As a young immigrant to Miami, Haitian activist Marleine Bastien said she used to walk past the Sabal Apartments on NE Second Avenue in Little Haiti — and the apartments were home to many Haitian people.
In the years since, the project has switched owners, and names, and is now called Design Place. But if the city approves a highly controversial development proposal, the longstanding structure might vanish — replaced by an
Design Place's owner, New York investment company SPV Realty, wants to raze the multiblock complex and build a 28-story megacomplex on its footprint, sparking what might be the biggest gentrification fight in Little Haiti to date.
"It's huge," Bastien says. "Huuuuge."
The City of Miami's Urban Development Review Board originally planned to vote on the structure in December but postponed that vote until January after protesters caused a ruckus at last month's meeting. Now the date for the highly controversial project's new vote has been set: The board will debate whether to approve the project next Wednesday, January 18.
In the meantime, local leaders say the plan has residents seriously concerned. Bastien, who runs the Haitian women's organization Fanm Ayisyen nan
"It’s a mammoth project," she says, "and it will have a long-term impact on Little Haiti. Right now, we are reviewing it and discussing it with our group. We plan to intervene and make sure the community’s interests are represented."
Last month, the project's architect, Kobi Karp, described the amenities included in the new development, which has been tentatively named Eastside Ridge. According to a development plan the company sent the city, the complex would include 2,798 apartments, 418 hotel rooms, 283,798 square feet of retail space, 97,103 square feet of office space, and 4,600 parking spaces. The development could include multiple towers, some as tall as 28 stories. The neighborhood is otherwise filled with one- and two-story single-family homes and strip malls for low- and middle-income families.
Anti-gentrification activists have long feared that developers would soon swarm Little Haiti as buyers are increasingly priced out of Wynwood's nearby hipster mecca. Developer Tony Cho in November proposed building a huge "innovation district" at NE 60th Street and NE Second Avenue. Eastside Ridge, just ten blocks south, at NE 50th Street and NE Second Avenue, makes Cho's development look like a dollhouse.
Karp told New Times last month that he spoke extensively with the community before pitching Eastside Ridge and took great pains to include civic space for local communities, green space for nearby residents, an open-air market, and new roads to help free up traffic flow in the area.
Though Karp stresses that Eastside Ridge was designed with local residents in mind, there are some concerns about property's owner, SPV Realty. The company has been accused of racial discrimination in the past: SPV has been sued twice for allegedly refusing to rent Design Place apartments to black people in the historically black and poor Little Haiti.
There are already signs that the new development has investors giddy. At the end of December, the Miami Herald reported that Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School, which sits adjacent to Design Place, will close next year, and that anonymous "interested parties" are trying to buy the land on which the school sits. Some close to the Archdiocese of Miami say the land could go for $65 million — and others say they're being kept in the dark as the Archdiocese sells out land to Little Haiti developers.
So other local leaders have not been kind to the Eastside Ridge project. Francesca Menes, a prominent activist with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, wrote online in December that "heartless developers are now coming into my community." She then promised to "organize" and "shut this [project] down." (Menes didn't respond to a phone call from New Times.)
Bastien, meanwhile, said her group is weighing the proposal's merits and drawbacks before taking an official stance on the idea. She stresses that her group is not "anti-development." But she also says many residents are upset they're hearing about the proposal only now despite the fact that SPV and Karp have been working on it for two years.
"Well, we were made aware of the plan only recently," Bastien says. "So we're placed in the position of reacting to a plan that has been in the works for over two years. Unfortunately, when projects like this are coming up, we usually only find out when people are ready to get final approval. By this time, it’s very hard for us to have our voices heard."
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She stresses, however, that Karp has been "very willing to communicate with us" and says he sat down with Bastien and her group to discuss the proposal last week.
As for the allegations that SPV discriminates against black tenants, Bastien says area residents are "gravely concerned."
"Design Place used to be 100 percent Haitians," she says. "Now? It would be interesting to know how many are still there."