Bishop James Adams, of Overtown’s historic St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, is no stranger to Miami redevelopment politics.
Over the last decade, while controversial mega developments have heightened fears of rapid gentrification in Miami, Adams has pushed to preserve Pan-Africanism in Overtown and has held developers accountable for promises of jobs.
“This community has become used to promises made, and then those promises never being kept,” Adams said.
Now Adams is calling out the $4 billion Miami Worldcenter, the 27 acres of mixed-use development that sits north of the central business district in downtown Miami.
Worldcenter is slowly reshaping the downtown skyline after nearly a decade of construction and speculation. The complex’s 60-story tower, the Paramount, is set to be completed by the end of this year. Two-story villas at Paramount cost up to $4.5 million, and developers are preparing for a future where flying cars can come and go from a rooftop landing pad on its 60th floor “SkyDeck.”
The opulent Worldcenter borders historic Overtown and some of Miami’s lowest-income neighborhoods, which are already grappling with an affordable housing crisis. And while Worldcenter has promised to uplift the surrounding community with job opportunities, activists like Adams say developers are gradually pushing out long-standing communities of color with little oversight.
"Yeah, you want to take away dilapidated buildings, but I also believe that includes eliminating people of color from these neighborhoods," said Adams.
The Worldcenter project sits inside the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency area, or CRA. According to an economic incentive agreement signed in December 2014 by CRA board chairman and Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, the Worldcenter would get 57 percent of its collected property taxes back to be used for project construction and public infrastructure.
In exchange for removing "slum" and "blight" from the area, Worldcenter promised to hire a quota of workers from certain targeted zip codes: 30 percent of unskilled workers and 10 percent of skilled from Overtown and other areas across Miami-Dade County.
Adams called it a “sweetheart deal" and said the CRA has failed to be transparent with the community.
Hardemon did not respond to requests for comments for this story.
Worldcenter Managing Principal Nitin Motwani said he wanted to make sure the nearby community was reflected in the job hiring process.
“We targeted six zip codes in the city of Miami that suffer from the lowest levels of poverty. These are folks that often times aren’t aware of the opportunities,” Motwani said.
According to Worldcenter, out of the 5,200 workers hired so far over 1,630 were hired from zip codes that were targeted in the economic incentive agreement. That includes areas of Little Havana, Liberty City, Little Haiti, Coral Gables and Overtown.
But Worldcenter confirmed that just 129 of the workers hired thus far reside in the 33136 Overtown zip code. That’s a little over 2 percent.
"The economic incentives, those are aspirations,” Adams said. “We will try to do this."
There was never a hard penalty if Worldcenter recruitment goals weren't met, he added. "If you try and you fail, then there's no loss, right?"
But Motwani said developers are being held accountable by the CRA.
“We’ve already had over 5,200 people working on site, and we’re proud to say over 76 percent of those people are from Miami-Dade County," Motwani said.
He said tax rebates are being used to benefit the public and downtown infrastructure.
“Let me be clear - all of that money went back into improving the infrastructure for the public,” Motwani said. “For example, we improved the water lines, sewage, fiber, FPL, we are improving the metromover stations and we have over 200,000 square feet of public space that we’re dedicating back to the city.”
You can read the full agreement between the CRA and Worldcenter here:
Developers say they're aiming to help workers across Miami-Dade build an unskilled construction job into a career. Worldcenter held five job recruitment fairs in Overtown, geared vocational training programs to various colleges and even offered graduation stipends.
Motwani said unskilled workers hired at the Worldcenter have even risen to become apprentices and journeymen.
Twenty-seven-year-old Jasmine McWilliams, who lives in Overtown, has now made electrical work her career. She interviewed with the Worldcenter contractor, Power Design Inc. Electrical.
“I did an interview, and they hired me on the spot,” she said. “ I was so happy. I was going to make sure that I was going to show them what I was about.”
She said a journeyman on the Worldcenter project can earn as much as $45 per hour. She is one of the only female electricians in the field.
"I can overcome anything, you know? All I had to do was go to a technical school. And look where I'm at now," she said. "I didn't go to college."
Despite success stories, Adams said he is still concerned that there's not enough visible benefit to the Overtown area and the Worldcenter development is another catalyst for rising rent prices that will push long-time residents out.
Those CRA tax rebates given back to the Worldcenter, he said, could be used to directly combat poverty in Overtown and other communities nearby.
"The politicians and developers and the investors [are] building these beautiful, expensive and elaborate buildings, which the majority of us will never be able to purchase or live in," Adams said. "And yet, it's kind of like a reverse Robin Hood. You rob from the poor and you give to the rich."