MIAMI -- Leonie Hermantin wants to do anything she can to make the Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti better for its residents and for the rich culture symbolized in murals — even if it means having a loose alliance with a giant commercial and residential project and losing friends in the process.
The billion-dollar development project known as Magic City Innovation District that has been approved by the city to be built in Little Haiti could change the face of the impoverished neighborhood. Hermantin, part of a coalition called the Concerned Leaders of Little Haiti, hopes it will give the economic boost the neighborhood desperately needs but she's wary, having seen similar projects displace residents from one of South Florida's most historic immigrant communities.
Though Little Haiti is nestled in an industrious site and ailing from unfixed roads and limited sidewalks, the area is vibrant. Weekends light up with Haitian cultural dancing, and barbecue smoke fills the streets. The neighborhood once was home of the largest Haitian population outside that country, immigrants fleeing three decades ago from oppressive governments by Haitian presidents Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
The project has inspired hope and fear among residents, creating conflicts. Hermantin allied with the development, causing her to lose friends and have her legitimacy as a community and advocacy leader for Haitians questioned.
"This process has been bruising. It's not for personal gain; it's understanding this is an unstoppable process," said Hermantin, 61. "It is better to work with them and ensure our stability and hope they will be a major contributor to the financial growth and well-being of the residents of Little Haiti."
The area also has a special interest to tenants of a city fearing rising sea-levels. Businesses and firms see the higher-elevated Little Haiti as a place to avoid floods. Sitting on a ridge roughly 8 feet above sea level, that's nearly double the elevation of affluent coastal neighborhoods such as Miami Beach. The increase of people flocking over with higher income than current residents has caused worries that they don't have the income to stay.
Earth Economics conducted an analysis of Magic City Innovation District's effect on the neighborhood, confirming that more than 3,000 households could be pushed out, with some experiencing a period of homelessness. The group estimates these families would collectively pay over $68 million in relocation expenses.
"I was a supporter of the approval despite all the caveats and discomforts I have," said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a resource center for Haitians in Miami. "It was important for many of us to be at the table with Magic City to guarantee that these protections will be there."
City commissioners on June 28 approved the mixed-use development that will take up 17 acres (6.9 hectares) of land. The months leading to that were met with heavy protests, causing Commissioner Keon Hardemon, whose district includes Little Haiti, to make a quiet deal with the developers in the form of a $31 million community benefits trust fund, overseen by an undetermined five-person board who would decide how to allocate the money to aid Little Haiti.
A lawsuit was filed last month against the city by Warren Perry, a resident who lives opposite to the proposed development. He alleged that he was denied by the commission during hearings to present additional evidence and expert testimony about how detrimental the project would be.
The project's managing partner, Neil Fairman, said homeowners won't face increased taxes because of the homestead exemption, which protects Florida homeowners from sharp property-tax increases.
"The community is in dire need of help, not from a cultural or artistic sense, but from a business point of view," Fairman said. "And we wanted to make sure that we can inject this money right at the outset of this neighborhood to move forward with new projects in both affordable housing and job creation."
Shopkeeper Myrlande Sanon-Jules, 49, felt the effects of rising prices firsthand. She used to sell Haitian art, African instruments and clothing at a 2,500 square-foot (232 square-meter) shop that a local newspaper deemed a best thrift store in Miami in 2016. She was displaced when her rent doubled, causing her to move to a 10-foot (3.05-meter) corner at the Caribbean marketplace. Yet she believes the new project would bring good change.
"Our neighborhood is empty now and I want Haitians to own things, but we can't blame it on Magic City, we didn't invest in ourselves," Sanon-Jules said. "I don't think our culture can be weaker. We can be stronger if we work with Magic City. And if you can't afford it, move somewhere else, like I did."