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Wynwood's Entire Remaining Residential Neighborhood Could Be Rezoned

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Rendering of the future NW 2nd Avenue in Wynwood Norte, created by Plusurbia.

As developers started to acquire chunks of land in the neighborhood, it seemed that a familiar pattern was about to play out. A Miami commission vote on Thursday is set to determine the future of the neighborhood.

A decade of fast-forwarded development in Wynwood has converted what used to be the partially-residential neighborhood into a bustling mix of bars, restaurants and the occasional art studio.

That’s the Wynwood south of NW 29th Street.

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On the north side of the street — pocketed in between Interstate 95, Interstate 195 and the Midtown development — the remnants of the working-class, historically Puerto Rican neighborhood have been left relatively untouched, even as it is surrounded by luxury developments.

As developers started to acquire chunks of land in the neighborhood, it seemed that a familiar pattern was about to play out.

“A developer comes in, people are kicked out, and there goes the neighborhood,” explained Juan Mullerat, a principal architect at Miami-based firm Plusurbia.

For the past two years, Plusurbia and a neighborhood association of homeowners, tenants and business owners have held public meetings, gathering information and ideas about how to stop that from happening. The result is a pitch developed by Plusurbia that would rezone the entire neighborhood with the goal of preventing widespread displacement of residents and generally channeling housing development in a way that maintains the character of the neighborhood.

The plan would create an exception to the Miami 21 zoning code for the entire neighborhood, from Miami Avenue to I-95, and from NW 29 Street to I-195.

The City of Miami commission is slated to vote on the proposal at a meeting Thursday.

“When you look at a neighborhood in its entirety, you can coordinate what happens to what,” said Mullerat. “And that is the opposite to spot zoning.”

He explains the plan as the antithesis to the kind of "Special Area Plan" that allow developers to build massive projects once they acquire enough contiguous properties. Those kinds of plans have come under sharp criticism from members of the community, who often feel that they are not included in the development and planning process.

The plan explicitly bans any Special Area Plan from taking place in the neighborhood, ensuring that projects like the Magic City development don't happen there.

Wynwood Norte, as it has come to be known, is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Miami. It also hosts a pair of factors that have become catnip for developers mindful of climate change.

First, the area sits on the high elevation coastal ridge that is most immunized from sea-level rise. Second, it’s within South Florida’s urban core, close to jobs in downtown and potential future transit nodes.

The trick for Mullerat and the community was figuring out how to keep the area affordable, while not discouraging any development at all.

A few details of the plan are key to that goal.

“You cannot apply for a demolition permit without a project permit, which would stop land banking, which is the worst,” said Mullerat.

In the arts district of Wynwood, many developers have engaged in a form of "land banking": by purchasing and tearing down homes, then letting the empty land sit idle for years on end — displacing residents for no reason that was apparent to the naked eye.

Another change to zoning is that it would allow builders to place more units of housing on smaller plots of land. The larger the development, the less housing density they will be afforded.

Mullerat envisions this sparking a rebirth of two and three-story apartment buildings of the style that were built across South Florida in the 1920s. Wynwood Norte still boasts some of these, as well as many areas of Little Havana and the city of Miami Beach. This is the key to what he says is encouraging a “low-scale, high density” neighborhood that should drive the city’s future.

“People think that you can only get density with high rises,” he said. “You can get density without having to go high, so that the neighborhood continues looking the way it does from a scale and volume perspective.”

The plan would allow for slightly taller buildings around the edge of the neighborhood while keeping the central area more to its current scale.

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Aerial rendering of what Wynwood Norte could look like under the proposed zoning changes. The outer edges would accommodate higher buildings while the interior would be dense, small-scale apartment buildings.

Wil Vasquez lived in the neighborhood for decades, and his elderly father still lives there. He’s a member of the Wynwood Neighborhood Enhancement Association and owns some rental properties in Wynwood that he bought in the 1980s, when the area struggled with crime, shootings and abandoned buildings overtaken by drug dealers and users.

The area was all but abandoned by the city until attention started to come when the arts district really took off, he said. He likened the impending development of the area to a train that has already left the station, but he wants to minimize its negative impacts on residents.

“We don’t want people to just come there with their millions of dollars, we want people with their boots on the ground who have the best interests of the neighborhood and the quality of life in the neighborhood in mind,” he said.

About 25% of the rental properties in the area are currently considered affordable, according to a study done by Plusurbia, well above the city average of 5%.

Harnessing good, dense development can not only keep those units on the market but create new affordable housing there, said Vasquez. He envisions teachers, waiters, bartenders and artists being able to afford to move into the area, on top of minimizing current residents from being displaced.

“I believe Wynwood Norte is going to be an example for the other smaller communities in Miami,” Vasquez said.

Mullerat doesn’t quite think the plan should be a model for other neighborhoods, but thinks it can serve as a proof of concept for other areas. Focusing on a middle ground of small scale, dense housing can help wean Miami off of the either-or approach to high-rise apartment buildings or single-family homes, he said.

The future as he sees it is rooted in its past.

“Forget resiliency, its unsustainable to continue to build single family units inside the city,” Mullerat said. “I would love to see some of the elements of low-scale dense neighborhoods that we are working with here to be applied elsewhere.”