The Biscayne Times

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Jun 25th
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Written by By Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer; Photos by Silvia Ros   
August 2014

Highland Village, the former Trailer City, could become the next development bonanza

KCoverStory_1_LEADaren Attardi grew up in North Dade. She graduated from North Miami Beach Senior High in 1976. Yet she’d never heard of Highland Village until she moved there in February of this year. Her sons heard of it, though. They knew it as the place where people go to go to buy drugs, guns, or other illegal items. “They were shocked I was moving there,” she says.

Attardi, who used to live in the California Club neighborhood, now rents a trailer for $600 a month that she shares with two pugs. Afflicted with chronic back pain and Lyme disease, she receives less than $800 a month in disability payments.

She describes some of her neighbors as thieves, drug addicts, and bums; and others as “good, hard-working people.” She enjoys her back yard -- the mangroves of Oleta River State Park and native waterfowl -- but is less appreciative of the raccoons that frolic on her roof. “This place,” she says, “is like its own little world.”

It’s a world filled with gossip and stories, which the BT heard from a variety of sources while touring Highland Village. There’s the landlord who smokes crack and lets his trailers go to rot; the mother who pimps out her daughter for drug money; the drug dealer who beats her boyfriend; the fortune teller killed in a drive-by shooting; the home delivery of drugs.

CoverStory_2Located east of Biscayne Boulevard, Highland Village is a hidden, 30-acre community of around 400 homes surrounding a small, 1.3-acre park. It’s wedged between Oleta River State Park, the condos and apartments of Arch Creek East along NE 135th Street, the three-block-long Keystone Plaza shopping center, a residential area of apartments and houses called Biscayne South, and Biscayne Landing -- a 184-acre former Superfund cleanup site owned by the City of North Miami that’s slated to be developed with condominiums, retail, and a hotel. Highland Village is almost completely surrounded by the City of North Miami, but it’s really part of the bizarrely shaped municipality of North Miami Beach.

Formerly known as Trailer City, Highland Village is sometimes referred to as a mobile home community. The neighborhood does include many mobile homes of various sizes. However, there are almost as many houses in Highland Village as there are trailers. Some of those houses even look like trailers. “Everybody calls us a trailer park,” says Pamela Campbell, who has lived in Highland Village with her husband, Alfred, for decades. “Mine is a brick home.”

It’s a place even South Floridians hardly know, although Highland Village was thrust into the news media six months ago, when a skateboarding 19-year-old resident was killed there by a speeding car. Witnesses told the Miami Herald back in March that the car continued another 100 feet with the young woman on the hood before it stopped. The driver was not charged.

According to the U.S. Census, 760 people live in Highland Village, a figure many locals suspect is an undercount. Nearly 60 percent of its residents are Hispanic, about 30 percent are Anglo, and some 9 percent are black. While most North Dade neighborhoods east of Biscayne Boulevard range from middle class to posh upper class (particularly in Aventura), many of Highland Village’s inhabitants are poor.

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The median annual household income of Highland Village is $29,325, according to the latest census data, and its poverty rate is 25.4 percent. In contrast, the median annual household income for all of North Miami Beach (including Highland Village) is $40,000, and the citywide poverty rate is 21 percent.

Highland Village has its share of crime. Nineteen criminal incidents, mainly related to battery, burglary, and theft, were recorded by the North Miami Beach Police Department this past March. That’s far fewer than the crimes reported in NMB’s Central and Uleta neighborhoods, and only three criminal incidents more than what was reported in affluent Eastern Shores.

Some residents tell the BT that many crimes in Highland Village go unreported. “No one wants to say anything because they don’t want retaliation,” explains Pamela Campbell. Snitch on your neighbors and “then the guns come out,” she adds.

At the same time, violent crime against strangers is uncommon, locals insist. “It’s like going to school when you were a kid,” says her husband, Alfred.  “They [criminals and bullies] know who to bother, and they know who not to bother.”

While touring Highland Village, the BT spotted plenty of disheveled homes and overgrown yards. There is also a contingent of disheveled people who are fond of drinking near Highland Village Park. At the same time, there are also plenty of well-kept houses and trailers, and families with children.

