The Village West in Coconut Grove represents the founding soul of Miami, yet we are at risk of wiping it off the map. Bringing this neighborhood under the wing of the existing Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) in the City Commission district I serve may be its last chance of surviving slum and blight without encouraging displacement and gentrification.
The CRA may be the key to a resilient future of clean streets, thriving businesses, affordable homes and historic preservation — a future that cherishes the Bahamian, Caribbean and Southern roots that have earned their place here. It is a way to encourage healthy development while holding that development accountable to a community that deserves our respect.
Nestled between wealthy Coconut Grove and Coral Gables, this historically black community helped found and build Miami. Yet it was originally and literally segregated from the rest of the city with a wall. The once beautiful ACE Theater on Grand Avenue now is on the National Register for Historic Places, yet it was originally a blacks-only movie house. West Grove was the convenient location of Miami’s garbage incinerator whose ash rained down on families that now are suing the city for the death and illness they attribute to exposure. That trail of ash went down a rabbit hole of racism and neglect.
As city commissioner, I have directed the city to sue the slumlords, improve the infrastructure and begin a planning process of affordability through inclusionary zoning. My legislative changes to the city code will allow for historic preservation of the last remaining shotgun and wood frame homes that belonged to the original settlers and founders of Miami. Despite these efforts, the slumlords aren’t fazed, the street improvements and affordable housing are moving too slowl, and the historic homes are demolished one by one. Worst of all, people are being displaced and dispersed throughout the county, tearing apart deep-rooted families and the cultural fabric of the area.
As chairman of the Omni CRA, I know the power of this tool when regulated and implemented properly. Basically, it traps future tax revenue generated within the boundary to be laser-focused on the elimination of slum and blight.
The CRA can act quickly and efficiently under the administration of an executive director and the oversight of a board of directors and a community advisory board. It is true that the same speed and ease with which some CRAs act statewide has earned a reputation of impropriety. As a result, the Omni CRA has implemented the regulatory checks and balances recommended by the county and the state attorney’s office. The result is a better tool that could now help the West Grove.
Next week at our Miami City Commission meeting, I welcome the results of a Finding of Necessity that will prove the need and qualification of this area to be deserving of a CRA.
From there, the political will to see it through will lie in the hands of my fellow City Commissioners and then the County Commission. Time is running out for the existence of this community, and our collective conscience will bear the consequence of inaction.
If we are on the right side of history, a community and culture will remain intact, and the next generation will shine proudly in this formerly neglected Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Ken Russell represents District 2 on the Miami City Commission.