Welcome, Little Havana: Miami’s Newest National Treasure

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By Jeana Wiser
The sensory experience of walking the streets of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is unforgettable. The layered histories, the rich cultural expression, and the colorful architecture underscore the importance of this unique neighborhood. I am proud to say that the National Trust added historic Little Havana to our growing portfolio of National Treasures in January 2017. Not only is the historic neighborhood a new National Treasure but it is also an excellent example of our recent thinking about ReUrbanism. We are very proud to be working alongside strong partners in Little Havana to ensure that it remains thriving, healthy, and livable.

A neighborhood store in Little Havana. | Credit: Steven Brooke Studios
The National Trust first formally recognized the importance of Little Havana in 2015, listing it as one of that year’s 11 Most Endangered Places. At the time, Little Havana was threatened by a proposed zoning change that would have increased the likelihood of large-scale, new buildings noticeably out of scale with the existing human-oriented neighborhood. (Since then, support for the proposed up-zoning has subsided although the future of the neighborhood remains uncertain in the absence of a coordinated, smart, and contextual planning approach.)
Building on the momentum following the 2015 11 Most announcement, the National Trust formed an internal team and, along with our local partner Dade Heritage Trust, began listening to and learning from Little Havana residents, property owners, civic leaders, and government officials. In those meetings, we learned about:

  • Little Havana’s built environment—historic, human scale, and very close to downtown jobs;
  • the concerns of Little Havana’s residents, including affordability and displacement; and
  • the broad and diverse cohorts of people dedicated to revitalizing Little Havana through building reuse; retrofit; and contextual, human-scale infill.

Historic apartment building in Little Havana. | Credit: Steven Brooke Studios

Unveiling a National Treasure

On January 27, we launched the Little Havana National Treasure campaign with a morning press event that included remarks from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, City Commissioners Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez, Dade Heritage Trust’s Chris Rupp, PlusUrbia Design’s Juan Mullerat, local developer Bill Fuller, and the National Trust’s President and CEO Stephanie Meeks.
Following the press event, we toured the neighborhood with the media, visiting three sites. Each tour stop was selected to illustrate a unique facet of Little Havana’s importance:

  • high–Character Score blocks;
  • bodegas and other neighborhood retail integrated with residential uses;
  • successful examples of renovated historic courtyard apartments; and

The signature metric of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab, the Character Score encapsulates three key characteristics of the built environment: the median age of buildings; the diversity, or mix, of old and new buildings; and the granularity, or smallness, of the built fabric. These three metrics were drawn from the seminal ideas of Jane Jacobs, the renowned urbanist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Little Havana has many of Miami’s highest–Character Score blocks (shown in red) where there are concentrations of older, smaller, and mixed-age buildings.
On the evening of the announcement, the National Trust and our partners staffed an interactive booth at Viernes Culturales, a monthly cultural festival that draws thousands to Calle Ocho, Little Havana’s cultural tourism hub. At the booth, passersby were invited to fill out notecards indicating what historic places in the community matter most to them. The responses were displayed for all to see, and participants were invited to spin a prize wheel to win Little Havana–themed giveaways.

Notecards at Viernes Culturales. | Credit: Sehila Casper

Messaging Through Maps

By all standards, the Little Havana Treasure announcement was a success. We raised awareness among international, national, and local audiences of little Little Havana as:

  • a symbol of inclusiveness and a testament to the immigrant spirit that built our nation;
  • dynamic, culturally rich, and affordable; and
  • historic—more than 70 percent of its existing built fabric is more than 50 years old.

The Preservation Green Lab’s research contributed to both messaging and context setting, in part through the use of maps.

Blocks of modest, older, smaller buildings in Little Havana have the same level of population density as the nearby towers of Brickell—but in Little Havana, that density is contained in historic, human-scale buildings. In fact, the densest blocks of Little Havana have more than 40,000 residents per square mile, roughly 2.5 times the average density of San Francisco. More than half of Miami’s 100 densest blocks are located in Little Havana.
Media outlets ranging from “The Miami Times” to Telemundo to the Associated Press attended the launch, spoke with our partners, and participated in the media tour. CNN captured a quote from Stephanie Meeks:
“The National Trust welcomes the urban resurgence that is breathing new life into cities across the country, but we also believe that growth should not come at the expense of the vibrant historic neighborhoods like Little Havana that make cities unique and desirable places. As we work to preserve and celebrate Little Havana, we want to make sure it remains a healthy, vital and affordable urban neighborhood.”

Little Havana is home to immigrants from all over Latin America and the world. It is one of four neighborhoods in Miami where more than 40,000 foreign-born residents live and one of three neighborhoods where more than 70 percent of the population was born abroad. The average block in Little Havana has more than 200 foreign-born residents, which is nearly three times the average density of immigrants citywide.

Planning in Little Havana

The National Trust is now beginning a neighborhood master planning process, in partnership with PlusUrbia Design, Dade Heritage Trust, and Live Healthy, Little Havana. We will co-convene public workshops, thematic and targeted focus groups, and continued one-on-one conversations with key stakeholders to gather more public input and information. The process of planning a healthy and vibrant future for this historic neighborhood will leverage the expertise and capacities of the National Trust. We will continue to use mapping and Preservation Green Lab analysis to inform the planning and outreach processes. We also intend to promote a broad range of tools to:

  • Facilitate the rehabilitation and reuse of older and historic buildings;
  • Enable the design and construction of contextual new buildings; and
  • Strike a balance between the reuse of the older building stock and smart, contextual new development.

Working with our local partners, we will publish a report and set of recommendations in July 2017. The materials will be available in both English and Spanish, and we will leverage them to inform decision-makers and empower stakeholders. We are looking forward to the next six months.
Jeana Wiser is the senior manager of resilient communities at the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.
Link to article: Saving Places

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