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An artist's rendering of the planned Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti.
An artist's rendering of the planned Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti.
Dragon Global

Developers Win Initial Approval for Magic City Project in Little Haiti

During a marathon meeting yesterday that lasted into this morning, City of Miami commissioners gave initial approval for a $1 billion development that would quickly transform Little Haiti from a community of Caribbean immigrants and affordable housing to a collection of glitzy high-rise condos, luxury hotels, and retail space. Commissioners also greenlighted a $31 million aid package from the developers that's supposed to benefit residents of the impoverished neighborhood.

The vote to approve a "Special Area Plan," which allows extra flexibility for properties larger than nine acres, was 4-0, with Commissioner Joe Carollo absent, according to the Miami Herald. It came after three previous discussions of the Magic City Innovation District stalled amid concerns about the impact on the neighborhood and the value of the aid package.

The 45,000-square-foot development would span nearly 18 acres between NE 60th and 64th Streets and include towers as tall as 25 stories, as well as a pop-up theme park designed by a Cirque du Soleil founder. Critics fear the massive project would exacerbate gentrification in Little Haiti — currently home to one- and two-story buildings — and displace longtime residents.

In the weeks before the vote, the developers quietly worked out the $31 million aid package with Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Little Haiti. The Herald painstakingly outlined concerns about the deal in a story Thursday morning: namely, the agreement waives any obligation for the developers to build affordable housing in the already-gentrifying neighborhood. An earlier version of the agreement would have required the developers to build or finance affordable and workforce housing.

To address those concerns, commissioners and city planners at yesterday's meeting pushed the developers to improve the aid package. They called for the payments to be accelerated rather than spread out over 15 years of construction and to be adjusted for inflation. Commissioner Hardemon also asked the developers to host community meetings and consider establishing a Robert Zangrillo college fund for local residents — a reference to the Magic City partner indicted for allegedly bribing his daughter's way into USC.

Neil Fairman, the managing partner for the development group, said his board had already agreed to all it could reasonably provide, and the group needs to be able to earn money to make payments to the city. He ultimately said he was open to further discussions.

"I'm willing to try and make a deal," he said, according to the Herald. "But the expectations have to be realistic. I will go back to my board and do my best. I want to do this project. It's going to be great for Little Haiti."

Although some community leaders have endorsed the Magic City project, opposition remains strong, with protesters picketing outside city hall Thursday. Marleine Bastien, director of the Haitian women's advocacy group Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami (FANM), criticized the plan for including luxury accommodations while ignoring the need for affordable housing in Little Haiti. Though the developers originally had been meeting with FANM and other local groups, they ceased communications in the weeks leading up to the vote, Bastien says.

"For the past few weeks, Magic City, when requested to meet with the community to discuss the impact of this mega-development in Little Haiti, decided and claimed that from now on, they will be negotiating only with Commissioner Keon Hardemon," Bastien told the group outside city hall.

Many Little Haiti residents argued against the project during the public comment portion of the meeting. One man told commissioners that if the development were approved, opponents would protest by occupying the site and blocking construction vehicles. Another woman urged commissioners to ask the developers for additional community benefits.

"The residents of the area will continue to be at a disadvantage if we do not increase these benefits," said Jessica Saint-Fleur, an organizer with Engage Miami.

Local blogger Al Crespo griped that the impact fees likely wouldn't trickle down to the community.

"At the end of the day today, folks, you're gonna get screwed," he said. "They're gonna pass this, so I'm gonna tell you the best thing — the only thing — that you do, since you've been getting screwed year after year, issue after issue: When you vote next time, vote everybody out of office."

Friday's vote does not mean the development is completely in the clear. The approval requires ratification through a second commission vote, currently set for June 27.

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