The proposed Magic City Innovation District would instantly transform Little Haiti from an area of Caribbean immigrants and locally owned shops into a glitzy, landlocked version of Miami Beach. Though Little Haiti is already gentrifying at a rapid clip, locals worry the development would guarantee that the last stretch of affordable housing in the area would vanish.
Now, as the City of Miami Commission prepares for a key vote on the plan tomorrow, some of Little Haiti's most prominent activists are demanding that officials back off the proposal. In an open letter, neighborhood activist Marleine Bastien accuses the city of rushing the deal and failing to secure enough benefits for longtime residents who could be pushed out by the new high-rises. Bastien also says the project's developers have been callous and stubborn with residents.
"When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1981, an area like Sabal Palm for example in Little Haiti, was inhabited mainly by Haitian immigrants," writes Bastien, the head of Family Action Network Movement (FANM). "Through the process of gentrification and forced displacement, most of the Haitians lost their homes. Today, Little Haiti is believed to be the 'fastest gentrified area in the U.S.' Many home and business owners have been evicted from spaces that they’ve occupied for 30-40 years."
Representatives for the Magic City Innovation District in response tell New Times that they met with hundreds of community residents and leaders while planning the project. Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson for the development group, declined to comment on any alleged insults thrown by Neil Fairman, one of the project's lead investors. (Fairman has since sent the city his own open letter — he says Bastien misquoted him and misrepresented the community-outreach work he's done for the project.)
But recent reports suggest Bastien isn't exaggerating about her concerns. In 2017, the Miami Herald reported on the tragic story of Joseph Wilfrid Daleus, a Haitian artist who died at the age of 68, only months after rapidly rising rents forced him to close his art gallery on NE Second Avenue. Friends told the Herald that Daleus died of "heartbreak."
Numerous studies, meanwhile, have marked Little Haiti as one of the fastest-gentrifying areas in Florida, especially because the neighborhood sits on some of the highest ground in Miami and is last in line to flood as the seas rise.
The Magic City Innovation District would push the neighborhood's changes into overdrive, activists say. The development, headquartered at NE 60th Street and NE Second Avenue, would spread over 17 acres, include buildings as tall as 25 stories, and house 2,630 residential units, 432 hotel rooms, 2 million square feet of office space, and 340,000 square feet of retail space. One portion of the development, the music venue Magic City Studios, already opened in time for Art Basel 2016. (Another Little Haiti project, Eastside Ridge, is also winding its way through the city approval process.) The Miami Herald earlier this week also laid out many community members' concerns about the project.
Magic City's developers pitched the project as one that would reflect and preserve the "rich cultural heritage of the Little Haiti community." But activists say the project's developers haven't kept their promises. Of Magic City's residential units, 14 percent are slated to be priced as "workforce housing," and 7 percent will be listed as "affordable housing" for low-income tenants. Bastien and other activists say those affordable units won't offset the damage the development plan will likely cause throughout the rest of the area.
'We see the consequence of this in the extremely weak community benefits package offered by the developer, and conditions on the development by the Planning and Zoning department that don't quite go far enough because the city did not have the benefit of listening to the concerns of the public," she writes in her letter. Bastien adds that, instead of hosting large "community meetings" with residents, the Magic City developers have instead been holding smaller "open houses" that, she says, don't give the Little Haiti community the ability to properly raise concerns about the project.
She then writes that one of the project's developers, Neil Fairman, talked down to residents during a discussion with community leaders Monday and threatened to pull the plug on the project if activists continued asking for more changes to help immigrants and low-income residents.
“I do not have time for a community meeting and I will not change the Community Benefits Package," Fairman said, according to Bastien. "If the City of Miami Commission moves to defer on Thursday, [Canadian billionaire and Cirque du Soleil founder] Guy Laliberte will pack his bag and take his millions somewhere else. If you want a community meeting,
Fairman then walked out of the room, Bastien says.
A spokesperson for Fairman declined to comment on the alleged exchange. But Fairman issued a separate statement to New Times defending the group's community outreach efforts.
“Magic City has been working with the local community to ensure that the public, our neighbors neighborhoods, have an opportunity to participate in the development of this innovative project. The community outreach effort has been an extensive process of collaboration with local organizations as well as individual meetings aimed at gathering input, addressing concerns and creating a dialogue, which has taken place for over a year,” Fairman told New Times through a spokesperson. “Magic City hosted multiple open house community-wide meetings for residents to learn about the project, talk directly project team members and partners, submit feedback, and have questions answered. This personalized and accessible approach has enabled our neighbors and individual residents to have engaging conversation about the issues that they care about most.”
Activists also say they're unhappy with the treatment they've received from city officials.
