In an area of North Miami known more for small shops, strip-mall design and some degree of stagnation over the years, the city is looking to the Far East for inspiration.
The city council on Feb. 23 approved plans to study and designate a Chinatown cultural arts and innovation district, which would run along Northwest Seventh Avenue (U.S. 441) from 119th to 135th streets. The plan has been met with a fair share of raised eyebrows about the thought process behind the designation.
Vice Mayor Alix Desulme is spearheading the effort to establish Chinatown in District 4, the mostly Haitian and African-American area he represents for the city. He said he recognizes that the idea might be bold but he doesn’t think it’s out of place in North Miami.
“This is about economic development, this is about changing the face of North Miami, and this is about changing the face of my district,” Desulme said at the meeting.
Much of the opposition from residents in the city’s Sunkist Grove neighborhood and on the west side stems from their belief that Seventh Avenue already has an established cultural identity.
“You have been betraying the trust of people who have lived in that area, in their homes, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years to accommodate some other culture to be developed,” resident Jessica Alston said at the meeting.
There is some evidence of increasing Chinese investment and activity in Miami-Dade, including the recent activity of the China City Construction Co. The group purchased properties in Brickell and Miami Beach with plans to develop a 21-story tower with 42 condos on the Beach and an 80-story, twin-tower project in Miami.
The American Da Tang Group, a firm that works with wealthy Chinese seeking investments in U.S. real estate, wrote a letter in support of efforts by Desulme and North Miami.
“We believe the proposed designation would help transform the corridor, which has been plagued by decades of financial disinvestment, urban blight and lacking a notable identity,” American Da Tang’s CEO Shan-Jie Li wrote in a letter to Desulme.
Staff members also noted the presence of Chinese students at Florida International University, which has a campus in North Miami, and their potential support of the Chinatown district. FIU also has a partnership with the Tianjin University of Commerce in Tianjin, China.
“Because FIU has a campus in China many of the students are introduced to American society or even the United States through that partnership that FIU has with the Chinese government,” planning director Tanya Wilson-Sejour said at the meeting.
Desulme, who is Haitian American, said the lack of progress on the street is a main motivating factor for creating the innovation district.
“I am very proud of my culture, of who I am, and I have lived here almost all my life — I have not seen any development on Seventh Avenue,” Desulme said at the meeting.
Staff said that there are no plans to displace established businesses and the idea is to involve Chinese motifs in the overall facade of the area.
Formal and informal efforts to create a Chinatown have stalled over the past few decades dating back to the early 1990s.
In 1990, New York developer Issac Shih discussed plans to create a Chinatown on Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 18th and 19th streets, but they never came to fruition.
And in 2003 plans were discussed to develop a South Florida Chinatown in Homestead, complete with replicas of the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and a live panda exhibit.
I am very proud of my culture, of who I am, and I have lived here almost all my life — I have not seen any development on Seventh Avenue.’
North Miami Vice Mayor Alix Desulme
For years, many South Floridians have considered a stretch of Northeast 163rd and 167th streets to be an unofficial Chinatown in the greater Miami area, with various rows of long-established stores and restaurants with authentic Chinese products and Chinese ownership.
Some residents and members of the city’s planning commission said that area seemed like a more likely location for the district proposed by Desulme and city staff because of the organic development of the culture there. North Miami Beach has not created a formal designation for the area.
“Is it going to be the same things we have now but we’re just going to call it Chinatown?” Sunkist Grove resident Judy Brown said. “To me, the jury is still out.”
According to 2014 U.S. Census estimates, Asians make up about 1.6 percent of Miami-Dade’s population and about 2.2 percent of North Miami’s population. Of that percent in the city, about 139 people identify as Chinese.
The district will not establish any zoning changes and the city council will still have to approve a master plan for the area’s development. The city also plans to create a steering committee to discuss the district potentially made up of members of the Beacon Council, FIU leadership and local business owners.
“Councilman Desulme, this idea is crazy, it’s wild, it’s visionary, it’s bold, it’s diverse and I applaud you for going out on a limb to do something on Northwest Seventh Avenue,” Councilman Scott Galvin said at the meeting.