Little Haiti fears gentrification is unavoidable

The Magic City development, set to be built in the heart of Little Haiti, continues to concern activists who say developers are overlooking how the high-end project will affect lower-income residents of the Miami neighborhood. 

One of the final key votes that would officially move the project forward by city commissioners was scheduled for Sept. 27. But when commissioners decided to defer the vote to a later date, activists were relieved and cited their community organizing as the reason behind the decision.

“It is very important that you guys understand as a community that this is what happens, this is the impact that we had today. It got deferred,” said Wilkinson Sejour, owner of restaurant Chef Creole in Little Haiti, outside of Miami City Hall.

The vote would have rezoned the area from light industrial to restricted commercial, according to the planning and zoning agenda presented by city commissioners. This would allow the area to bring in bigger businesses and more noise pollution and would allow greater integration of public improvement and infrastructure.

In a statement directed to the Magic City project developers, commissioners said they had a heavy agenda in the month of September, “including approval of their annual budget. As such, the City requested to defer the SAP proposal until their next meeting in November.”

The vote is now scheduled for Nov. 15.

“We will continue to organize our forces because we believe that when mega developments come to our communities, they need to work…with the members of the community,” said Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a Haitian community organization. “We’ve been asking them to have community meetings for seven months now, they’ve refused. Only last night I think they saw the writing on the wall.”

Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson who works with the development group, said the Miami-based developers’ mission is to help Little Haiti thrive. Since the beginning, according to Alvarez, the group has reached out to community leaders, organizations, small business owners and property owners.

“Our partners have been a part of the community for a very long time and they are wholly involved,” said Alvarez. “Little Haiti is very vibrant. There is room for growth, and the developers have been very thoughtful in their outreach.”

One of the ways the development group has considered the concerns of the community, according to Alvarez and a statement sent by the developers, is by hosting multiple open-houses at the Magic City warehouse where community members can speak one-on-one with those involved in the project.

Even with the activism led by Bastien and other residents of Little Haiti to halt the development, many business owners and employees around the area already see significant change.

Frank Rodriguez arrived in Little Haiti from Puerto Rico in 1971 to work at the Rockmoor Cleaning & Laundry. The shop, located on Northeast 2nd Avenue was then owned by his brother.  

“I’ve been in this area for over 40 years and until now I see the neighborhood beginning to change,” he said. “It went from mostly black and some Latinos, to now more whites. They’re raising rents, and people are having to go.”

Rodriguez’s brother sold the dry cleaner to Peter Ehrlich, a real-estate investor. He said he has continued to manage the shop since that point and does not know if there are plans to sell it in the future. 

Some business owners in the area see a brighter side to the changes. Claude Postel, the owner of restaurant Sixty 10, also on Northeast 2nd Avenue, has owned the property since 2011 but decided to build the restaurant only five months ago.

“Seven years ago it was good to buy it, and now it’s good to do something with it,” said Postel. “So I’m very happy to see everything is moving this way and not south.”

Postel first visited the area 20 years ago when he arrived from Canada. He also said he personally knows some of the developers behind the project, such as Guy Laliberte, who is the founder of Cirque du Soleil.

“For some who have little or don’t have too much money, for them it’s rough because the prices, everything goes up and they can’t afford to stay here,” said Postel. “But this is not about the Haitian community because that’s the way a city grows, unfortunately.”

Activists believe residents will not be able to afford rising rents due to the price value of property going up, and continue to demand that developers have some sort of affordable housing plan available for those who have resided in the area for years.

“All of us want movie theaters, all of us want bars, all of us want places to be able to lay and play,” said Phillip Agnew, co-director of The Dream Defenders and a resident of Little Haiti. “But we are against developers. We are against displacement that says that when nice things come, the people who have risen, who have been in this community, do not deserve to have them.”

Junior Pierre is an employee at Sonny Sounds, next to the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, a music shop and a money transfer store where locals from Haiti send money back to their hometown to family members. He said he believes he is a victim of gentrification in the area.

“I used to go to a church on 71st, and we were planning to buy it, but those investors came and they offered almost three times the amount of the money, and so we had to leave to a church on 77th,” said Pierre. “It is what it is, they got the money and they make the investment. So, money is power.”

Others involved in the project include Neil Fairman, chairman of Plaza Equity Partners, Tony Cho, founder and CEO of Metro 1, and Bob Zangrillo, founder and CEO of  Dragon Global. 

The Magic City Innovation District runs east of Northeast Second Avenue to Northeast Fourth Court and south of Northeast 63rd Street to Northeast 60th Street. The proposed development will include over 2,000 residential units, approximately 400 hotel rooms, 6,000 garage parking spaces, and over 2 million square feet of office and retail space. 

Pierre believes that the project is not a bad thing for the community, but said developers must offer something helpful to the community. He said not all residents will qualify for jobs that the art spaces and tech companies expected to come into the area.

“If they can find a middle ground, or if they can at least give them something, I think it will be a good thing for them,” said Pierre. “Other than that, there is nothing we can do, just watch the thing happen and then look at the situation.”