New Kid On The Block


miami-beach-74th-street-sunrise-lifeguard-hut-ian-monkWhen Alicia Gomez first moved to the northern reaches of the City of Miami Beach a decade ago to live with her daughter and son-in-law, she didn’t know what to expect. Having lived in New Jersey for more than three decades and never visited South Florida, the images of Miami Beach with which she was familiar were the sights common to many in the U.S. and around the world – the vaunted Art Deco District on South Beach, Ocean Drive, Lincoln Road, beautiful people and crowded, even more beautiful beaches.

What Gomez found, living several blocks north of 71st Street and a short walk from the beach proper, was different, but not necessarily in a negative way.

“All of my impressions of Miami Beach were driven by the images of tourism and, of course, South Beach, primarily,” Gomez said. “North Beach didn’t have the glamor, the models, the billionaire Europeans, the celebrities, etc. It was nothing like what I expected it to be.”

However, Gomez said she was pleased with what she did find.

“It was a neighborhood, like the ones we had back in New Jersey – or, rather, a bunch of small neighborhoods,” she recalls. “People knew one another and there were a lot more middle class and working class families than what one would think when you only see the tourism photos and promotional materials. It reminded me of home, only a lot warmer and prettier and with amazing beaches.”

Other aspects of her new home were appealing too. She said she loved the classic, open-walkway apartment buildings, the affordable rents, the multiculturalism and the ease of access to “all the types of shops and businesses [I frequent] regularly,” she said. “I loved it, but it did seem like an entirely different city than Middle Beach and South Beach. South Beach, even though just minutes away by car or bus, seemed like a million miles away.”

That was fine for Gomez at the time, she said, making her adjustment to being a South Floridian much easier than she anticipated.

“I’m a 54 year-old Puerto Rican woman by way of New Jersey, so I didn’t imagine how I would really fit in, in a city of world-class models and billionaires,” Gomez said. “North Beach, though, felt like home. I loved it.”

A History of Neglect

Over the years, though, Gomez said she began to see challenges in her adopted home town. Crime seemed a constant problem, too many young people seemed unable to find employment and ended up in trouble with the law, infrastructure needed improvement and this past recession’s harsh impact seemed to hit the less affluent district of the city hard.

“It was and is beautiful, but after a couple of years, you could start to see through the veneer and there were problems,” she said. “There were times when even walking down 71st Street to catch a bus felt dangerous.”

Yet, Gomez said that whenever she heard about the City of Miami Beach addressing economic development, infrastructure improvements and rehabilitating parks, housing and public facilities, the focus was on either South Beach or the well-to-do neighborhoods of Mid Beach.

“I understand that the south part of the city is where a lot of the tourism and tax money is generated and North Beach is less glamorous and financially relevant to the City,” Gomez said.

Gomez’s neighbor put it less gently.

“North Beach has always been the misfit kid kept locked in his bedroom; the city’s red-headed stepchild,” said Foster Firenza, a resident of more than 20 years. “Every few years, a new mayor or administration comes in, promises to make North Beach the new South Beach, appoints a committee, cuts a ribbon at a new development that might or might not ever actually be developed and rakes in enough votes to stay in office. Then, rents go up – there are a lot of renters here – but not much else changes, making people’s lives harder. And then two businesses close for each that opens and the cycle starts all over again.”

“We have a lot of assets up here,” Gomez said. “The beach and the park here are incredibly beautiful but under-used relative to the smaller beaches elsewhere. We have a lot of middle class and working class families here and some of the [low-density, historic] apartment buildings are just adorable. There’s room for building and there is clear distinction between commercial and residential areas. We’re minutes from South Beach and Bal Harbour and just slightly farther from Aventura. North Bay Village is just over the bridge and has seen massive development.”

Firenza’s wife, Gayle, says, “We have everything South Beach had except a government looking to get rich – this government is already rich – and leaders with a real commitment to appreciating, understanding and {utilizing] our particular assets to send North Beach skyrocketing.”

nb-bandshellThe Times: Are They A-Changing?

You hear it all over Miami Beach, from South Beach development-fearful activists to retiring police officials to businessmen involved in working in partnership with the City of Miami Beach: there is a different vibe within Miami Beach government’s halls of power. It began, many cite, with the insurgent victory in November of Mayor Philip Levine, an outside the beltway businessman of tremendous success; and the victories of other fresh faces to the commission. Others still note the strong, successful and independent women who sit on the commission; the breaking down of ethnic boundaries that once polarized the body politic; the end of developer control of too many in city hall after the success, largely, of Commissioner Jonah Wolfson – himself a transformative figure – at staving off a bloated convention center deal.

Regardless, it’s been said repeatedly, which must have some merit, at least in some corners. One of those corners is the North Beach Development Corporation (NBDC), “a non-profit community development organization dedicated to promoting the economic and physical revitalization of North Beach. (North Beach being defined as north from 63rd Street to the City limit at 87th Terrace.) NBDC has valiantly fought for North Beach through is better and worse years. While its efforts haven’t always been successful, when there have been successes in the area, NBDC usually plays a part in it happening.

Carol Housen, real estate broker and president of NBDC said she believes the current mayor and administration will be transitional figures for North Beach and that progress is underway.

“They have made North Beach a priority,” Housen said. “North Beach was ignored for years, they’re making North Beach a priority.”

Housen said there was virtually no development for approximately five years. Now, “the City’s Design Review Board has approved new construction of one project, the Dezer Hotel is being restored, there’s a new project at 87 Street,” she said. “North Beach is no longer a secret. It’s been discovered. It’s happening up here.”

In her broker role, Housen said she received three or four phone calls a week from those interested in developing in North Beach.

“The new commission helps,” she said. “It used to be all talk. I’ve been in Miami Beach for 12 years and have never seen any progress here. We have a restored band shall with a new senior center opening behind it, a theater company in the Byron Carlyle and a lot of other things going on. Are we there yet? No But we’re making progress.”

Housen credits the more geographically diverse commission as being more sensitive to the needs of North Beach – and there remain needs.

“We have transportation coming… in July, I think, a shuttle to North Beach,” she said. “It gets pretty wide [at points] and getting from east to west can be challenging. Crime is improving. I think we do need more tax incentives through the city, to foster more development.”

A recent City measure for relief on development parking fees was a move in the right direction, Housen said.

Still, more work needs to be done. Housen is convinced that this administration, not weighted down by fiefdoms, scandal and internal bickering, might just be the one to succeed where many others have failed.

“This North Beach organization has been around since 1988,” Housen said. “Right now, we have a lot going on.”

Even Firenza, who admits being jaded, said he feels more optimistic than in the past.

“You can see some things happening and so far, the new commission seems to be working together for a change,” he said.

About Michael W Sasser

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