Those who have adapted to Highland Village’s unique beat say they prefer the neighborhood’s relative seclusion to the stressful bustle of city life outside of it. “I just like the place,” says James Babcock, a Publix employee who bought the trailer he lives in with his wife, Maritza, in 1999 for $20,000. “Some of the people are not the friendliest,” he adds, “but the area is nice.”


HCoverStory_4ighland Village may soon change. In an effort to increase North Miami Beach’s tax base, city officials are in the process of creating “overlay districts” within to attract development. Broward-based Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) was already looking at increasing the density and building height of eight “zones” east of NE 15th Avenue when, during an April 14 workshop, NMB Mayor George Vallejo asked the consultants to analyze the zoning of Highland Village and the Intracoastal Mall, now owned by Sunny Isles Beach developers Michael and Gil Dezer. (For more on the Dezers and the Intracoastal Mall, see “The Hunt for Waterfront,” May 2014.)

In a draft report prepared on June 12, RMA consultants recommended that Highland Village be rezoned to allow buildings up to 110 feet, or ten stories, in height. The tallest structures currently allowed in Highland Village are 23 feet tall. (The draft report also recommends that the Intracoastal Mall be rezoned to allow 40-story towers where only 15-story structures are now permitted, plus significant density increases for the other eight zones.)

“We’re looking at multifamily and also maybe some single-family zoning [for Highland Village],” says Rachel Bach, an employee of RMA and a consultant for the North Miami Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. A second draft of the report will be presented to the public later this month. After a series of public workshop meetings, a revised draft will be presented to the Planning and Zoning Board in September, and then to the city council in October, Bach says.

CoverStory_5The land-use analysis comes at a time when foreign investors, attracted by the popularity of built-out Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach, are searching for new development frontiers east of Biscayne Boulevard, says Adam Tiktin, vice president of investment for Marcus & Millichap’s Miami office. “There’s a lot of money out there chasing deals,” he notes, “but there are not a lot of deals, and that’s driving prices up.”

Within the past couple of months, at least two developers have proposed plans to build high-end residential projects east of Biscayne Boulevard within NMB itself. In late June, Key International and 13th Floor Investments filed plans to build two 25-story towers along the Oleta River just northeast of the intersection of 163rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Dutch Docklands, meanwhile, is proposing 30 floating artificial luxury islands at Maule Lake. (For more on the Dutch Docklands project, see “In the Market for an Ultra Luxurious Floating Island?” June 2014.)

One pending real estate project is right next door to Highland Village. Two years ago, the City of North Miami negotiated a 99-year lease for Biscayne Landing with Oleta River Partners, a venture led by New York’s LeFrak Organization. NMB Mayor George Vallejo even cited recent “activity” at Biscayne Landing as the reason for examining the “highest and best use” for Highland Village during the April workshop.

CoverStory_6Just last month, Oleta River Partners expressed an interest in outright buying 50 of Biscayne Landing’s 184 acres. Many of those 50 acres happen to abut Highland Village, says Kevin Burns, a real estate agent and former North Miami mayor.

A major proponent of changing Highland Village’s land use actually comes from within the neighborhood. Real estate investor Gaston Siroit admits he’s asked NMB officials to look into rezoning Highland Village. Since 2000, Siroit, who lives in Sunny Isles Beach, has been buying up trailers; he now owns one-third of the neighborhood, making him the community’s largest property owner.

Siroit would like to see zoning that would enable a property owner to combine some of the lots and build townhouses three or four stories in height. “That would be helpful for this neighborhood,” he says.

At the same time, Siroit doubts that any investor will be able to assemble enough land to build 110-foot-tall buildings. That’s because in Highland Village, whoever owns the trailer also owns the land on which it sits.

The trailers Siroit controls are scattered among properties owned by some 250 other property owners. Highland Village lots typically range from 1200 to 4000 square feet, far too small to build a large condominium. “To consolidate this and develop it is probably going to be impossible,” Siroit acknowledges. “You’re never going to get 250 people to agree on anything.”


TCoverStory_7he area that is now Highland Village may have once been part of the 1900-acre Graves Tract. From 1918 until the 1930s, H.B. Graves, Sunny Isles Beach’s first developer, owned much of the land east of U.S. 1 from 135th to 172nd streets, according to local historian Seth Bramson.

