The plan to create a Chinatown in North Miami is still not fully formed but residents and community leaders had the chance Wednesday to voice their ideas for the district as well as their frustrations about the lack of information on the project.
Dozens of people gathered Wednesday night at the Joe Celestin Center and offered suggestions for the planned district, which will run along Northwest Seventh Avenue from 119th to 135th Street. Other people felt they the city had not shared enough information for them to discuss the project.
“Due to the fact that there is little guidance from the city of North Miami and proper notification or information about this master plan, we the residents of the city of North Miami do not feel sufficiently capacitated to provide information in reference to the design at this time,” said Belkis Zarate, a city resident.
The meeting was led by the Fort Lauderdale consulting firm Keith and Schnars who said the area has about 70 acres of developable land and that any zoning changes or development would not affect the surrounding residential neighborhoods. The firm also noted that the Chinese theme and the lack of development on the corridor over the years has drawn the interest of investors.
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“Right now it serves a purpose for people that want to go there who live in the community but it’s not an attraction, a place for people to come,” said Debbie Love, the firm’s planning director.
The idea is the brainchild of Councilman Alix Desulme, who represents District 4 on the city’s west side. The City Council approved plans a year ago to study and designate a cultural innovation and arts district. North Miami plans to incorporate Chinese design and facade elements to an area that is primarily lined with strip malls, churches and small businesses.
Throughout Wednesday’s meeting Desulme defended the project even as some residents and other attendees continued to question the plan.
“At the end of the day, something different will happen on Seventh Avenue, like it or don’t,” Desulme said.
He also repeated a suggestion he gave at a homeowners association meeting last summer that if people didn’t like the plan they could oppose him when he runs for office in 2019.
“If you don’t like what I’m doing, you wait at the ballot box when I’m running, you run against me and you vote me out,” Desulme said.
Opponents cite the disconnect between plan and the city’s demographics. Asians make up only 2.2 percent of North Miami’s population, including 139 people who identified themselves as having Chinese ancestry, according to U.S. Census estimates. Meanwhile black and Hispanic residents represent about 86 percent of the city’s population.
Critics also worry that heightened development could force out longtime homeowners. Others say the city and the community redevelopment agency’s time would be better spent on improving things like water meters and creating more youth programs.
“I’m all for economic development but first we have to take care of our city,” said Judy Brown, president of the Sunkist Grove homeowners association.
If you don’t like what I’m doing, you wait at the ballot box when I’m running, you run against me and you vote me out.
Councilman Alix Desulme
City leaders and the design firm have countered those numbers by pointing to the hundreds of Chinese students who take courses at Florida International University’s campus in North Miami. City leaders, including Desulme, traveled to China last May to participate in the graduation ceremony for FIU’s hospitality school campus in Tianjin, China, and also to meet with urban planners and other government officials in Tianjin, Beijing and Shanghai.
There were also potential Chinese and other Asian investors at Wednesday’s meeting, and the project has the support of the American Da Tang Group, a a firm that works with wealthy Chinese seeking investments in U.S. real estate.
People at the meeting offered suggestions like making the area more walkable with wider sidewalks, creating bike paths and launching a trolley system to go up and down the corridor. Others said they want to see lanterns and other fixtures that could be visible to drivers on Interstate 95 and make the area an attraction.
“People talk about trying to be Wynwood. Let’s forget about Wynwood, let’s be North Miami,” resident Howard Tonkin said.
Other District 4 residents, like former Councilman Duke Sorey, said locals have to organize and remain involved as the project goes on.
“The key is us getting together as a homeowners association to start strategizing,” Sorey said. “It shouldn’t be about what they’re going to come and do, it should be what we allow them to do.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the first in the public planning stage for the master plan, and city leaders said the process could take at least six months.