From Vacancy to Vitality in Little Havana

By Mike Powe posted 08-15-2019 10:29


With contributions from Carson Hartmann

In many cities across the country, older neighborhoods are experiencing intense development pressures. City planners, preservationists, and residents are considering how to maintain community identity while also accommodating growth. In such scenarios, infill development presents an opportunity to add new vitality to vacant and underutilized spaces while also preserving existing cultural heritage.

Over the past two years, the National Trust has worked with local partners in Miami, including PlusUrbia Design and the Dade Heritage Trust, to develop a comprehensive revitalization plan for Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The question of how to accommodate new development while conserving neighborhood heritage was central to this work. Released in June 2019, the Little Havana Me Importa Revitalization Plan has already received an Honor Award for Excellence from the International Making Cities Livable Council as well as an Award for Excellence from the American Planning Association's Florida Chapter.

Cover of Report Vacancy to Vitality

By filling in vacant parcels and activating vacant buildings, an already dense neighborhood like Little Havana can accommodate growth while preserving its existing cultural heritage. | Credit: PlusUrbia Design.

As part of the National Trust’s role in developing the Little Havana Me Importa Revitalization Plan, the National Trust’s Research & Policy Lab explored pathways to accommodate neighborhood change without losing the older, smaller buildings that give the area its architectural character and support its rich cultural heritage. Many of these older duplexes, bungalow courts, and small apartment buildings also provide affordable housing for Little Havana residents. Rather than radically change the neighborhood with massive new structures, Little Havana can incorporate new human-scale development comfortably seated alongside beloved older buildings—bringing together longtime residents, local businesses, and current economic opportunities with new vitality, more jobs, and even more bustling streets and sidewalks.

In early 2018, the Research & Policy Lab set out to quantify Little Havana’s vacant and underutilized space. We analyzed county assessor data and the city’s vacant property records and compared this information with recent satellite and street view imagery of the area. Reviewing the neighborhood’s satellite imagery block-by-block, we marked and tabulated vacant spaces. We counted any spaces that were either vacant lots, parcels used exclusively as surface parking lots, or buildings that were reported vacant in the previous 18 months of records. We excluded public parks, active construction sites, and parking spaces that share lots with existing structures.

Our analysis shows that Little Havana has a significant amount of vacant land and relatively few vacant buildings. We found a total of 550 vacant lots (including 99 surface parking lots) representing about 4.6 million square feet of vacant land. We also found 28 vacant buildings totaling about 95,000 square feet of built space. Taken together, Little Havana’s vacant land and surface parking lots occupy an equivalent to the footprint of about seven additional Miami Marlins ballparks.

Vacant Parcels Description

The Research & Policy Lab team identified a total of 550 vacant or underutilized lots, including 451 vacant parcels (yellow) and 99 surface parking lots (orange). We also identified 28 vacant buildings (blue). By constructing new buildings only on these vacant lots and by activating the neighborhood’s vacant buildings, Little Havana can retain valuable older buildings while still accommodating growth. | Map Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation Research & Policy Lab

We then sought to understand the possibilities for using all that vacant and underutilized space. We approached the question through two scenarios. In the first, we assessed the additional potential if all vacant lots in the neighborhood were developed with new buildings constructed to the maximum height, lot coverage, and density, as stipulated in the city’s most recent zoning code update. In the second scenario, we assessed additional use potential if all vacant lots were developed with new buildings no taller than the existing structures on nearby blocks. In both cases, we totaled up the vacant space in each zoning area and applied the city’s average population, job, and business density to come up with an estimate for additional vitality.

Even in the more conservative scenario focused on more compatible building heights, Little Havana could be home to an additional 2,500 new jobs, 10,000 new residents, and 550 new buildings without demolishing a single building.

Vacancy to Vitality Infographic

Graphic Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation Research & Policy Lab

While it may be unrealistic to imagine that all future real estate development in Little Havana might only fill in currently vacant spaces, the exercise of demonstrating the potential addition of new construction without demolition suggests that there are development and growth scenarios for Little Havana that don’t require increasing allowable building height or massing in the neighborhood. Instead, city officials might consider incentivizing infill development, easing restrictions around building reuse, and investing in transit and improved infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians. The new Little Havana Me Importa Revitalization Plan offers ideas and strategies for how this can be done.

Though older neighborhoods are often incredibly dense as a result of small building setbacks, smaller bedrooms, and efficient floor plans, this analysis demonstrates that they can accommodate additional growth while retaining their rich architectural and cultural character. And as demonstrated in the National Trust’s Older, Smaller, Better research, neighborhoods that bring together old buildings and new construction can be the most attractive, thriving environments in a city.

Mike Powe is the director of research and development at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Carson Hartmann was the research manager for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Research & Policy Lab.