Hail and farewell at Overtown Park West CRA

Community Redevelopment Agency, Clarence Woods brought more affordable housing, job training programs and businesses to Overtown.

After serving as the director and assistant director of the agency charged with the redevelopment of Overtown and Park West area since 2007, Woods resigned on Dec 1. His successor is Cornelius Shiver, Wood’s Number 2 person.

Woods, 51, who said he “loves serving the community where he grew up,” will continue to serve in the government sector as senior project representative for City of Miami Department of Real Estate Asset Management, a position in which he plans to retire in by 2019.

Leaving at the pinnacle of success at the CRA, Woods now wants to pursue more real estates and noted that his first love has always been entrepreneurship. “Positions like that come with a shelf life,” said Woods. “You try to do as much good, for as long as you can.”

During his tenure as CRA director, the agency has invested $60 million into about 900 affordable-housing units and about $5 million into infrastructure, accomplishments Woods said he is proud of.

With the assistance of former Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, Commissioner Keon Hardemon and the bond market, Woods said the CRA was able to “eliminate the slum and blight” from Overtown and create a cleaner and safer community.

“The conditions have changed dramatically. When I came to Overtown, there was a bunch of vacant land because of the past transit developments, I-95 and I-395,” said Woods. “It caused a lot of businesses to close and people to leave the area.”

The first renovation that the CRA made under his direction was a $5 million makeover on Northwest Third Avenue from Eighth to 13th streets. The project consisted of a total revamp of the sewage and drainage system, broader streets, new lighting and fresh green spaces.

Woods said the streetscape project “changed the whole look of Third Avenue” and attracted potential developers into the area which lead to rapid development for Overtown.

“That was the way we were able to bring back some density into the Overtown neighborhood,” he said. “Meaning people that could purchase goods and services.”

Overtown has in return reinvested into more developments, said Woods.

Over the last year, the SEOPW CRA invested $2.2 million into the Overtown Plaza project, which involved the acquisition and renovation of a shopping center on 14th street, which was once the home of the Neighborhood Enhancement Team.

The project kicked off with the opening of the first major grocery in 12 years with a $500,000 bonus for other prospective tenants.

Woods said the turn over of funds has also kept the native residents in Overtown and revived the rich history of the community.

Overtown is one the oldest neighborhoods in the city of Miami. Influenced by segregation, it served as a thriving village of Black collectivism before the ‘70s. Businesses were owned by the residents, and they saw profits from in and outside of the community, according to the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.

The old Overtown dissipated, which Woods also noted as a result of construction of the two expressways.

However, the CRA has been able to resurrect some of the landmarks of the neighborhood’s golden past including the renovation of the Lyric Theater.

Woods also touted renovations at the long-standing, affordable-housing communities, Town Park which houses around 432 families and the hospitality and technology training programs secured by the CRA for Overtown residents.

The CRA’s progress in the neighborhood has not gone on without criticism from residents, according to Woods.

“We get a lot of complaints about the fact that we’ve done such a good job that Overtown is now being gentrified,” he said.

Longtime Overtown resident, Irby McKnight said that although he is not happy about the gentrification, he does not blame any of it on Woods.

“How do you build six new buildings, and none of them have 10 people from Overtown in them, not even 20 people combined,” said McKnight.

McKnight added that the strict requirements at the new “high rises” has barred those residents from getting approval which is not any fault of the CRA director.

“I don’t hold anything against Mr. Woods,” he said. “He followed the orders given to him and did them well.”

Woods said the renovations at Town Park and the new businesses opening up shop in the area mean more available resources for current residences and a better place to live.

“We think that we have actually done a good job at bringing a balance,” he said.

His biggest challenge as the head of the SEOPW CRA, Woods said, was gaining the trust of the community.

woods
Clarence Woods

He said the mistrust comes from the detrimental track left by government officials in the neighborhood, some which lead to the original demise of the community and the construction of I-95 and I-395, and most of it stemming from broken promises.

As a result, Woods said, the CRA encourages the public to come to meetings and “get involved” in the process. Yet residents show a high level of apathy in response.

“Because they think it doesn’t matter if I go to this meeting or whatever, y’all going do what you going to do anyways, and we are going to wind up bearing the brunt of what happens.”

Hardemon, who also serves on the CRA board chair, has been a custodian for transparency, according to Woods.

He made us accountable for making sure that all of the money we had went to the people here in the Overtown area,” Woods said.

Despite his successful run, Woods said he was apprehensive about taking on the position as executive director five years ago.

“When I was appointed I was not elated. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility,” he said.

Woods handled the responsibility well. Under his leadership the SEOPW CRA has won the Florida Redevelopment Association’s top honors, it’s President’s Award for 2017 and 2016.

Woods said the CRA’s success was a team effort with his former assistant director, Cornelius Shiver, who has been appointed as his successor.

Shiver said he and Woods share a positive friendship and a successful working relationship.

“Clarence executed the vision of two CRA chairmen with integrity and thoughtfulness for Overtown. Like most successful executives, he decided to leave while on top of his game,” said Shiver.

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