Op-Ed

Liberty Square Rising can lift Liberty City’s future

Liberty City residents Tyrone Hampton, 2, and his Grandma Dorothy Edmonds share a kiss as Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks at a community meeting to promote the Liberty Square redevelopment plan in April.
Liberty City residents Tyrone Hampton, 2, and his Grandma Dorothy Edmonds share a kiss as Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks at a community meeting to promote the Liberty Square redevelopment plan in April. skaestle@miamiherald.com

What will our great-grandchildren think about the decisions we make today on the redevelopment of Liberty Square? This important question weighs heavily on me — and, I hope, on our entire community. It is important for those of us who serve Liberty City, but do not stand to gain from the redevelopment, to speak truth to power.

Imagine — our great-grandchildren are watching.

Liberty Square is a 753-unit Miami-Dade public housing apartment complex in Liberty City. Constructed as part of the New Deal by the Public Works Administration (PWA), opening in 1937, it was the first public-housing project for black people in the South. A simple internet search of Liberty Square reveals this dark past: Jim Crow, overcrowded Overtown — then called Colored Town — and the need for a new “Negro colony” reflect the paradigm sold to our great-grandparents when they built Liberty Square.

Today, it is easy to see that Liberty Square was a poorly designed solution that did not address the underlying problems: lack of civil rights, housing segregation and economic inequality.

So what about today? Can we avoid repeating the past? On the one hand, issues of poverty, poor housing conditions, income inequality, high unemployment, crime, food deserts and disparities in healthcare, education and welfare persist and are well documented.

On the other hand, we have progressed on civil-rights issues and gained critical recognition that our lives matter.

Our dollars also matter. So, is Liberty Square Rising, at $300 million, the largest renovation of a public-housing complex in Miami-Dade history and supported by county, state and federal resources, a well-designed solution? Miami-Dade County commissioners are expected to answer this question on July 6.

To me, it is obvious that the right solution must begin with a respect for the people who have lived in Liberty Square throughout its 80 years — the black community. To be frank, in an ideal world, the lead developer would be black and from our community because statistics show black-owned businesses are more likely to hire black people, which can help address the high level of unemployment plaguing the community.

In addition, the right solution would take a multifaceted, holistic approach — addressing the need to minimize displacement by offering a wide range of housing options, from Section 8 to home ownership — and also addressing health, education and welfare.

Finally, the right solution would include substantive participation — equity and contracts — by black businesses and organizations that have served Liberty City for years.

There will be tremendous wealth generated through any redevelopment plan, which should be inclusively and equitably distributed. Yes, our dollars matter. Our great-grandchildren should expect nothing less.

The current Liberty Square Rising plan does include a multifaceted, holistic approach, one that minimizes the displacement of current residents by offering a range of housing options. It is our collective responsibility to ensure current residents are prepared to take advantage of them.

The plan also provides for partnerships with community organizations as included in the community benefits package covering health, education, human services, small-business opportunities and financial literacy. The plan also commits to diverse hiring and substantive participation by black businesses and organizations that have served Liberty City.

Again, we must collectively ensure these community partnerships and black business participation are effectively executed.

The lack of a lead black developer for Liberty Square Rising is an obvious missed opportunity for which we are collectively responsible. But equity participation by a black developer is still possible. And as a community we have an obligation to ensure the commitment in the Liberty Square Rising plan to sign an equity partnership agreement of 5 percent with a black developer is also executed.

Liberty Square Rising has an opportunity to be a national model for the redevelopment and revitalization of black communities. I support the current plan with that expectation in mind. I support it with caution and a commitment to make it work. Success will require our collective commitment.

I believe that our great-grandchildren would say we are getting off to a good start. But how we finish is important. Yes, the black community is in crisis, just as it was in 1937 when Liberty Square was built.

Let us not squander the opportunity this time. Instead, let us work together to execute a well-designed solution that addresses the underlying problems. Let us work collectively on Liberty Square Rising to make our great-grandchildren proud.

Teri Williams is president & COO of OneUnited Bank and community supporter of the Related Urban Development Group’s Liberty Square Rising plan.

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