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Q&A: Helping Little Havana boom the right way

We’re spending March celebrating Little Havana as a part of our monthly neighborhood guide series, powered by Lyft. Where should we eat, drink, and explore? What do you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments below. 

Little Havana is about to boom, as people looking to live near the urban core turn to this neighborhood as an affordable option. Urban planners are busily trying to prepare Calle Ocho, the heart of Miami’s Cuban community, for the hordes of newcomers that they believe are just around the corner – but to do so in a way that retains its vibe.

Marta Viciedo, co-founder of civic innovation firm Urban Impact Lab, has been working in Little Havana for decades and has become a representative of the community at this critical juncture. We asked Viciedo to walk us through the change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What are some hot button issues in Little Havana we should be mindful of?

Externally, there’s always the pressure of development. There’s very little being done in terms of historic preservation. There’s been some measures to protect affordable housing, but there needs to be more.

Little Havana also doesn’t have a ton of green spaces. There’s a lot of development pressure coming from the east as Brickell grows and grows and as 8th Street becomes more of a major corridor, that community stands to be displaced.

Internally, the community needs more cohesion around one central vision. There’s a lot of people with similar ideas, but it doesn’t seem to get funneled into one community platform as a whole. So I think that’s an internal challenge there.

It seems like Calle Ocho is getting a facelift soon. What should we know about the pending redesign of this iconic street, often called the heart of Little Havana?

Redesigning Calle Ocho has been on the books for a number of years. It’s been a long time coming, partly because of the increased volume into Brickell.

With more people coming to the area, the Florida Department of Transportation needs to make sure the street itself is sound and able to handle increased traffic. But, FDOT has been looking at ways for redesigning Calle Ocho in a very much “FDOT fashion.”

They haven’t settled on a final design, but what they’ve presented is kind of awful.

Currently, the new plan is still very car-centric. FDOT’s solution to making sure pedestrians are better accommodated is just putting more signage in, but a great street actually doesn’t need a lot of signs, because it should be designed so that people should know what to do.

To their credit FDOT has included a number of mid-walk crosswalks, which are crosswalks in the middle of the street rather than at the end. These are particularly important to elderly folks.

But the street is still three lanes wide, and there are no bike lanes. There’s the possibility of including a transit lane, but that isn’t garnering much enthusiasm. In a lot of ways the redesign is just more of the same.

What Little Havana needs is slower speeds and more options. It’s about giving people more options to move around. The ability to travel by bike or by transit should be accommodated. Little Havana has the highest transit ridership of all the communities in Miami-Dade County.

This redesign is an opportunity that should be built out with that in mind.

How has the Urban Impact Lab weighed in on the conversation?

Most recently, we’ve worked with local organizations to create a pop-up street redesign demonstration. We had the opportunity to show people what Calle Ocho would look like if we narrowed the lanes and put in a bike lane.

We used temporary materials like chalk tape, signage, and some matting to reconfigure and restripe the street to create a separated bike lane. Right now Calle Ocho is made up of three lanes. What we did is take one of those lanes and make it a white lane dedicated to bikes.

It was done in collaboration with another organization’s event. The organization was called Ciclovía Miami, who shut down Calle Ocho to car traffic and turned it into a 1.2 mile long park for four hours one day in December.

I think the pop-up was really effective in helping people understand what this would look and feel like.

Prior to that, there was a raging debate about bikes, because Citi Bike stations had just been installed. There used to be these open community breakfasts where people would come and talk really informally about the neighborhood. At those conversations there were a lot of arguments around biking around Little Havana.

A lot of people were saying “we could never change 8th Street.” The value in the pop-up was showing people opposed to the idea how it would physically work.

You can’t ever control what’s happening in someone’s imagination. Once they see a physical demonstration, they became more supportive. Even folks who were supportive initially were like “Wow, I really love this.”

We didn’t really have anyone that was against it, but what we did see was more feedback. That’s the value you get with prototyping, it creates more of a conversation and a constructive dialogue.

That’s fascinating. What are some other initiatives you’ve worked on in Little Havana?

We did a Miami Foundation Public Space Challenge event in Little Havana at Domino Plaza, a small plaza between Maximo Gomez Park and the Tower Theater. We covered the plaza with suspended, colorful umbrellas to show how something as simple as shade can bring life to an open plaza in Miami, where it’s often too hot to be outside without some shading.

We’re also part of a “Live Healthy” initiative in Little Havana in collaboration with the Health Foundation of South Florida. We’re talking about what strategies can improve physical activity, create safer streets, which includes bigger bike lanes and more public transit.

Why do you spend so much time working in Little Havana?

Little Havana is one of the parts of Miami that has the infrastructure for a great community. With the majority of the neighborhood going beyond 8th Street, it’s assembled in short blocks. It’s a grid, not some weird cul-de-sac arrangement with dead ends like other neighborhoods in Miami. It’s also medium density, which means that there’s multi-family condos, shared spaces, and an authenticity and an uniqueness that is very Miami.

It’s also very attractive, and has a value for its character, which I think is important for Miami to preserve. It not only builds Miami’s sense of place, but also is valuable from a tourism and economic perspective.

What’s your favorite part of the neighborhood?

There’s a huge tree on SW 13th Ave., just off of 8th Street. with giant roots in the middle of a really peaceful linear park that runs along the middle of the street. This beautiful old tree is the centerpiece of the park. I love it because it’s part of a vibrant, diverse, colorful, and ethnic community but when you approach it you get a sense of immense peacefulness. But then if you walk just a block away, you can be dancing salsa on the street in the matter of five minutes.