Greynolds Park East, Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus, and Oleta River State Park would all sprout from the Graves Tract. Interama, a permanent world’s fair, was also going to be built on the Graves Tract, until the project ran out of money in 1969.

North Miami bought nearly 190 acres of the old tract and tried to build a golf course there, using unregulated garbage as fill. When the EPA took that land off its superfund cleanup list, the first incarnation of Biscayne Landing was launched in 2002 and crashed in 2009, when Boca Developers declared bankruptcy. The city is now trying a second version of Biscayne Landing with Oleta River Partners. (For more on the history of Biscayne Landing and the City of North Miami, see “A City of Two Tales,” October 2011.)

The future site of Highland Village escaped much of the drama surrounding Interama and Biscayne Landing. The 30-acre area has been part of the City of North Miami Beach since at least 1931, says Alan Sokol, president of the Greater North Miami Historical Association. There’s evidence that portions of present-day Biscayne Landing were once part of NMB as well. “The boundaries [between North Miami and North Miami Beach] have always been sort of byzantine,” Sokol observes.

CoverStory_8In the late 1940s, Florida Trailer Parks, Inc. decided that the 30-acre NMB enclave would be the site for their unique concept. Nearly all U.S. trailer parks were (and still are) owned by a single landowner, who, in turn, leases spots to mobile home owners. Florida Trailer Parks wanted to create a mobile-home community in which the lots would be sold “directly to the trailerites,” according to a May 1947 Miami News article.

The lot purchases would be financed through low-interest loans provided by the Federal Housing Administration. “We have received inquiries from trailerites all over the United States,” sales manager James Walters told the News. The name of this unique mobile-home community: Trailer City.

But there weren’t just mobile homes being moved to Trailer City. During its earliest years, small houses were built on lots as well.

In the 1950s, Pamela Campbell’s grandmother bought a house in Trailer City. “When my mom and dad married, my grandmother gave them the house as a wedding present,” she says.

Pamela was eight years old when she moved from Virginia to Trailer City in the 1960s. Then, as now, the neighborhood flooded during torrential rains and high tides. “When I was a kid, blowfish ended up in the streets here,” she says. “The kids would poke at them.”

Trailer City is barely above sea level. But that geographic fact didn’t stop the neighborhood association representing Trailer City from renaming the community Highland Village in the 1970s.

Canadians were also buying up trailers and homes to spend their winters in South Florida. Rolland Veilleux, a French-Canadian contractor, moved to Highland Village 25 years ago and acquired as many as 30 properties over the years. He says he’s down to about 16 now. “I used to be the president of the neighborhood’s Canadian association for 18 years,” Veilleux says. “Every year we’d have a Christmas parade.” Among those invited were the mayors of North Miami and North Miami Beach.

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Veilleux remembers that city officials provided a hint of things to come during one parade. “They brought brand-new payloaders [construction tractors] to the parade,” he says. “We knew what they meant.”

The possibility that a developer would wipe out Highland Village’s trailers and small homes and replace them with condos was the main reason Alfred Campbell moved here from Canada 27 years ago and purchased a trailer. “I bought with the intention of making money,” he says.

Instead, he found Pamela. “We met at this park, just playing volleyball,” Alfred says.

“We ended up together for 22 years,” Pamela continues, while pointing toward their daughter, 21-year-old Conchetta. “This is the product of our marriage.”

The payloaders never came for Highland Village, but over the past decade, the Canadians began to depart. “We used to have a couple of hundred Canadians,” Veilleux says. “Now there are about 60 or 70 left.”

Alfred Campbell says many of the Canadians moved elsewhere in Florida. “A lot of them sold their trailers to Gaston,” he says. Gaston Siroit now rents those trailers for between $500 and $800 a month, utilities not included.

Publix employee James Babcock, a 15-year-resident, laments the departure of the Canadians. “When there were more Canadians here, it looked a lot nicer,” he says. “The last few years it’s been kind of going downhill. More people are renting now. There’s somewhat of a more criminal element.”

CoverStory_10_BabcockBabcock blames many of Gaston Siroit’s tenants for Highland Village’s slide. But Siroit insists that many of the trailers he bought were falling apart and had thousands of dollars of liens slapped on them by the city. The trailers with the bad tenants and horrible appearance are owned by other landlords. “The city really benefits from me being here,” he maintains, “because I’m the one who picks up the bad places and pays the city what it’s owed.”