"Repeated requests for a community meeting and on-going negotiations have been consistently denied by Magic City," she writes. "Efforts to meet with Chairman Keon Hardemon have also been unsuccessful."
Barring a last-minute change, the commission will vote Thursday to approve the project's "special-area plan," which allows developers to bypass local zoning codes and build large-scale projects outside of downtown.
Bastien argues that the "Special Area Plan [SAP] is not a right the developer has just because it owns more than 9 acres" and points out that the plan rules are meant to be collaborations between developers and residents, who are supposed to have a say in whether SAP packages get approved.
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But activists say that rarely happens. Meena Jagannath, a lawyer with Miami's Community Justice Project, is quoted in Bastien's letter calling the SAP a "negotiation of compromise and mutual benefit, not an imposition of the developer’s will over a community."
In her letter, Bastien begs the city commission to defer Thursday's vote until the Little Haiti community feels like it's been heard. "The City of Miami Planning Department failed to do its job in planning for the future of Little Haiti," she writes.
Here's her full letter:
Under the leadership of the late Father Gerard Jean-Juste and a coordinated campaign, our compatriots were released from several detention centers around the U.S. They settled in Little Haiti, an abandoned, depressed, and neglected area. Through hard work, sheer resilience and determination, the Haitian immigrants transformed Little Haiti into this inclusive and culturally diverse mecca. When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1981, an area like Sabal Palm for example in Little Haiti, was inhabited mainly by Haitian immigrants. Through the process of gentrification and forced displacement, most of the Haitians lost their homes. Today, Little Haiti is believed to be the “fastest gentrified area in the U.S.” Many home and business owners have been evicted from spaces that they’ve occupied for 30-40 years.
Three major developments have applied for Special Area Plan: Magic City is one of 3 major developments asking for SAP consideration from the City of Miami. The process to obtain an SAP (Special Area Plan) which will allow them to build up to 27 floors while the area is zoned T-5 is already going in front of the City of Miami Commission this Thursday, at 2 PM. As several local and national journalists reported, this is the fastest that they’ve ever seen, as SAPs usually take months, sometimes years. But it seems like developers in Little Haiti have strong support from the City of Miami and no concerns whatsoever for the residents of Little Haiti. To date, Magic City has refused to hold an open meeting with the community to collectively discuss concerns with the project. Instead, Magic City has chosen to do "Open Houses" where they give guided tours to small groups of people through the different parts of the project. This format does not allow the different stakeholders/leaders to listen to the concerns of others and understand how they may be resolved as a community. It not only makes for bad process, but it sows divisions in the community where individuals or groups look to their own interests instead of the interests of the broader community in a coordinated manner.
We see the consequence of this in the extremely weak community benefits package offered by the developer, and conditions on the development by the Planning and Zoning department that don't quite go far enough because the City did not have the benefit of listening to the concerns of the public. A major Magic City shareholder Neil Fairman disrespected community leaders yesterday, and walked out of a meeting organized by FANM to express our concerns stating: “I do not have time for a community meeting and I will not change the Community Benefit Package. If the City of Miami Commission moves to defer on Thursday, Guy Laliberte will pack his bag and take his millions somewhere else. If you want a community meeting, come give us your support on Thursday and we’ll discuss a meeting afterwards” and he walked out. Repeated requests for a community meeting and on-going negotiations have been consistently denied by Magic City. Efforts to meet with Chairman Keon Hardemon have also been unsuccessful. The Special Area Plan is not a Right the developer has just because it owns more than 9 acres.
The SAP is a permission the developer requests from the City and its neighbors in exchange for going far above and beyond its currently allowed zoning. In this bargain, it is the City and the neighbors acting through their elected officials, who may allow the developer to create the SAP. This is why the SAP is a negotiation of compromise and mutual benefit, not an imposition of the developer’s will over a community stated Meena Jagannath of Community Justice Project.
Added Elvis Cruz: Magic City is an enormous project that will forever change the character of the area. This mixed-use project would consist of: 7.8 million square feet of development. At least eight buildings of 12, 20 or 25 stories in height, 2670 apartments, 6000 parking spaces, and 340,000 square feet of retail. (By comparison, a Home Depot store is around 100,000 square feet. This would be 3.4 times that.). It is also illegal under Miami 21, a fact the City will likely ignore, or creatively interpret.
The City of Miami Planning Department failed to do its job in planning for the future of Little Haiti. It must develop a comprehensive masterplan for the area involving all sectors. SAPs should be assessed collectively to assess the impact residents, small businesses and the infrastructure.
Most importantly, the City Commission must defer its decision on Thursday to allow more community input.
Marleine Bastien, MSW, LCSW
Family Action Network Movement