Special to the South Florida Times

OPA-LOCKA — Shayna Mitchell has lived in Opa-locka since she was 3 years old. By the time she turned 12, she knew about all the bad things that happened in the Magnolia North neighborhood, also known as “The Triangle:” drug trafficking and crimes of opportunity.

“I never wanted to go over to Magnolia North,” Mitchell, now 18, said at a recent charrette or visioning workshop which showed residents a proposed renewed Magnolia North, with gateways, not barricades, a business and residential district and a neighborhood center.

“Anything that can be done over there would be an improvement,” Mitchell said.

The Triangle, bordered by Northwest 151st Street, Ali Baba Avenue and Northwest 22nd Street, will have tree-lined streets, new medians and a park, showing an extreme makeover.

The two-day charrette — a process of gathering big ideas and producing best practices and sustainable plans with local and national architects, planners and housing professionals – also unveiled a new downtown Opa-locka.

The charrette’s findings were also presented to the Opa-Locka City Commission during a workshop Dec. 2. The commission has asked the architects from the charrette to return to present details at a commission meeting, including land-use and rezoning needs.

“The council didn’t move; we just listen to presentations and looking at good ideas,” said Mayor Myra Taylor. “It just solidified what I, and also the rest of the council, want for the particular area.”

Taylor said because of Opa-Locka’s size – 4.2 square miles – it is easy to see what needs to be done and where. She is most excited about the plans to turn the historical old city hall into a tourist destination.

The charrette plans show a tree and business-lined Opa-locka Boulevard reminiscent of towns that have Main Streets. The idea is for a gift and coffee shop to be opened in the old city hall, where regular programming, such as First Fridays, could be held.  Eventually, the city hall could be a stop on a tour of the Greater Miami area.

But the biggest transformation is slated for Magnolia North – The Triangle.

Cordoned off from the rest of the city because of high crime, the neighborhood and its buildings crumbled. Several tracts of city- and county-owned land lie barren where public housing complexes were razed. The charrette suggests building homes, businesses and a recreation center on those sites.

The Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC), headed by former mayor and state legislator Willie Logan will take a lead role in the project.

But already Magnolia North is undergoing a transformation. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami has received 26 vacant lots from Miami-Dade County to build homes in the neighborhood. The non-profit home builder has so far completed nine homes on Northwest 151st Street, said Joseph McDaniels, a spokesman for Habitat.

Joseph said he is aware of ongoing efforts by the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation (OLCDC) to provide affordable housing in the area, adding Magnolia North needs all the help it can get.

No formal partnership has been established between the two groups.

“We are working alongside the CDC and will keep the lines of communication open,” said McDaniels.

The charrette was organized by the OLCDC, which recently received $20 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program. It has decided to use the funds to spur jobs and business expansion, as well as purchase and redevelop foreclosed and abandoned homes.

To start the ball rolling, the CDC’s founder, Willie Logan, brought in architects and planners from around the country to meet with residents to create a vision of the new Opa-locka.

The charrette’s activities included a bus tour of Magnolia North, with planners getting off the bus and seeing empty lots and boarded up buildings. Planners also saw many of the residential projects already completed by the CDC and Habitat for Humanity. They also saw many abandoned homes and rental buildings that showed numerous code violations. And they admired the efforts of small businesses, especially in the automobile industry, sprinkled throughout the city.

What emerged from the two days of intense education, tours and brainstorming, is a plan for downtown Opa-locka that would be a regional destination, since the city has access to Tri-Rail, an airport and an expected express Miami-Dade Transit bus route along Northwest 27th Avenue. Planners thought that the city should leverage its ability to house businesses associated with transportation.

But, to make any of it happen, the city has to develop and maintain partnerships with more groups such as Habitat for Humanity, as well as universities and foundations, and woo private investment.

“You will have to do a lot of positive publicity,” Mary Means, of Mary Means & Associates, said at the charrette. She created the National Main Street concept that more than 1,300 US cities have used to make changes to their downtowns.

That would be an uphill climb for a city that is known for crime and a poverty rate estimated at 26 percent.

And the planners couldn’t say exactly how to sustain the project since the $20 million available to the CDC would not complete the transformation. Neither could they give residents a time line for completion.

But plans have to be drawn up, to know where you are going, said David Dixon, of Goody Clancy & Associates. “Life is what happens when you plan it,” he said.

Means said now that the community has a plan, it will take everyone working together to see it to fruition. She couldn’t say definitively to residents when to expect results but said residential projects could “come out of the ground” in about a year.

Logan said he already has acquired some property for the residential part of the project and is in negotiations for others.

JAMES FORBES/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES. FIRST-HAND LOOK: From left, Willie Logan, executive director of the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation; Opa-locka Vice Mayor Dorothy Johnson; and Jim Carras and Maurice Cox take a look at a structure in the Magnolia North neighborhood of the city during a tour by a charrette team on Nov. 30.