Upper Eastside residents slam Miami’s redistricting plan for splitting communities

Residents of Miami’s Upper Eastside are fuming over a new proposal to reconfigure Miami’s five commission districts.

The plan, which is up for a straw vote at Thursday’s commission meeting, moves the Shorecrest and Palm Grove neighborhoods from District 2 into District 5. It also splits the MiMo Historic District between the two commission districts.

The changes are part of a larger proposal meant to even out the number of residents in each district, as is required by law every 10 years. But neighborhood activists contend the seven coastal communities of the Upper Eastside ought to be represented by a single city commissioner — and are taking their fight to City Hall.

“For years, the Upper Eastside was like the neglected stepchild of the city of Miami,” said Eileen Bottari, a Palm Grove homeowner for nearly three decades. “But we organized and now we have a strong voice. ... If we don’t stay together, we’ll lose that.”

The need to reconfigure the districts was driven by a surge in population in District 2, which spans Miami’s eastern corridor. Most of the growth took place in the booming downtown and Brickell neighborhoods — not the Upper Eastside.

Meanwhile, District 5, which includes Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti, lost residents over the past decade, falling about 12,000 people shy of its target size of 79,000 residents.

The city hired former state Rep. Miguel De Grandy to create new commission districts reflecting the population shift. He is being paid a $397 per-diem rate, or a total of about $50,000 over the past year, he said.

De Grandy has proposed moving several neighborhoods from District 2 to District 5, including the Upper Eastside’s Shorecrest and Palm Grove. Other communities moving into District 5 would include Parkwest and Wynwood, which together include about 5,000 people.

De Grandy said the plan complies with laws that prohibit racial gerrymandering, but prevent newly drawn municipal maps from diluting racial minorities. If the proposal were to be adopted, the historically black District 5 would drop from 75 to 70 percent black. The other four districts would be majority Hispanic.

“I am confident that it would withstand a legal challenge,” he said.

But at a Tuesday night community meeting at Legion Memorial Park, representatives from at least five Upper Eastside communities found problems with the pitch.

“We’re not exactly preserving Miami when we reconfigure neighborhoods that have a history together,” said Ginger Vela, director of the Upper Eastside Preservation Coalition.

Ken Jett, representing the Shorecrest Homeowners’ Association, said he would prefer to see all of the Upper Eastside move into District 5, rather than just Shorecrest and Palm Grove. The advocacy group Miami Neighborhoods United and several Upper Eastside neighborhoods support that position.

Said Vela: “At least we would have a unified voice.”

But other critics speculated that the sitting District 5 commissioner, Michelle Spence-Jones, would not want the Upper Eastside because it would dilute her base of voters in Liberty City, Overtown and Little Haiti.

“She doesn’t want us because we’re demanding,” said Bob Powers, of the Palm Grove Neighborhood Association. “She doesn’t want us because we’ll put someone up against her.”

Spence-Jones told The Miami Herald she would be willing to accommodate the coalition of communities.

“If they want to all remain together, let them stay together,” Spence-Jones said in an interview. De Grandy “would have to find another place to pick up people for me. The only place I could think of would be Midtown.”

But Commission Chairman Marc Sarnoff, who represents District 2, dismissed that suggestion, saying there are only about 2,000 residents there.

“Midtown doesn’t get us there,” he said.

Sarnoff acknowledged that redistricting will be “painful” for some neighborhoods.

“But if you look at the number of people that have to be absorbed, this [proposal] is the only way to do it,” Sarnoff said.

Community advocates have also railed against city leaders for not soliciting more public commentary about the redistricting process. The residents said they were not informed about public meetings on the topic, which were poorly attended.

At Thursday’s commission meeting, “the first thing that must be said is that people were not invited and people have not been heard,” MNU president Grace Solares said.

The commission has until May to approve the new redistricting maps, but hopes to complete the process sooner.