Critics of the controversial Magic City Innovation District, a large commercial and residential development that would dramatically alter 17 acres in Little Haiti, rallied against the proposed billion-dollar development Thursday in Little Haiti, hoping to make their opposition clear before it goes to the City Commission for a vote next week.
The project has sharply divided residents and activists who in recent months have sparred over its potential impact on an already-gentrifying neighborhood.
A study commissioned by opponents and released Thursday suggests the development would increase traffic congestion, spur displacement of nearby renters who would get priced out of the area, and create outsized buildings that would concentrate air pollution at the street level.
Equipped with signs advocating “Say no to gentrification,” and shirts with the misnomer “Tragic City,” residents, activists and community leaders rallied in Little Haiti, first in front of the Toussaint L’Ouverture Memorial Statue and later the proposed development site near Northeast 62nd Street. They called out developers for what they see as the potential erasure of their culture and neighborhood.
The Family Action Network Movement, the activist group fighting the development in conjunction with Miami’s Community Justice Project, commissioned the report from Earth Economics, a nonprofit group based in Tacoma, Washington. The consultants examined plans for the project and used anecdotal accounts from people affiliated with the movement group to raise questions about the environmental and social costs of building Magic City.
“We are not against development, but we believe development should be inclusive and participatory,” said Marleine Bastien, the movement’s executive director. “What this report shows is that more research, more evaluation, needs to be done before the city of Miami approves this billion-dollar development.”
Rebecca Page, one of the report’s authors, said a review of Magic City plans shows there’s an incomplete understanding of how the ratio of vegetation to paved land will change, potentially creating an imbalance that could increase drainage costs. The report also examines the costs of gentrification that would be accelerated by Magic City. It concludes that if rents increase, a single household would likely spend $5,200 to relocate, an estimate that includes the price of new housing and a longer commute.
“This is where our heritage is,” Dimitri Grant, a Little Haiti resident, said at the rally. “We’re the only Little Haiti in all of the country. They’re talking about making it like Brickell, bringing all these unprecedented things that Little Haiti doesn’t necessarily need.”
Page said the report’s estimates are conservative, and more in-depth analysis is needed to grasp how Magic City might transform the neighborhood.
“In terms of what specific impacts the project will generate, it’s uncertain,” she said. “There should be more time spent on understanding the environmental and social costs.”
Similar to other major city developments such as Brickell City Centre and the Miami Design District, the Magic City Innovation District is a proposed Special Area Plan. The designation, a part of the Miami 21 zoning code, permits developers with at least nine acres of contiguous holdings to operate outside of traditional zoning restrictions.
The proposed development, which is expected to take up to 15 years to complete, includes a mix of commercial, residential and entertainment spaces. The project’s tallest building is set to be 25 stories, a size critics say will be an anomaly in a predominantly residential area with low height restrictions.
While critics have maintained that Magic City would speed up speculation and eventually squeeze Little Haiti’s working poor out of the area, supporters have argued that redevelopment is already unstoppable, so activists should focus on extracting as many public benefits as they can from the deal.
A coalition called the Concerned Leaders of Little Haiti has endorsed the project and supported the creation of a community trust to manage a $31 million contribution from the developer. The money and the trust were negotiated alone by Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who revealed his dealmaking right before the commission was going to take an initial vote March 1. The commission postponed its vote, but approved the project March 29 on first reading.
Hardemon said the $31 million could go toward “community benefits” such as additional affordable housing.
Leonie Hermantin, a Little Haiti activist, said she has yet to read the new study, but she sees the benefit of the innovation project as she believes it will bring more jobs to Little Haiti along with more affordable housing.
The plan originally called for 7 percent of the project’s proposed 2,630 residential units to be affordable housing and 14 percent to be designated as workforce housing. After Hardemon negotiated the $31 million contribution for the Little Haiti trust, the proposal no longer included a guarantee for the developer to include affordable units on the Magic City site.
”The funds that will be placed into the trust will provide opportunities for economic development and young Haitian entrepreneurs and black entrepreneurs to have opportunities in Little Haiti,” Hermantin said. “We know that [the project] is not perfect, but I think that it’s better than what we have now.”
Not all residents see the $31 million as a saving grace. Some said that it was not enough compared to the development’s overall billion-dollar cost.
“Thirty-one million dollars is a slap in the face to community members,” said Jessica Saint-Flure, a lifelong Little Haiti resident. “We need more than that, more benefits for all the people in the community. This is not acceptable.”
Saint-Flure said she is already seeing the effects of the proposed project even though final approval has not been granted.
“The police have already started to police a lot heavier,” Saint-Flure said. “There’s at least already five to six police cars outside my house every day.”
With the scheduled vote approaching, community leaders who oppose the project said the Little Haiti community needs to continue voicing concerns.
Residents “deserve to have a say in who comes in and how you come in,” Bastein said.