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The new Miami: a series of villages
Not so long ago, Miami-Dade was a story of east — the sprawling Beach — and a mainland of undifferentiated suburbs, centered by a central business district that shut down at 5 p.m. Today the county increasingly is coalescing around a series of urban villages or centers — compact, pedestrian-friendly places where people can live, shop or dine out, even work or go to school, with few or mercifully short trips by car. Here’s a look at some of the county’s burgeoning neighborhoods.
Four years ago, the annual Christmas parade in downtown Homestead was a hard sell.
“If I had 300 people show up to an event I was thrilled,” said Yvonne Knowles, executive director of Homestead Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to the revitalization of the city’s downtown. But the past few years have seen no fewer than 1,000 attendees to the annual parade. Even the pandemic did little to dampen the renewed enthusiasm, with cars lining up for blocks last Christmas for a drive-by parade.
For Knowles, the reason is obvious. Downtown Homestead is in the middle of a renaissance.
“We’re now seeing the fruits of our labor,” said Kametra Davis, executive director of the Homestead Community Redevelopment Agency.
The latest projects to hit downtown Homestead have ushered in increased foot traffic, particularly from families with young children, Davis said. A state-of-the-art library that blends tech and literacy is the world’s first Cybrarium and opened in March. Alongside the two stories of books, kids can play virtual reality video games and build models using 3D printers. Open on Sundays — a rarity for a library — it’s become a major draw for families on the weekends.
The library is a mere block away from Homestead Station, the public-private retail partnership that houses a transit center, 1,000-space parking garage and Florida’s first ShowBiz Cinemas. The national chain brought a movie theater, bowling alley and arcade to the heart of downtown in late 2019.
“Pre-Covid, it was packed all the time. The arcades were full of people; every bowling lane was taken – everybody’s birthday party was there,” said Lianna Reynolds, co-director of Paramount Dance Studio.
Reynolds opened the studio in downtown Homestead’s main street in 2018, drawn to the up-and-coming and cost-efficient location.
“We noticed Miami was very saturated and there was a huge need in the Homestead area for an arts facility catering to minorities and kids,” said Reynolds. She and her sister Ashley Eulette bought the 10,000 square-foot building that drew nearly 400 students ages 3-18 learning anything from jazz to ballroom before the pandemic. The space has three storefronts available for commercial use. A coffee shop will soon be one of Reynolds’ tenants, adding another food option to the collection of Mexican restaurants that dot the North Krome Avenue stretch.
Despite the quiet that’s once again overtaken downtown throughout the pandemic, signs of triumph have sprouted. There’s the “We’re back” sign at the Seminole Theatre – once shuttered for four decades before it was refurbished and reopened in 2015. On a recent Saturday, a crew of more than two dozen volunteer actors ran through a dress rehearsal for “Legally Blonde Jr.,” the first production in over a year after the pandemic shut down an active season.
“When they come down here, people always say ‘I did not know this existed,’” said Francisco Navarro, an active duty master sergeant at the Homestead Air Reserve Base who volunteers as the theatre’s “shop wizard.” He and a crew of volunteers have built sets that have transformed the Homestead stage into New York City for a production of Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and ancient Egypt for an award-winning production of “Aida.” This summer, the theater will turn into Paris for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Paint swatches adorn the outside wall of a new antique shop set to open. A “coming soon” sign boasts the upcoming expansion of Losner Park; the once-quaint park will triple in size with designs from Sasaki Associates, a Massachusetts firm that headed the urban planning of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ main venue. At the now-quiet ShowBiz, families and couples scattered along the bowling lanes.
“It’s our first time here,” said Nadya Cramer, who brought her two young children to the lanes after they tired of being cooped up at home in Key Largo. It won’t be the last time she brings them, said Cramer. It’s a closer drive for her than the few other bowling alleys in the county.
A bypass completed earlier this year to redirect traffic from trucks carrying the zucchinis and tomatoes grown in the surrounding area will soon alleviate noise and congestion downtown. City officials hope the move will make way for outdoor dining and a more pedestrian-friendly district. The project is the latest in a six-year, $260-million expansion and upgrade to Krome Avenue.