Siroit bought many of his properties cheap, Alfred Campbell says, and during a time when most of the old-timers wanted out. “It’s a business,” Campbell shrugs. “I don’t blame the guy.”

It’s a business that Siroit says has taken a toll on his finances and his time. He’s learned to screen his tenants carefully to avoid renting to criminals, drug addicts, or people with bad credit. He complains that he didn’t have to put this much effort into screening tenants at the rental buildings he once owned near the old Miami Arena in Overtown.

“Out of ten people who apply [to rent one of his trailers], sometimes there’s not even one,” Siroit explains. “People that come here, it’s the last resort for them. This kind of neighborhood brings the bad people, the people who are at their last resorts. And to screen them, you have to do a very, very fine job.”


NCoverStory_11ot that his current tenants are bad people, Siroit stresses. They’re just difficult to find and hard to keep. Siroit says most of his current tenants are hard-working people, some of whom happen to be recent arrivals from Latin America. Unfortunately, Siroit says, he’s had to evict a couple of tenants each month, mainly for nonpayment of rent. The reason: high sewer bills.

Outside of Highland Village, North Miami Beach residents whose dwellings are hooked up to a city sewer system pay a rate of $1.85 for every 1000 gallons consumed, he explains. North Miami residents pay a rate of $1.77 per 1000 gallons of water consumed. Homes hooked up to Miami-Dade County’s sewer system are charged $3.25 per 1000 gallons.

Highland Villagers? They’re charged $5.95 for every 1000 gallons used for showering, drinking, laundry, or even watering plants, in addition to the $2.94 per 1000 gallon water rate charged to all NMB residents.

That’s a total water and sewer rate of $8.89 for every 1000 gallons received and consumed. Every three months, that works out to a bill of about $250, Siroit says. New tenants can’t even turn on the water without paying a $250 deposit. In some cases, residents opt to go without water. Some Highland Villagers will find ways to syphon water and even electricity from their neighbors. “Water is like diamonds here,” he says.

CoverStory_12The high bills are part of an assessment to pay for an $8 million project dating from 2007 that removed a system of leaky septic tanks blamed for the high levels of bacteria detected in Oleta River State Park, and the installation of a new sewer system.

In an e-mail to the BT, assistant city manager Ralph Rosado says the city also spent $2.8 million trying to improve Highland Village’s storm-water drainage system. The Campbells say those improvements did little to prevent recent floods that damaged their living room.

Rosado says the city is looking at additional measures, but he notes that some parts of Highland Village are less than five feet above sea level, while the water table is just two and a half feet below ground. “The sub-grade is basically saturated and therefore cannot provide sufficient underground storm-water storage,” Rosado explains. “Furthermore, the neighborhood being adjacent to Biscayne Bay is also subject to tidal influence, which, if a storm event coincides with high tide, the seawater was observed to back-flow into the system through the outfalls.”

CoverStory_13Rosado insists that the “main purpose” of the sewer system was to comply “with the environmental requirement to eliminate pollutant discharges from the septic tanks.” But Siroit and other Highland Village dwellers think the sewer system has another purpose: to enable developers to build condos in Highland Village.

Highland Village homeowner James Babcock believes the rezoning exercise is proof that NMB officials are looking to redevelop Highland Village. “When the city says, ‘Let’s take a look at [land-use] options, that’s an open-ended statement,” he says. “That means everything is on the table.”

Babcock, however, intends to stay put unless a developer were to offer an obscene amount of money for him to go away, like one million dollars.

Veilleux can see why Highland Village might be appealing to developers. “It’s one of the best spots in North Miami Beach,” he says. “It’s close to restaurants, it’s close to the beach, it’s close to everything, but they have to be willing to pay for it. Everything has got a price.”

At the same time, Veilleux doubts the city’s new zoning will entice developers to make a play for Highland Village any time soon. “They’ve been planning to put high-rises here for about 200 years.”

Pamela Campbell isn’t looking forward to the day Highland Village gets redeveloped. “I know they’re going to try to push us out,” she says. “I really don’t want them to push us out -- but let’s face it, we all know it’s going to happen one day.”

 

 

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