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Miami Herald - Nov 17, 2017

There's a bit of Wynwood developers haven't touched. Will they gentrify that, too?


Even as Wynwood's old warehouse district famously went through a frenzied, hip rejuvenation over the past several years, the hardscrabble working-class residential slice of the neighborhood to the north went virtually unnoticed and untouched.

Now that may be about to change. A Texas developer has quietly bought up an entire block of homes, small apartment houses, and shops in the lesser-known half of Wynwood that lies north of 29th Street, with plans to raze everything on it. In its place the company plans to build some 200 new dwellings and fresh commercial spaces.

It would be the first new development in decades in the deteriorated neighborhood, historically nicknamed Little San Juan because of its one-time majority Puerto Rican population.

But though many have welcomed Westdale Real Estate Investment Management's plan as a harbinger of long-overdue revitalization, to others it's the first incursion of unwanted gentrification into the neighborhood. And that, they worry, will bring rising rents and the displacement of dozens of poor residents.

Westdale's proposal comes amid a housing crunch that's turned Miami into one of the country's most unaffordable cities for renters. Gentrification has become a much-debated topic as redevelopment reaches into low-income neighborhoods like Little Haiti and East Little Havana. Those areas are among the city's last remaining residential enclaves that are both affordable and centrally located.

But the dilemma in Wynwood's Little San Juan, as in those other urban-core neighborhoods, is that the existing housing stock is also old and generally run-down, if not downright dilapidated.

In Wynwood, the critics of gentrification have an unusual ally: The city of Miami, usually seen as friendly to developers, is pushing back against a set of land-use and zoning changes Westdale has requested. City planners are opposing the application, citing the potential loss of some 50 homes and apartments that, though run-down in many cases, afford shelter to people with some of the lowest incomes in the city.

This week, the city's planning and zoning board embraced the planners' objections, voting 5-3 to recommend the city commission reject Westdale's application.

However, the vote came with reservations. Some board members said they recognize that Wynwood's Little San Juan badly needs regeneration, and that Westdale's concept plan, which calls for modestly scaled, non-luxury rental apartments and townhomes, amounts to what one member, Andy Parrish, called "a fairly reasonable amount of development."

Parrish said change and displacement is likely coming to the neighborhood sandwiched between the surging Wynwood arts district to the south and the expanding Midtown Miami area to the east — no matter what. (Interstate 95 defines the neighborhood's western edge). But he voted "no," saying the extensive scope of Westdale's blueprint would only speed up the pace.

"For many years this neighborhood has been stagnant. These homes have been allowed to go to rack and ruin. But we know this area is going to change," said Parrish, an affordable-housing developer in historically black west Coconut Grove. "The question is, do we want to accelerate the change now? That will accelerate the dislocation as these areas continue to be razed and redeveloped."

An attorney for Westdale, Steven Wernick, argued that his client's plan would not lead to a "domino effect" because most of the rest of the neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes. He said the proposal would replace a hodge-podge of aging, poorly maintained properties on the block with a range of quality housing options, including a minimum of 10 "workforce housing" residences. The scale, height and architectural style of the contemplated redevelopment would be harmonious with its surroundings, Wernick said.

"This is good urban design," he said. "It's tailored to its location."

He also noted that the developer held several meetings with residents and collected 18 letters of support, including one from the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and another from Rev. Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of the local Catholic church, Mission San Juan Bautista.

"This neighborhood has been neglected," Wernick said. "The feedback we've gotten from the community has been that they want new, quality housing, but in a way that doesn't change the character of the neighborhood."

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