It’s been a long time coming for the Homestead, which lays claim to one of the poorest zip codes in the county. The historic downtown area was wrecked by hurricane Andrew in 1992 and plunged into a decades-long economic slump. A change in leadership and an injection of at least $120 million in public and private investments catalyzed a strategy to return the historic district to its former role as the heart of the city.
“We didn’t have any of the big landmarks that make downtown vibrant and bring people here,” said Knowles, who saw the district as a “hidden gem” ever since moving to Homestead from San Francisco in the late 90s.
That all changed in 2016 with the construction of a new, gleaming 75-foot-tall City Hall. “When you have City Hall downtown you start to have the sense of a city,” Knowles said. A brand new police station soon followed in 2017.
A renewed sense of place has driven more families, particularly millennials and first-time homebuyers to the area, said real estate agent and Homestead City Councilman Larry Roth. The median age in Homestead is 30, compared to 40 for the county, according to Census data from 2019. Many residents commute north and south for tourism an other jobs in Miami and the Keys, while others work in agriculture. Homestead Hospital and the Air Reserve Base are additional local job magnets.
The city’s potential has lured people like Katherine Rubio, executive director of the Seminole Theatre. She’s helped book acts like Art Garfunkel that have drawn attendees from as far away as Palm Beach County.
“I made a conscious decision to move here,” said Rubio, who grew up on Miami Beach. “I like the small-town feel and there’s something very special about knowing your neighbors. I wanted to work somewhere where I could start something new and make a difference.”
There’s a thriving interest in the arts — a counterpoint to the city’s history as a cowboy town. The Homestead Rodeo has been drawing crowds to the area for three quarters of a century. The show is scheduled for its 73rd in 2022 after the pandemic canceled
this year’s event.
Despite the interest in the arts, few gallery venues exist in the area, said Charlie Hudson, president of the Homestead Center for the Arts.
“We would love to see people who have been priced out of Wynwood visit us and see what we have to offer,” Hudson said.
She and her husband, both retired military, moved to Homestead in 2004 lured by “the best warm water scuba diving in the continental U.S.,” she said.
The city is hugged by two national parks — the Everglades to the west and Biscayne to the east — and serves as the gateway to the Florida Keys. It’s location is aptly placed for those craving more access to the outdoors, said Roth. But for home buyers, there’s one more major attraction.
“Homestead is still probably one of the most affordable places in the county,” Roth said.
Though perhaps not for long. Median prices for all property types have inched up by 68% over the last five years. In 2016 the median sales price stood at $156,750. Last March, the number was at $263,450, according to data from the Miami Association of Realtors. Much of the housing stock is single-family homes, along with some condos and town homes; few are within walking distance of downtown.
Rental prices also have shot up in the last three to four years, Roth remarked. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo a few years ago would easily rent for $850. The same unit today fetches around $1,300 a month, he said.
The interest in Homestead means that inventory is tight and competition is fierce, Roth said. The average single-family house in the $300,000 range stays on the market less than a week, he said.
Homestead’s 33033 zip code had the highest number of sales for houses priced under $400,000 in 2020, according to Miami Association of Realtors data. Some local Realtors say the city offers home buyers the best value in the county given its low prices and high elevation above sea level — an increasingly coveted feature in South Florida.
Roth along with other city officials envision residential units in downtown in the near future. He has hopes to turn 80 acres a 10-minute drive from downtown into a multi-use park. The site was home to the Homestead Sports Complex, a facility that included a baseball stadium meant to house Major League Baseball spring training. Hurricane Andrew dashed those hopes just after the stadium was built. The structure was demolished in 2019. Roth envisions turning the property into a thriving space for bike trails, water sports, mini golf and perhaps even a zip line.
For city leaders, the mission remains: jump start Homestead and make it more than just a “gateway” to the Keys.
“We don’t just want people to pass through Homestead. We want them to stop and spend some time here,” said Davis. “We’re not just a sleepy town or a farming community anymore. We have big dreams and we’re implementing them.”
HOMESTEAD AT A GLANCE
Demographics: 60% Hispanic, 19% Black, average age: 30
Median household salary: $281,074
Primary work/industry: Agriculture, construction
Median property value: $281,074
School grades: B
Personal crime: 271
Property crime: 165
Source: Data USA, Florida Department of Education and Esri, which ranks crime using a national base line of 100.