Recent reports from around the nation on inner-city blight and economic redevelopment in Detroit, New York City, and elsewhere highlight the challenges facing local governments in promoting private investment in urban commerce and real estate while preserving socio-economically diverse, multicultural communities of historic significance.
Indeed, last week the Miami Herald pointed to the “new dilemma” spawned by the rising tension between commerce and community in our own Coconut Grove. Like the Grove, many of Miami-Dade County’s inner-city neighborhoods from Wynwood to Overtown are already undergoing or at imminent risk of rapid, unchecked private redevelopment.
In the Grove’s commercial and residential real estate marketplace, reportedly a “legion of developers” is bent upon altering the “future look and feel” of one of Miami’s most culturally significant communities by erecting new condominiums and opening new businesses that promise “a new kind of quaintness.”
Unfortunately, the “quaintness” envisioned by this new breed of developer promises only a more sophisticated version of long practiced publicly-subsidized and privately-driven gentrification and displacement that will share the “look and feel” of the Jim Crow segregation that marred much of Miami’s racial and class history, call it the “new urban” Jim Crow.
To be sure, many Grovites oppose “large-scale development” in favor of cultural and historic preservation, illustrated for example by the current homeowner battle on St. Gaudens Road. Yet, drawing economic and political battle lines narrowly in terms of competing pro- and anti-development “camps” overlooks the larger critical question facing Coconut Grove and other Miami-Dade County neighborhoods: namely whether our communities should strive toward cultural and socio-economic integration across ethnicity, race, and class or whether they should continue to be allowed to slide or be pushed further into segregated and often impoverished isolation.
Against this background, the question is not which side will win out. Rather, the question is to what extent local city and county government and the private sector value economic inclusion, racial diversity, democratic participation, and political representation in Miami’s inner-city neighborhoods.
Viewed in the aspirational light of social value, it It is not enough for “neighborhood advocates” to demand a seat at the development table in places like the “Black Grove,” especially when those advocates are sometimes unrepresentative of the needs of historical have-nots. Likewise, it is not enough to call upon elected officials to craft a “balanced” vision when their vision is repeatedly warped by the campaign financing and political lobbying of one-sided development interests.
Instead, for a democratic urban “renaissance” to emerge in the Grove and in other neighborhoods throughout Miami-Dade County, what is required is a shared public and private commitment to municipal equity. That commitment obligates both city and county government to direct private developers to take full and fair account of the under-served needs of economically impoverished communities when negotiating land deals and seeking public-subsidy packages.
Those needs are well-documented. They include pre-school and K-12 education, employment and job training, low-income and workforce housing, transportation, access to capital, and public park space. Disastrously, the growing nation-wide income inequality and wealth gap separating white and minority households now combines with declining public and philanthropic resources to ensure that the needs of Miami’s inner-city go unmet.
Despite the crisis of inner-city concentrated poverty in Miami, private developers continue to insist that city and county government cut land use deals and hand over public-subsidy packages that systematically disadvantage, exploit, and displace low-income, minority communities.
To their credit, a rising number of voices, for example City Commissioner Keon Hardemon and Bishop James Adams of St. John’s Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in Overtown, have begun not only to protest the silent acquiescence of government to private developer subsidies, but also to demand meaningful commitments from developers to rebuild and to reinvest in communities consistent with the values of municipal equity.
For hard pressed communities trapped within the urban crucible of private, publicly-subsidized development, the best democratic alternative to the segregating “renewal” of gentrification and displacement is to condition private land use and public-subsidy deals on a reasonable set of enforceable and unambiguous developer obligations memorialized in community benefit agreements to support local public education, employment and job training, low-income and workforce housing, transportation, minority contracting, and public park space within specific affected communities. Without jointly accountable and transparent government-developer legal obligations, historic communities like the “Black Grove” and Overtown will no longer be just black and poor, they’ll also be gone.
Anthony V. Alfieri is a professor and the director of the Center for Ethics & Public Service at the UM School of Law.