A Chinatown for North Miami

How one city—and its city manager—is embracing unique economic development thinking [PM Magazine, March 2019]

| PM Magazine – Article

By Larry Spring, Jr. 

I wasn’t a stranger to big projects, but the idea that awaited me as I started work as city manager of North Miami, Florida, was unlike anything else I’d been involved in. Building a Chinatown? In North Miami?

I had worked on the development of the new Miami Marlins stadium (retractable roof and all) in my previous post, so I had a good sense for the complexity of projects in urban areas. But that was the city of Miami.

I’d just become manager of North Miami, a suburban community of some 60,000 in the much larger Miami metro area of more than 5 million. Councilman Alix Desulme, who had been approached by local business leaders, had done some initial research. He was passionate and persistent; I listened.

He had an idea to revitalize a 90-acre corridor in his district. My predecessor and now deputy manager Arthur Sorey, had made a significant time investment, flying to China, to get the basics of what is now a Chinatown community redevelopment project.

And slowly, what seemed like a crazy concept, started to materialize as an exciting and viable project. It morphed from an intriguing possibility all the way to a detailed, realistic urban city revitalization plan, complete with zoning, infrastructure, tax incentive, community engagement, and international components.

North Miami is the first community in Florida to designate a Chinatown district and the first with a master plan. Our signature gateway arch, which will celebrate the innovation of New China, will see a groundbreaking later this year.

“I must credit the administration,” Desulme would later say. “All of us were surprised how fast everything kind of evolved and unrolled.”

A Non-Organic Concept

Before I came to my current job, I knew there had been discussions of creating a cultural district in greater Miami as many other cities have done—be it a Little Italy, a Fisherman’s Pier, or other.

The idea of a Chinatown in South Florida was not new but for various reasons, it just never got off the ground. This, despite the fact that China is Miami’s third-largest trading partner with $6.7 billion of import and export transactions in 2016 alone.

And while the Miami metro area is today culturally vibrant with large Hispanic and Caribbean populations, migration from China was blocked by anti-Chinese federal immigration laws until the 1940s, a period overlapping Miami’s heady post-World War II surge.

The patterns set in those decades ripple into today. The most recent U.S. Census data shows that North Miami’s Asian population is just 1.7 percent, and the Chinese demographic is just 0.6 percent. (By way of comparison, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and New York have Chinese-American populations ranging from three to 10 percent of their communities). Indeed, while North Miami’s population is majority foreign-born, nearly 48 percent is of Haitian ancestry.

So, although there was a pent-up desire to create a Chinatown, its creation would not be organic, as the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco were. It would have to be planned to maximize elements mutually interesting to investors and the community, leveraging our advantages.

As an international visitor destination, with world-class and growing seaport, we knew greater Miami had a lot to work with, but there would also be many obstacles.

For communities considering this kind of undertaking, here are some of the lessons we learned in moving this project forward.

Find a Credible Partner

While North Miami may have lacked any sizable Chinese or Asian population, it did have one fantastic resource that we soon discovered would be key to advancing the project: Florida International University (FIU), which maintains one of its campuses along Biscayne Bay.

FIU operates the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and has had the well-regarded Marriott Tianjin China Program in operation since 2006, not far from China’s capital, Beijing.

When our team made the initial trip to China, we benefitted from a carefully planned series of meetings with potential investors. The FIU connection gave our effort credibility, not only with the people we met, but with our own residents who feared their elected leaders were on some kind of irresponsible junket.

I can’t overemphasize how this academic partnership mattered at the beginning and how it continues to nurture each step in the development. “The Miami brand name is very strong in China,” says Dr. Michael Cheng, the interim dean of FIU’s hospitality school.

“I see a lot more Chinese students who will transfer to Miami to complete their graduate work. They just needed a place, to have a reason, to come here,” he says.

Although the FIU program had been operating for a decade before our Chinatown initiative began in earnest, we didn’t understand its full import until later. “We knew, but we really didn’t harness the potential that was laying there, dormant,” said city Planning, Zoning, and Development Director Tanya Wilson-Sejour. “We never translated it into economic development.”

On the first trip, we had brochures in Mandarin, complete with our city logo. We had introductions. The university president was a participant. “They were looking in awe,” said Sorey, describing the welcome our delegation received from packed rooms on the first visit to China.

Close Search Window