A proposal to revitalize East Little Havana by ushering in new development is stoking fears of gentrification among activists and residents of a community that in many ways has served as Miami’s Ellis Island.

On Thursday, city commissioners may vote to change the zoning of a gritty but bustling 32-block stretch north of Calle Ocho where thousands live in older low-rise apartments and homes, and where visitors go on walking tours. The proposal would allow buildings up to five stories and 65 units per acre, with “limited” commercial shops on the ground floor.

If the item passes — Miami commissioners can give only preliminary approval Thursday — developers and property owners would be able to build taller and denser buildings than what is allowed today. Commissioner Frank Carollo hopes the move will spur reinvestment in a poor community peppered with vacant lots and dilapidated apartment buildings.

“The reality is there are many people there living in substandard conditions,” said Carollo, who represents the neighborhood. “We need to improve on that.”

Carollo and Planning Director Francisco Garcia say the neighborhood to the west of where I-95 crosses over the Miami River needs to be up-zoned because regulations adopted several years ago under newer zoning code Miami 21 are actually more restrictive than the building rules that existed when much of the community was developed, going all the way back to the early 20th century. The result, they say, is a disincentive to improve buildings that are falling further into disrepair.

But some activists and residents are wary of the city’s intention and see Thursday’s vote as a welcome mat for developers to push the building boom in Brickell further west. They say new, taller buildings laced with shops will tear apart a neighborhood that is indeed struggling but is also vibrant and unique.

“The only people who support this are the large developers, the realtors who can make commissions [off] the sales and those who work in the construction trade,” Little Havana resident Sharif Salem wrote last week in an email to commissioners. “If we go with this we will fundamentally damage the character” of the neighborhood.

Today, the area in question is a community of about 12,000 packed into small homes with shotgun porches, converted duplexes and an array of apartment buildings built on small lots. Rents are generally cheap — a sign on Second Avenue advertises an efficiency for $480 a month — and median household income is around $20,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census.

While city officials stress that they are proposing a zoning change to save the neighborhood, not destroy it, Marta Zayas, a teacher and activist who lives in West Little Havana, believes that the city is kowtowing to developers and taking advantage of a poor community, much of which speaks only Spanish.

Early this week, sipping a cafecito she bought from El Gallito, a Honduran cafe squeezed into an older, retrofitted home on Eighth Avenue, Zayas walked down Third Street past a few leaning mattresses and torn-up sofas looking to hand out petitions and fliers opposing Thursday’s vote. The elementary school teacher paused at a street corner where a vendor had parked his red Chevy Blazer to sell papayas, red beans, chips and peppers out the back of his SUV.

When Armando Hernandez approached with a friend, Zayas asked if they’d seen the city’s red signs, advertising in English the upcoming zoning vote.

“You guys are the first to tell me exactly what those red signs are about. The majority of us don’t speak English here,” said Hernandez, who said he works two part-time jobs and likely wouldn’t be able to afford an increase to his rent.
Zayas seethed. “Would they do this in The Roads?” she asked rhetorically.

Zayas, who says the city doesn’t need to increase development to fight slumlords, isn’t the only critic of what the upzoning proposal. Miami’s Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board deadlocked 4-4 on the proposal, meaning officially the proposal failed. Others are voicing their opposition on social media. Historian Paul George, speaking to a reporter over the phone while leading a walking tour through Domino Park, said he worries about the consequences of the proposal, which he said he expects will pass.

“I don’t know if it’s for the better or worse,” he said.

Carlos Fausto Miranda, who manages commercial real estate brokerage firm Fausto Commercial Realty, chalks up the angst to a misunderstanding. The East Little Havana property owner says by loosening regulations, the city will finally give developers reason to build on vacant lots that sit empty now because they can’t be redeveloped profitably under today’s laws. He said all the new residential units will actually drive down prices in a rental community with a vacancy rate below three percent, and small commercial spaces will increase the presence of local businesses.

“Some of the push-back has been people thinking that this is an invitation to create a West Brickell, and I am completely opposed to that. I think it’s a method for preserving the authenticity, spirit, nature, cultural flair that is Little Havana,” he said.

Miranda also noted that the city is simultaneously pushing to declare three blocks of East Little Havana historic. Coupled with a rezoning, those historic properties would then be able to sell valuable air rights, the proceeds of which must be reinvested into the buildings. A vote by Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board could take place next month.

Garcia, the planning director, said the city is trying to improve lives and buildings, not tear them down. He said if anything, the proposed upzoning would only allow property owners to construct new buildings consistent with what was allowed decades ago. Right now, he said, many owners have chosen to illegally convert their properties into multifamily rentals.

“If the city is trying to improve those conditions and bring them up to code, that’s not gentrifying, it’s revitalizing,” he said.

But opponents remain skeptical. Zayas, her cafecito gone, stands across the street from El Gallito and wondered if it will be around much longer.

“Do you think the Gallito coffee shop will be here?” she asked. “Or will it be a Starbucks?”

BY DAVID SMILEY  dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com