In the Shadow of New Towers

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

Teele did manage to pare down Crosswinds' original plan for 1500 residences because one parcel of land was not part of the lawsuit. He got the city to put that property, which lies behind the historic Lyric Theater, out to bid. A handful of developers responded, including Crosswinds. One developer out of Connecticut formed an alliance with a local group composed of three Overtown-based community development corporations (two with spotty development track records) and a couple of businesses that specialize in connecting minority contractors with work. The local group would get about ten percent of the profit for being the beard. But the prize went to a third group, a composite of Brickell Ventures, the Overtown Folklife Village Development Corporation (run by Black Archives foundation director Dorothy Fields, also doing the Lyric Theater expansion), and the Carlisle Development Group.

Last week Miami commissioners acting as the CRA gave initial approval to this group's $93 million proposal, to be called Lyric Promenade. To make it happen, the City will sell the property it owns next to the theater for $3.5 million. The plan calls for a mix of condos, apartments, restaurants, retail, and a scaled-down Hilton hotel.

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

Overtown is a neighborhood of fewer than 9000 people, but within its boundaries are several mini neighborhoods. Some parts are a post-apocalyptic nightmare, full of seedy tenement housing, trash-filled vacant lots, hopeless people, and rampant entrepreneurialism of the highly illegal sort. But there are also bright spots: old single-family homes and small businesses that have managed to weather the years. There's Town Park, which is a collection of phased home and townhouse developments from the Seventies.

There are a number of projects in various stages throughout the neighborhood. Several of the historic churches have formed CDCs for the purpose of creating affordable housing. St. Agnes Episcopal's CDC is building 80 candy-colored homes along NW Third Avenue and is planning to locate its offices in a seventeen-story office/retail/garage tower the county is building on NW First Court, called Overtown Transit Village.

Greater Bethel A.M.E.'s CDC has probably built the most housing in Overtown through the years, mainly apartments, although it has had its share of problems with funding, construction, and navigating government bureaucracy. For instance, its 40-home New Hope project on NW Seventh Street has been stalled in half-completion for years. St. John the Baptist's CDC has an extremely mixed record of building housing. Last year, it ended litigation with the city over one failed development but still has plans for more. The odd thing about all these projects, especially when compared to a megadeal such as Crosswinds, is that they don't really fit together. There is no master plan, which may end up being the saving grace of what bits of character remain, or which could become the basis of the next wave of redevelopment.

One of the claims Crosswinds executives and city officials made in selling their idea is that the project will attract former residents, who are now middle class and living in the suburbs. But that is an uncertain prospect, given the abysmal state of the area's public schools and the ages of those former residents who remember the glory days.

Jackie Bell is a soft-spoken woman fond of hats who possesses a large stock of sharp looks and a long memory. She runs the New Washington Heights CDC, which has been around since 1973. The CDC spent more than a decade trying to get a hotel built on top of a parking garage on NW Fifth Street and First Avenue, but in the end, couldn't get enough investors. The group hasn't managed to get much of note going in Overtown since, which is more typical than not for the various CDCs operating there. Bell, whose corporation is part of the local component bidding on the property, believes the Crosswinds deal was a betrayal of the city's original intent for the land, which was to include much more participation by the community. She's got 25 years' of documents to back up her claims of promises broken by many city administrations. "It's truly unfair," she complains. "What is at stake is the economic history of the community. There's no leadership to make it happen. This is a rent-an-African-American community. Once Overtown goes, the rest of the community goes."

In the meantime, as the blueprint of change unrolls, does government have a commitment to current residents? The Florida Department of Transportation is currently noodling plans to widen Fourteenth Street from Third Avenue to just west of Seventh Avenue and build an on-ramp to I-95. The proposal would likely have to shave a bit off the entrance to Booker T. Washington High School and the gardens Marvin Dunn and his students planted next to the overpass. Just a quick look at the plan makes it clear that it is not designed to connect the Overtown of today to the highway so much as it anticipates the new growth and merging of tomorrow's Overtown with surrounding neighborhoods.

Slain Slob's shrine is hardly the only one in the neighborhood. Residents have various opinions about the police, many of them negative. At one public meeting in January, a resident complained to city officials that people in Overtown don't know the chief. Chief John Timoney, engaged at that very moment in walking off the stage, paused briefly, fixed the lady with an annoyed look, then resumed his stroll.

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