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Amid Redevelopment Plans, Miami Residents Fight To Save Little Havana


There are few neighborhoods in Miami better known or would with more history than Little Havana. It was once primarily a Jewish neighborhood. But by the early '60s, it became home to the city's growing Cuban exile community. Community activists and preservationists now say Little Havana is endangered. NPR's Greg Allen reports that developers have targeted the area and the city is considering zoning changes.


GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: This is the Little Havana the tourists see - 8th Street, Calle Ocho, with Cuban-American cafes, cigar stores and nonstop domino games.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ALLEN: But people also live here. Resident Corinna Moebius says developers have targeted her neighborhood and are buying up properties.

CORINNA MOEBIUS: Tons - these two buildings were bought. This was bought. It's been, you know, nicely redone, but I just want to point out this gate.

ALLEN: It's being redone as a bed and breakfast. There's a large metal gate with a lock, aimed, Moebius says, at keeping the neighborhood out. Little Havana is a walkable neighborhood, with bungalows along with two and three-story apartment buildings. It's a place where people talk to their neighbors on stoops and from their balconies. And it has something else going for it - its location. Moebius says it's just a short bike or bus ride to downtown.

MOEBIUS: Developers saw that and they said, oh, maybe this is a place and, look, it is really close to downtown and maybe this can be the next frontier and so...

ALLEN: Over the last decade, high-rise condominiums have transformed downtown from a sleepy business district into a vibrant residential neighborhood. Now city planners are looking to redevelop Little Havana just to the west. Officials are proposing zoning changes that would allow taller buildings with more apartments and people in the residential neighborhood. Many residents are wary.

MOEBIUS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARCOS RUIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MOEBIUS: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: As we walk through her neighborhood, Moebius runs into a former neighbor. Marcos Ruiz recently moved out of his apartment after it was sold with plans for it to be redeveloped. A lot of properties, he says, are changing hands.

RUIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

MOEBIUS: They want to put more buildings.

RUIZ: More building, OK (speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Now, Ruiz says, developers want to go up, with multistory apartments and condos. Miami's planning director, Francisco Garcia, says change is coming to Little Havana, but not the high-rise condominiums many fear.

FRANCISCO GARCIA: Well, the skyscrapers are not coming, so no one need panic in that regard.

ALLEN: The new rules cap building heights at five stories rather than three, the current limit. Little Havana is charming, a neighborhood with a lot of character. But Garcia says the fact is many of the properties there have been neglected and are rundown.

GARCIA: The area has deteriorated significantly over the last few decades and that it is in need of refurbishment or revitalization. So we want to intervene. We want to intervene cleverly, intelligently, with a plan to make things better.

ALLEN: Residents concerned about Little Havana's future recently got a boost from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The group put the neighborhood on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, citing the proposed zoning changes and the lack of legal protection for scattered historic buildings. Miami recently created a small three-block historic district in Little Havana and says it will consider protecting other noteworthy buildings on a case-by-case basis. Schoolteacher and neighborhood activist Marta Zayas worries, though, that Little Havana's historic charm may be lost.

MARTA ZAYAS: Right now, with the plans that are being pushed, you're going to end up with a modern box building next to a 1920s bungalow.

ALLEN: At a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana, investor and broker Carlos Fausto Miranda says the last thing he or other developers want to do is to change the place.

CARLOS FAUSTO MIRANDA: There is so much which is beautiful and powerful and magical about this neighborhood. It is a neighborhood that is capable of seducing you, but it needs help.

ALLEN: In recent years, Little Havana has become one of Miami's top tourist attractions, with tour buses and groups of visitors a common sight. As gentrification comes to the area, many wonder how long the authentic character of the neighborhood will survive. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.