residents, and business and property owners.

The Trust has been quietly meeting with those stakeholders for months to develop the outlines of its study, said Rob Nieweg, senior field director for the Trust. The organization expects to deliver a report in seven months, after what Nieweg said will be an intensive analysis and planning process that will include extensive public participation, starting with a March 11 workshop.

The public report will detail existing conditions in the neighborhood, including surveys of its infrastructure and building stock, and include zoning analysis, among other elements, then set out recommendations for preservation and revitalization strategies, Nieweg said.

The Trust chose Little Havana both because of its varied stock of architecturally distinctive buildings and its quintessential role as Miami’s entry and launching point for immigrants, starting with Cuban exiles in the early 1960s and now consisting mainly of Central Americans and other more recent arrivals.

“Little Havana matters, not just to this city, but to the United States,” Nieweg said.