If city leaders have their way, North Miami, Fla., could be known as Beijing on the Biscayne.
They have already approved initial plans, and at least $40 million in infrastructure funding, to transform a 16-block area into a celebration of Chinese culture. Early designs call for crenellated facades, colorful archways, a new multicultural museum and multiple parks featuring statues of Chinese founding father Sun Yat-sen and George Washington.
Officials hope it will spark an influx of investment, tourists and locals to rejuvenate the area. “It’s a wonderful conceptual masterplan,” said Councilman Alix Desulme, one of the project’s chief backers.
The catch? The only Chinese people walking the streets will be tourists.
“This is a Haitian community,” said local florist Shirley Gonzalez, herself from Uruguay. “We have some Spanish [and] very little American people.”
The area slated for transformation into the “Chinatown Arts and Innovation District” covers 93 acres of commercially zoned property that now features a hodgepodge of one-story strip malls and stand-alone shops and – yes -- three Chinese take-out joints buried in the middle.
This area may be an unlikely candidate for a Chinatown, but the plan is not an entirely unusual decision for south Florida. Several contrived communities are nearby, including in Opa-Locka, where the Moorish architecture was based on a “One Thousand and One Nights” theme, and the Mediterranean-inspired Coral Gables, where landmarks include the Venetian Pool.
North Miami’s master plan is part of a long history of conscious, inorganic place-making in the Sunshine State, and a new, widespread belief that cities must have vibrant downtowns to attract young creatives. These millennials, the thinking goes, prefer experiences over things – the more Instagrammable the better.
But the proposed project also reflects a more recent trend – the importance of government money, both foreign and local, to urban redevelopment. And for better or worse – no one knows which yet – it dovetails with China’s commercial and cultural projection around the world under Xi Jinping, its increasingly authoritarian leader.
Growing Chinese interest in Miami properties was a factor in the appeal of a Chinatown over, say, a Little Italy. A delegation of North Miami officials traveled to China in May 2016 on a $50,000 fact-finding mission. And the city has been advised by the American Da Tang Group, an organization that provides real estate services to Chinese elites looking to invest in the United States.
Da Tang CEO Shanjie Li was also instrumental in some earlier Chinese investments in Miami, notably the 2016 purchase of two properties in downtown hot spots -- to the tune of $110 million -- by the state-owned China City Construction Co.
More broadly, business connections between Miami and China have grown in recent years, with delegations from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and multiple Chinese cities meeting several times in 2017 and regional airports talking about adding direct flights to Beijing.
North Miami officials say their connection to China is especially strong. Nearby Florida International University’s School of Hospitality has a sister campus in Tianjin, China, and around 500 Chinese exchange students are studying at the school’s North Miami campus at any one time – potential Chinatown patrons, officials say. University President Mark Rosenberg has been a supporter of the project.
So North Miami isn’t apt to say forget it, Jake, about its faux Chinatown. And the project seems to have remained independent thus far of direct efforts by the Chinese government to exert influence abroad through investments. Yet it is being driven by another debatable idea: that local and state governments must lure private builders into creating these new attractions by offering tax breaks and other financial incentives.
In recent decades, tax incentives have been used more and more to make these new developments happen.
“Tax incentives are very popular and a common tool to try to incentivize economic development,” said Megan Randall, a research analyst in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. So much so that competing states and localities can end up hostage to the tax breaks their neighbors are promising – what Randall called a type of “race to the bottom.”
“Usually you have a developer that has an idea for a new neighborhood in an underdeveloped area. This time, it’s working the other way around,” said Sheila Dreher, a Realtor from North Miami Beach. “When you have this push and the incentives, it’s a lot easier for a developer.”
State and local governments in 33 states tripled tax incentives between 1990-2015, according to an analysis by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. This is despite the fact that, according to Timothy Bartik, senior economist at Upjohn, the promised payoff from incentives is likely not there except in certain narrow circumstances.
Nevertheless, North Miami leaders are betting that the Chinatown project is a case where incentives are necessary and, in the long term, profitable. The city government has committed to the long haul; the still-evolving project is 20 years from its estimated completion date.
Beyond tax credits from all levels of government, the incentives include grant opportunities, density bonuses to allow incoming developers to build bigger than North Miami’s already-generous zoning codes allow, and access to the EB-5 visa program allowing foreign entrepreneurs and investors (and their families) to apply for green cards. During the North Miami delegation’s China trip, Chinese investors expressed particular interest in the EB-5 program and other incentives as opportunities to export Chinese start-ups to the United States market.
At its core, the North Miami project adds a twist to what some call the new urbanist vision. Where some cities try to reconnect with their specific past, preserving and rehabilitating old buildings and cultural markers, North Miami’s Chinatown reflects an effort to create a new, imagined identity -- like the unsuccessful effort by an Arkansas company in the early 2000s for an imitation-Chinese neighborhood, complete with a “Tiananmen Square,” in Homestead, Fla.
So doubters aren’t hard to find. Local business owners say they are all for economic development but some are scratching their heads over the logic behind the planned Chinatown. Critics point five miles northeast of the present proposed site, to a stretch of North Miami Beach that is already thought of as an unofficial Chinatown.
Shirley Gonzalez worried that it will displace the most beautiful spot on Seventh Avenue: her flower shop on the corner of 119th Street.
“I’ve been 13 years right here on this corner,” she said. “And what they’re planning to do is take this place down and build an arch.”
Sun Yat-sen, whose sculpted likeness will adorn the new project whenever it is built, once said, “In the construction of a country, it is not the practical workers but the idealists and planners that are difficult to find.”
In South Florida, something more like the opposite seems to be true.