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Little Haiti’s Big No PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
October 2017

Locals blast plan for mini-city complex in their midst

DEastsideRidge_1uring a community meeting held in late August at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex, a formidable crowd of around 200 people demanded that City of Miami planners kill a scheme to build high-rises up to 28-stories tall in Little Haiti.

The latest plans for the proposed Eastside Ridge project, submitted this past April, call for the construction of a miniature city near NE 54th Street and NE 2nd Avenue consisting of 2623 residential units and 381,207 square feet of retail and office space in buildings ranging between 5 and 28 stories tall. Under the city’s zoning ordinance, a five-story building can be 81 feet tall, and a 28-story building can be 403 feet tall.

If built, Eastside Ridge will resemble Midtown Miami. It will also replace Design Place, a 22-acre complex consisting of 400 apartment units housed in 100 two-story buildings.

Design Place’s zoning already permits the construction of 380,901 square feet of commercial space, yet it only allows 1691 residential units. Height for new buildings is capped at five stories.

However, Sharon Olsen, the registered owner of Design Place, and her sister-in-law, Shirley Reinfeld, have applied for a special area plan, or SAP, that will allow them to rewrite the zoning code for the 22 acres their family controls.

In exchange, Olsen and Reinfeld are offering “public benefits,” like 6.8 acres of parklike “open space,” 209,000 square feet of “civic space,” new retail on NE 2nd Avenue and 54th Street, and the elimination of Design Place’s walls and fences that currently keep non-residents out.

EastsideRidge_2A train station has also been depicted along the east side of the project in Eastside Ridge’s materials, even though the creation of the Coastal Link passenger rail system upon the FEC’s train tracks is far from certain.

The Eastside Ridge application still has to be analyzed by the City of Miami’s Planning and Zoning Department staff, judged by the Planning Zoning and Appeals board, and ultimately ruled on by the Miami City Commission. The project has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

An employee at Design Place’s management office tells the BT that the Eastside Ridge project has been “postponed” but didn’t elaborate. Justin Podolsky, Olsen’s son who was previously spearheading the project, didn’t return a phone call from the BT by deadline.

Boukman Mangones, a Haitian-American architect critical of the size of Eastside Ridge and its potential effect on the area, says the Planning and Zoning Department will likely hold another community meeting before scheduling an official hearing.

“We suspect that they [city planners] are going to want to get more community feedback,” Mangones says.

So far, that feedback has been a resounding no. Residents were appalled at the size of Eastside Ridge when it was unveiled this past March. And even a somewhat scaled-back version of the project was panned during a more recent community meeting on August 30 that was attended by community activists, business owners, and residents of Little Haiti, Buena Vista, and the Upper Eastside.

Many of those attending the August 30 meeting felt that Eastside Ridge’s proposed high-rises are out of scale in an area dominated by low-rise apartments, small retail buildings, and single-family homes.

EastsideRidge_3

When David Snow, the city’s acting chief of urban design, showed renderings of Eastside Ridge, audience members, many of them wearing blue “Save Little Haiti” T-shirts, shouted, “It blocks the sun!”

There were traffic concerns, too. Several area residents insisted that traffic is already horrible in the area. “With the retail in this project, the traffic is going to be murder,” said one resident.

Haitian activists and affordable-housing advocates present at the meeting said they feared that if Eastside Ridge were built, the gentrification already taking place in Little Haiti would speed up, leading to the displacement of the area’s Haitian-owned businesses.

“Eastside Ridge is a micro-example of the gentrification that’s occurring in Little Haiti,” explains Mangones, who is affiliated with the Little Haiti Advisory Group, a coalition of activists dedicated to stopping the area’s gentrification. “Our fear is that if this development goes unchecked as a SAP, it’ll open the floodgates for large development that will be detrimental to the existing residents and businesses.”

Last year Podolsky told the BT that the new apartments would be market-rate affordable, much like Design Place, where a two-bedroom now rents for around $1650 a month. “It’s going to be fairly priced for the people who work in the community, like sanitation workers, police, firefighters, office workers,” he said at the time. (See “The Upper Eastside Transformed,” September 2016).

That’s small comfort for Little Haiti activists who point out that many area residents have menial jobs that pay below $30,000 a year. “Even if you did give it affordable rents, what’s to prevent them from raising the rents later?” asks Mangones.

EastsideRidge_4

Eastside Ridge critics aren’t thrilled with the reputation of the landowners, either. Olsen is married to Jay Podolsky, and Reinfeld is married to Jay’s brother, Stuart “Stewie” Podolsky. Both brothers and their father pleaded guilty to 37 felonies in 1984 related to the terrorizing of rent-controlled tenants in New York City. More recently, the Podolsky family has been converting old New York apartment buildings into boutique hotels.

Yet it’s the Podolsky family’s side business of using crumbling buildings as for-profit shelters that garnered attention from New York Magazine and other media outlets (see “Thinking Big Triggers Big-Time Fears,” April 2017).

Several people at the meeting questioned why no one representing the Eastside Ridge project was in attendance. They were also displeased that commission chairman Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Little Haiti, was likewise absent from the meeting, even though his office had helped organize it. (Hardemon’s staff was present, as was his uncle, state Rep. Roy Hardemon.)

At times audience members questioned whether David Snow and Jeremy Calleros Gauger, deputy director of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, were being the developers’ de facto representatives. That’s because Snow and Gauger often tried to solicit suggestions for “public benefits” that the developer can offer in exchange for higher zoning.

“That’s where the community here today can really outline what those appropriate contributions should be for this neighborhood,” Snow told the audience at one point.

“Don’t build it! Don’t build it!” audience members shouted in response.

Jordan Levin, a freelance writer who resides in Buena Vista, said she doubted the city planners’ neutrality. “You give us the very strong impression that you’re trying to sell this to us as a good thing, presenting this and telling us about all the benefits that we can get by allowing this thing that looks like a goddamn space station!” Levin protested. “It looks like a mega mall from Mars. It’s enormous!”

Snow, though, assured the audience that they were only sharing information and collecting community input. “We’ll continue to work with the community,” he said.

Still, Snow cautioned that even if city planners recommend against the project, it will need to go through the process. “The City Commission gets the final say,” he said.

 

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