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Massive ‘Innovation District’ could change Little Haiti forever. But what would that mean?

Miamiherald.com By Rene Rodriguez

Days before the Miami City Commission votes on a billion-dollar real estate project in Little Haiti, the debate around how the development will impact the neighborhood continues to intensify.

Proponents of the Magic City Innovation District, which will be headquartered at 6001 NE Second Ave., say that the massive development, which is projected to take 10 to 15 years to complete, will propel the Little Haiti area into an international draw for tourists, creatives and tech companies. City commissioners will vote on a first round of approvals of the project on Sept. 27. If it passes, the project must win a second approval at a later date.

Critics argue that the mixed-use development — a sprawl of residential, commercial, office, research and entertainment spaces spread out over 17 acres — will raise rents and property values, further squeezing Little Haiti’s poor and working classes, while adding high-tech jobs that require skills locals simply don’t have.

“The writing’s on the wall,” said Chef Wilkinson “Ken” Sejour, owner and founder of Chef Creole Seafood restaurants and catering. “When this whole thing goes into full swing, the Little Haiti community will not be able to partake in this conglomerate of an endeavor. Ten years from now, the Little Haiti we know today is not going to be Little Haiti any more. You’re going to put a billion dollars into a small area and and keep the name Little Haiti? I don’t think so.”

Two years ago, the City of Miami designated Little Haiti as an official neighborhood, following a contentious commission hearing and years of lobbying. Proponents argued that the designation was necessary to maintain the community’s cultural identity as the first stop for many newly arrived Haitian immigrants. But since then, many owners of small businesses that serve the community have complained of being pushed out by real estate developers and speculators buying up land and raising rents.

The Magic City Innovation District is the latest — and arguably most transformative — major real estate development proposed within Miami’s urban corridor east of I-95. It will incorporate everything from residential to commercial spaces, parks to offices, a train station and even a tourist attraction conceived by the founder of Cirque du Soleil. The project follows several large-scale developments in Brickell, Wynwood and the Design District that have hastened Miami’s transformation into a global hub while worsening its affordability crisis and income gap.

But the developers behind the Magic City Innovation District insist they want to honor and propel one of Miami-Dade’s most impoverished neighborhoods, not replace it.

“The entire Magic City Innovation District only takes up one and a half percent of all of Little Haiti,” said Neil Fairman, chairman of Plaza Equity Partners, one of the three Miami-based firms behind the project. “It doesn’t take up 10 or 20 percent. But it can actually activate a large portion of the neighborhood around it and allow people to have jobs here. It can be the engine that pulls the Little Haiti train. The social fabric of the community is already strong. The idea is not to rip the culture away from this area. The idea is to enhance the culture.”

The Magic City Innovation District stretches between Northeast Second Avenue east to Northeast Fourth Court/Florida East Coast Railway and Northeast 63rd Street south to Northeast 60th Street. The development spreads out over a total of seven city blocks and, when completed, will consist of:

▪ 2,630 residential units, with 14 percent designated as workforce housing and 7 percent as affordable housing, with the tallest building rising 25 stories;

▪ 432 hotel rooms;

▪ Two million square feet of office space and more than 340,000 square feet of retail;

▪ 5,690 garage parking spaces;

▪ Nearly four acres of open space, including a pop-up theme park, featuring multimedia and interactive installations, designed by Lune Rouge, the Montreal-based company owned by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, who joined the Magic City project in April 2017.

“We intend to contribute to the economic vitality of the area and enhance the community while preserving and celebrating the rich culture of Little Haiti,” Laliberté said in an email to the Miami Herald. “The idea is to collaborate and share a common sense of the project. Magic City Innovation District is a unifying project that has launched several initiatives to be inclusive and accessible to everyone.”

The other partners in the project are Tony Cho, founder and CEO of Metro 1, and Bob Zangrillo, founder and CEO of Dragon Global.

The Magic City Innovation District will be built across 33 parcels of abutting land that are either vacant or occupied by decaying warehouses. No residents or existing businesses will be displaced by the project, the partners said. The “Magic City” name comes from the historic trailer park at Northeast 60th Street and Second Avenue that opened in 1929 as a tourist court and closed for good in 2015. Many of the live oaks and other native trees growing on the former trailer-park land will be preserved and relocated within the development.

The developers want to preserve other historical aspects of the community as well. The DuPuis Medical Office and Drug Store at 6041 NE Second Ave. — a historical landmark built by Lemon City pioneer Dr. John G. DuPuis in 1903 — will be incorporated into the western side of the project. Plans for the Magic City project include the future construction of a passenger/commuter rail station on the site of the former Florida East Coast Railway train stop on Northeast 62nd Street.