In the Shadow of New Towers

Overtown is under pressure to change as property values skyrocket but violence remains pervasive

Alomoto's new two-story house will have three bedrooms and a yard. She bustles around it with the same industry she displays in her cleaning business. Even though she'd lived minutes away for years, Alomoto had never been to Overtown until she applied for a home. "In the beginning, I was kind of a little scared," she admits. "But now I'm working around here, I think it will be okay. I think it's going to change, like everybody says."

Inconspicuous in the curve of the Metrorail as it snakes north and west from downtown Miami is another possible future for Overtown. It is called Crosswinds, a $200 million "affordable" condo project that will, if actually built, bring 1050 resident-owned units (plus office and shop space) to the city's center. This is the City of Miami's silver bullet.

Benny "Cowboy" Cummings and the Habitat team are building new 
homes in Overtown
Benny "Cowboy" Cummings and the Habitat team are building new homes in Overtown

The project, currently named the Overtown Urban Village, would be built on several acres bordered by NW Sixth and Eighth streets and NW Second and Third avenues. Interestingly, Michigan-based Crosswinds did not come to Miami through a normal bidding process conducted by the city. Instead, the developer put together a proposal based on an inquiry from the Overtown Civic Partnership and Design Center, which is an outpost of the Collins Center for Public Policy (most people refer to the OCPDC as the Collins Center).

The center, besides billing itself as a community-building and economic-development think tank, owns a small amount of property in Overtown and elsewhere through a land trust it uses to leverage public-private ventures. "We brought in a group of developers and said, öIf you had this land, what would you do?'" relates Philip Bacon, executive director of the OCPDC. "We understood clearly you couldn't continue to do more of the same in Overtown and expect a different result."

Bacon then took the Crosswinds proposal to Mayor Manny Diaz, who liked it enough to put his economic-development guru, Otto Boudet-Murias, on the case. The situation is tricky. The property is owned by the city, but it has been tied up for years in litigation with a developer who built a condo complex on some of the land. Adding to the difficulty is a reverter clause on some of the property (purchased decades ago with federal money), which means the land becomes property of the county if construction doesn't occur by 2007. Crosswinds cleverly managed to avoid an open bid process by essentially buying out the lawsuit of the previous developer. In that way, the city could settle the lawsuit and make a development deal in one vote of the commission.

Opposition to the deal boiled down to a few main concerns, the most legitimate of which was that it would spur gentrification of the neighborhood while doing little to ensure poor residents a place in the new order. Another valid concern was the city's extremely generous offer, which results in a basic exchange of the land and tax subsidies in return for 50 condo units it can sell to low-income folks (the estimated income range is $26,350 to $42,150 for a family of four). The developer also has to offer a total of twenty percent of its condo units to families earning roughly $42,000 to $63,000 a year -- either way, out of the league of most current residents without heavy subsidies. "It's criminal that our city is on just a giveaway binge," criticizes Denise Perry. "Our city is giving away all our resources to developers instead of demanding more value. It's bad negotiation."

Maverick developer Glen Straub, who bought the Miami Arena last year, agrees with Perry. He offered to make the city a better deal, worth an extra three million dollars. When the commission approved Crosswinds anyway, he promised to sue the city. If he does, expect lengthy delays. In voting for the project in January, commissioner Johnny Winton explained that Crosswinds, while not the perfect solution, would become a catalyst for more development. "No one project is going to cure the ills heaped upon Overtown in the last 100 years," he said. "Ain't gonna do it. Not this one or any one. [But] this creates an anchor, some new hope, and some job opportunities."

Former commissioner Art Teele, who is charged with taking kickbacks from contractors who got work from the city's CRA, had questioned the Crosswinds proposal in terms of how well it met resident needs. He also framed the deal as a land grab by Anglo and Cuban business interests. The center's eloquent, nattily dressed Philip Bacon acknowledges that the sordid history of official Miami's interaction with Overtown has created a legacy of mistrust about anyone with big plans. Bacon does have a vision of redevelopment sweeping the neighborhood and sees his role as coordinating, cajoling, and pushing public and private interests into a loosely collective effort. "There was a void," he argues. "Many visions, so there was no vision. Our job wasn't to be liked. Our job was to be effective. Some people love us, some people hate us. But two years later, people are doing stuff."

He continues: "If you don't connect the dots, then what you have is a lot of unconnected initiatives not focused on anything. You end up with years gone by, millions spent, and nobody can figure out what happened to the money."

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