A massive and controversial plan that would bring a high-rise mini-city to the heart of impoverished Little Haiti won final approval from Miami commissioners, but only after a prolonged hearing that began late Thursday night and stretched past midnight as elected officials wrung some last few concessions from the developers and each other.
The 3-0 vote at 1:10 a.m. Friday clears the way for developers of the Magic City Innovation District to begin development of the nearly 18-acre commercial and residential project, which straddles Northeast 62nd Street and would be built in phases over 15 years. Commission Chairman Ken Russell, whose left arm was in a sling, left before the Magic City hearing began, saying he was physically unable to stay. Commissioner Joe Carollo also left before the hearing but did not give a reason.
In their absence, Commissioners Keon Hardemon and Manolo Reyes appeared to agree to split the expected $19 million in impact fees generated by the project between the Little Haiti area and neighborhoods represented by Reyes. That happened after Hardemon, who initially wanted all the impact fees spent in Little Haiti, in an unusual move switched seats to sit next to Reyes and clasp his arm as he pleaded for his support just before the vote was called.
“I love you man,” Reyes responded, but he added while laughing: ”You have to spread the wealth.”
It wasn’t clear what exactly the agreement entails; it wasn’t in writing. The answer probably won’t be clear until the language of the resolution is published.
The commission had repeatedly postponed consideration of the sprawling plan amid roiling opposition to its scale and impact that has shown few signs of diminishment despite some limited concessions from the developers and qualified support from some veteran Little Haiti activists.
Thursday’s vote came after a parade of Little Haiti residents and activists criticized the zoning plan, which would allow towers as tall as 25 stories, as grossly overscaled for an area where most structures are one or two stories tall, while complaining that commissioners were slighting neighborhood concerns. The project has raised fears that it would speed the ongoing gentrification of Little Haiti, pushing residential and commercial rents in the neighborhood well beyond the reach of its current residents and effectively erasing the community. Some 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level.
Warren Perry, whose apartment overlooks the development site, ruefully referred to the project as “Tragic City.”
The developers made no presentation at the hearing, but have said in the past that the project would help revitalize one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. They did agree during the hearing to add a $250,000 college scholarship fund for local kids to study tech-related fields, and to enact formal partnerships with Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens and other regional colleges for internships and training at the high-tech businesses the project aims to attract.
A representative for the Unite Here union, to which many Little Haiti residents working in the tourism industry belong, said their local supported the project after developers pledged to provide job and training opportunities to members. The Magic City project has been endorsed by some prominent community leaders, including the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame D’Haiti Catholic Church, and a newly formed coalition called Concerned Leaders of Little Haiti,
The commission approval of a special area plan for Magic City also includes provisions for a $31 million contribution from the developers to help finance affordable housing, job training and other public benefits for Little Haiti residents. The funds, which are separate from the scholarship, would be managed by a new Little Haiti trust approved in March, when the commission gave the project an initial OK with a request for some additional requirements for the package of public benefits.
In response to that request, the developers, a trio of Miami-based real estate firms comprising Plaza Equity Partners, Metro 1 and Dragon Global, agreed on Thursday to accelerate the schedule of their payments, which would be doled out as the project is built.
The developers also hosted two public community meetings to allow residents to air concerns over the impact of the project, which many fear will accelerate a process of displacement of businesses and residents that’s been gathering steam in recent years. The meetings required by the commission, which at times became heated, produced little change in either the benefits offered by the developers or the often strenuous objections by Little Haiti residents and activists.
Many complained the developers’ contribution, part of an agreement hammered out by Hardemon, who represents Little Haiti, is puny compared to the $1 billion value of the project and too small to improve conditions in the neighborhood. The agreement lifted an earlier requirement imposed on the developers by city planners for construction of 550 units of below-market-rent apartments on the site or within a tight radius of the project.
The developers’ plan calls for the project to be built in phases, starting shortly after approval with a pop-up theme park designed by one of the founders of the Cirque du Soleil empire. That complex would occupy vacant land once part of the old Magic City tourist campground and trailer park, after which the development is named.