Even as Wynwood’s old warehouse district famously went through a frenzied, hip rejuvenation over the past several years, the hardscrabble working-class residential slice of the neighborhood to the north went virtually unnoticed and untouched.
Now that may be about to change. A Texas developer has quietly bought up an entire block of homes, small apartment houses, and shops in the lesser-known half of Wynwood that lies north of 29th Street, with plans to raze everything on it. In its place the company plans to build some 200 new dwellings and fresh commercial spaces.
It would be the first new development in decades in the deteriorated neighborhood, historically nicknamed Little San Juan because of its one-time majority Puerto Rican population.
But though many have welcomed Westdale Real Estate Investment Management’s plan as a harbinger of long-overdue revitalization, to others it’s the first incursion of unwanted gentrification into the neighborhood. And that, they worry, will bring rising rents and the displacement of dozens of poor residents.
Westdale’s proposal comes amid a housing crunch that’s turned Miami into one of the country’s most unaffordable cities for renters. Gentrification has become a much-debated topic as redevelopment reaches into low-income neighborhoods like Little Haiti and East Little Havana. Those areas are among the city’s last remaining residential enclaves that are both affordable and centrally located.
But the dilemma in Wynwood’s Little San Juan, as in those other urban-core neighborhoods, is that the existing housing stock is also old and generally run-down, if not downright dilapidated.
In Wynwood, the critics of gentrification have an unusual ally: The city of Miami, usually seen as friendly to developers, is pushing back against a set of land-use and zoning changes Westdale has requested. City planners are opposing the application, citing the potential loss of some 50 homes and apartments that, though run-down in many cases, afford shelter to people with some of the lowest incomes in the city.
This week, the city’s planning and zoning board embraced the planners’ objections, voting 5-3 to recommend the city commission reject Westdale’s application.
However, the vote came with reservations. Some board members said they recognize that Wynwood’s Little San Juan badly needs regeneration, and that Westdale’s concept plan, which calls for modestly scaled, non-luxury rental apartments and townhomes, amounts to what one member, Andy Parrish, called “a fairly reasonable amount of development.”
Parrish said change and displacement is likely coming to the neighborhood sandwiched between the surging Wynwood arts district to the south and the expanding Midtown Miami area to the east — no matter what. (Interstate 95 defines the neighborhood’s western edge). But he voted “no,” saying the extensive scope of Westdale’s blueprint would only speed up the pace.
“For many years this neighborhood has been stagnant. These homes have been allowed to go to rack and ruin. But we know this area is going to change,” said Parrish, an affordable-housing developer in historically black west Coconut Grove. “The question is, do we want to accelerate the change now? That will accelerate the dislocation as these areas continue to be razed and redeveloped.”
An attorney for Westdale, Steven Wernick, argued that his client’s plan would not lead to a “domino effect” because most of the rest of the neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes. He said the proposal would replace a hodge-podge of aging, poorly maintained properties on the block with a range of quality housing options, including a minimum of 10 “workforce housing” residences. The scale, height and architectural style of the contemplated redevelopment would be harmonious with its surroundings, Wernick said.
“This is good urban design,” he said. “It’s tailored to its location.”
He also noted that the developer held several meetings with residents and collected 18 letters of support, including one from the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and another from Rev. Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of the local Catholic church, Mission San Juan Bautista.
“This neighborhood has been neglected,” Wernick said. “The feedback we’ve gotten from the community has been that they want new, quality housing, but in a way that doesn’t change the character of the neighborhood.”
That neighborhood, platted nearly 100 years ago, has been one of the city’s most colorful — and at times one of its most dangerous as well. After World War II, Puerto Ricans settled in the neighborhood to work in the thriving garment industry housed in the warehouses and industrial buildings south of 29th Street. The jobs paid well enough that many garment workers became homeowners, lending the neighborhood a stable base. Wynwood soon became identified with its thriving Puerto Rican community. In 1974, the local park was named after boricua baseball hall of famer Roberto Clemente following his death in a plane crash.
But as the garment industry moved out and abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood took a sharp dive. Crime, drug trafficking and gangs plagued the neighborhood, even as some longtime homeowners hung on. In 1988, undercover police bludgeoned a neighborhood drug dealer to death, provoking days of rioting. Most of the neighborhood’s Puerto Ricans gradually left and were replaced by Cuban refugees and Central American immigrants.
The typical Wynwood resident today is among the city’s poorest, city planners Efren Nunez and Ryan Shedd told the board. The median household income in the neighborhood is $19,800, and the median rent is $672, they said. The buildings on the block that Westdale purchased, they noted, were built mostly in the 1920s and 1930s and include some that are potentially historic.
“The vast majority of the structures are still intact,” Nunez said, while adding: “Yes, they need improvements.”
The city’s historic preservation office, meanwhile, issued a letter expressing concern about the loss of possible historic buildings, and noted that Westdale’s conceptual plans show buildings that are “incompatible” with the rest of the neighborhood because of scale and height.
“This is not infill development per se,” Shedd told the board. “This is replacing existing housing that’s serving the neighborhood. It continues the pressure from Midtown and Wynwood to the south.”
The block includes two retail buildings on the neighborhood’s main commercial street, Northwest Second Avenue, and stretches to Northwest Third Avenue between 30th and 31st streets. The Miami-Dade County property appraiser’s website shows that Westdale generally paid two to three times the assessed value of properties on the block, laying out a total of roughly $19 million for properties assessed at a total of $7.5 million. Assessed values for tax purposes often represent less than the market value.
Wernick said many of the properties have been turned into short-term rentals occupied by transients.
At Wednesday evening’s planning and zoning hearing, several Wynwood residents and property owners asked the board to endorse Westdale’s rezoning request.
“To us, it is a great improvement,” said Ana Piloto, a Wynwood resident and property owner since 1974. “We’ve been through the rough — the drive-bys, the drugs. It’s time for something new. It’s time for families. It’s time for the up-and-coming.”
Added Wilfred Vazquez, a Wynwood resident for 50 years: “We’ve seen the changes around us. We need changes in Wynwood.”
But others, including elderly retirees who have owned homes in Wynwood for decades, were adamantly against the Westdale application, citing fears that the development would lead to unwanted changes and rising property taxes they could not afford.
Among them was America Medina, president of the Wynwood Homeowners Association, who complained that her group did not find out about the Westdale proposal until last week.
“We are very open to improving Wynwood, but the homeowners do not want the rezoning,” she said.
To area resident Migdalia Diaz, the fear was that gentrification would end up doing to Wynwood what it did in nearby areas of the city.
“Before we know it, what happened to our neighbors in Edgewater will happen to us,” she said. “They demolished all those beautiful houses and apartments to build skyscrapers, and now not even air gets to us.”