Coconut Grove

Miami hopes to revitalize this historically black neighborhood. Will it work?

A boarded-up building on Grand Avenue, the main drag through the West Grove.
A boarded-up building on Grand Avenue, the main drag through the West Grove. Miami Herald file photo

In a vote that revealed subtle ethnic tensions and nearly punched a Congressional candidate in the gut, Miami commissioners voted Thursday to try and expand a controversial taxing district in order to preserve what remains of Coconut Grove’s historically black community.

By a decision that was much closer than the 5-0 vote tally suggested, the city’s elected officials directed Miami administrators to work with Miami-Dade County to establish a community redevelopment agency in the West Grove, founded more than 100 years ago by Bahamian settlers. The city wants the taxing district to include a neighborhood that centers around Grand Avenue and stretches from Main Highway to U.S. 1.

Whether that will actually happen is hard to say.

Redevelopment agencies, known commonly as CRAs, are created under the guidance of state law in order to spur reinvestment in blighted neighborhoods by reinvesting new, local property tax dollars directly into the community. But in doing so, they siphon resources away from city and county governments. And there have been attempts in Tallahassee — where a city redevelopment agency is currently the focus of an FBI investigation — to cripple the districts or end their use altogether.

Two years ago, a scathing Miami-Dade grand jury report into community redevelopment agencies found abuses and lax controls, and focused at times on the city’s Omni agency — the entity commissioners said Thursday that they want to expand into Coconut Grove.

By pushing to expand the CRA, the city hopes to breathe life back into a neighborhood that has been strangled by unemployment, gentrification and land-banking. Commissioner Ken Russell, who proposed the idea and has made reforming the Omni CRA a central tenet of his tenure since his election two years ago, called it the only remaining way to rescue the neighborhood in the face of a city government that has chosen to stop spending money in the community.

We’re still on the precipice of losing everything

Commissioner Ken Russell

russell
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell Miami Herald file photo

“Not one unit of affordable housing has been built since I’ve been here. Not one street has been paved. So don’t go patting me on the back for how far we’ve come. We’re still on the precipice of losing everything,” said Russell. “There are some places where we owe a debt to a community that has been hurt and damaged and held back by the city, where we need to put our finger on the scale.”

Some of the city’s other commissioners weren’t sold.

Russell, who is running for Congress and has also made protecting the West Grove a staple of his office — having slept on the street with housing protesters and sued a group of Grand Avenue property owners he called “slum lords” — seemed at one point on the verge of losing the crucial vote. Commissioners Joe Carollo and Manolo Reyes argued that the city would be better served by creating a housing authority than another redevelopment agency. The commissioners, both of whom are Cuban, argued that Hispanic neighborhoods in Little Havana and Flagami are also struggling and in need of resources.

Carollo also dismissed the significance of creating a new CRA after the city’s budget chief said modest estimates — which he pulled on the fly Thursday — suggested a new taxing district would generate only $650,000 in its first year if the area experienced 7 percent growth.

“While the idea is noble, this is not a solution,” Carollo said.

There’s also an outstanding legal question about the move. Miami’s city manager requested an opinion from the state’s attorney general about the legality of expanding a CRA to an area that isn’t even close to its current boundaries

But Russell said there’s no legal difference between this proposal and the expansion considered back when Miami expanded the Omni boundaries to include parts of Watson Island as part of the controversial Global Agreement to fund Marlins Park, the PortMiami Tunnel and other massive Miami projects.

The area also seems primed for investment, with buyers angling for a large collection of buildings on Grand Avenue. And Russell hopes to jump-start improvements and new housing by expanding the Omni CRA instead of creating an entirely new agency.

Though the Omni CRA is at the moment cash-poor, having leveraged a $25 million loan with its future tax income, Russell noted that the agency is trying to sell a film studio and is contesting a nearly $30 million debt owed to Museum Park. Mayor Francis Suarez, who supported the proposal, said the agency could do something similar with the money from its expanded boundaries.

In the end, Carollo and Reyes voted for the proposal after Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, who is also Cuban, made clear he would vote in favor. Now, Russell hopes the county will work with the city to bring consequential improvements to the area, and agree to extend the life of the CRA, which along with the city’s Overtown district is set to expire in 2030.

“This is a stick of dynamite,” Russell said. “This is a reset button.”

“We are the most cutting-edge visitor center," jokes J.S. Rashid, president and CEO of the organization that runs the Coconut Grove Village West Visitor Center. Miami-Dade has more visitor centers than any other metro region in the U.S., due in part to its cultural neighborhoods and an initiative from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau that has led to five new centers in two years.

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