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Will pagodas, art and rooftop gardens bring more visitors to North Miami?

A pagoda is an element in a rendering of North Miami’s Chinatown arts district.
A pagoda is an element in a rendering of North Miami’s Chinatown arts district. Keith & Schnars

Conceptual drawings for North Miami’s Chinatown district show pagodas, an entrance inspired by the Ming Dynasty, pedestrian walkways, canals, several parks and green space, bike lanes and rooftop gardens. And, in the middle of it all, a central park running from Northwest 130th Street to 126th Street.

North Miami leaders first approved plans to study a Chinatown district more than a year ago and last week residents and business owners got a look at conceptual designs for the area.

The city and the planning firm Keith & Schnars hosted a meeting, on May 25 at the Gwen Margolis Center, and presented sketches and renderings for the arts district. The plans were primarily based on feedback from a March community meeting.

The firm estimates that the plans — including stormwater work, street rebuilding, the entrance gateways and other utility work — could cost nearly $60 million. And recurring costs like beautification and facade improvements and any demolition work could be about $2 million. Estimates say the district will be fully built out by 2037.

Public-property improvements to create a Chinatown district in North Miami could cost about $60 million and take 20 years.

Debbie Love, the firm’s director of planning and public relations, led the meeting. She stressed that the designs are conceptual and that there’s still a long way to go before the district becomes official.

“There’s going to be very specific site-by-site redevelopment and architects will have an opportunity, a property owner will have an opportunity to come in and propose a development that fits within that grand scheme,” Love said.

City leaders expect to pursue public-private partnerships, use community redevelopment agency funding and seek other partnerships to pay for improvements along the corridor.

Attendees were able to take a look at the renderings, and many of them seemed impressed at seeing the ideas from the previous community meetings come to life. The planned district will run along Northwest Seventh Avenue from 119th Street to 135th Street and the city hopes it will bring new development and tourism to an area primarily lined with strip malls, churches and small businesses.

Chinatown walkway
A rendering of North Miami’s Chinatown arts district shows rooftop gardens and vertical gardens. Keith & Schnars

Liliana Morales, who owns the Window Mart store along Seventh Avenue, said she liked the “futuristic” look for the district and she’s excited about Chinatown.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of jobs. Every big city has a Chinatown,” Morales said.

North Miami, which has a population of about 60,000 residents, is one of the larger cities in Miami-Dade County and has a mix of Hispanic, white, African-American and Haitian-American residents. According to 2014 U.S. Census estimates, Asians make up only 1.6 percent of Miami-Dade’s population and about 2.2 percent of North Miami’s population.

Just 2.2 percent of North Miami’s 60,000 residents are Asian, according to the U.S. Census.

That mix is part of why the Chinatown idea, spearheaded by Councilman Alix Desulme, initially surprised and confused some residents and observers.

Desulme said that since the district’s initial announcement, more people are excited about the idea. He said he was impressed by the latest renderings.

“I think some of the residents had concerns. It’s not that they didn’t want it, but they just didn’t know enough,” Desulme said.

He and the city plan to continue moving forward with the plan, which is based in part on Chinatown areas in Washington D.C. and Seattle. So far the city and the community redevelopment agency have paid about $175,000 to hire Keith & Schnars and about $47,500 to send a delegation of city officials to China.

Chinatown promenade
North Miami’s Chinatown arts district could include a promenade with shade trees and street lights inspired by Chinese lanterns. Keith & Schnars

Even with the new designs and growing interest, some residents remain unconvinced about the plan. Judy Brown, a long-time resident who lives just west of Seventh Avenue, said she was impressed by the firm’s work but she’s still skeptical.

“If you take [redevelopment agency] money to decorate streets and not have the actual investors to make this dream a reality then we’re all losers,” Brown said.

Desulme said that while there are no developers formally in place, there has been interest from foreign investors and the city has received support from the American Da Tang Group, a firm that works with wealthy Chinese seeking investments in U.S. real estate.

City leaders and the planning firm have also pointed to the hundreds of Chinese students who take courses at Florida International University’s campus in North Miami. Part of the delegation’s trip to China last May included participating 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.

Chinatown southern gateway
A rendering of the southern gateway to North Miami’s Chinatown arts district also shows a hotel and architectural elements inspired by China’s Ming Dynasty. Keith & Schnars

Beyond the new design elements that were presented May 25, some changes were also proposed to the layout of traffic. The firm has proposed turning one lane on either side of Seventh Avenue into street parking.

Taller buildings might also be allowed, through a zoning change, on the eastern side of the street closest to Interstate 95. The proposals called for allowing heights up to 200 feet.

The city’s community redevelopment agency board will likely vote on the master plan for the area next month. That meeting will be held July 11 at North Miami City Hall, 776 NE 125th St.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3

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