Southside Elementary is one of those little neighborhood schools that used to be common in Miami. Situated on less than two acres and with an enrollment of fewer than 420 students, it is tiny by today's standards. But that's what parents, students, and teachers like about Southside.
The school, which was built in 1917, has survived hurricanes, the city's boom-and-bust development cycles, street expansions, overcrowding, the Metrorail that shades it on the west side, and a student population that shifted with the surrounding community from predominantly white Southerners to mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. It even survived an attempt by the school district nearly twenty years ago to close it down and capitalize on a hot real estate market.
Located at 45 SW Thirteenth St., and nestled in the path of the latest onslaught of redevelopment pushing west from Brickell Avenue, Southside appears destined to be one of the last of its kind, overshadowed by modern new schools and, in the near future, quite literally by a high-rise complex to be called Brickell View.
BAP Development, Inc., a company co-owned by former Latin Builders Association president Willy Bermello, plans to construct a 39-story twin tower complex around two sides of the school, facing Coral Way and South Miami Avenue. They will house a mixture of condominiums and rental apartments, office and retail space. In theory it's a good project, exactly the type of vibrant living/working urban space the City of Miami had in mind several years ago when it created the Central Brickell Rapid Transit Commercial-Residential District, as it's known in bureaucratese.
Then again city planners weren't thinking about an 80-year-old neighborhood school when they drew up the zoning. "SD-7 zoning means very urban, intense development -- city-that-never-sleeps stuff," says Coconut Grove attorney Tucker Gibbs, who specializes in land-use issues. "It's unfortunate they decided to make this district around an elementary school."
"This is kind of unique," remarks school district construction chief Paul Phillips. "We've never had a high-rise go up right next to one of our schools. They're going to put it in the canyon there." Phillips says the main concerns the district intends to raise with the developer will be safety, dust, noise, and traffic. But because Brickell View doesn't require rezoning, there's not much the school district can do about it, according to Phillips. "All we can do," he says, "is express our concerns, and we plan to."
The city commission will consider approval for Brickell View at its February 8 meeting. Sally Osborne, a supervisor in the school district's governmental affairs department, says she's drafting a letter asking the commission to delay its decision until the district can have a consultant review the traffic-impact study produced by BAP Development's engineer. "Our concern is it's going to take a long time [two years] to build this, and it's being built right next to a very old, very small school," Osborne explains. "Hopefully we'll get some time to review this."
Vivian Bonet, BAP Development's vice president of design and construction, contends that the project should not have taken the school district by surprise. The district has a representative on the city's Large-Scale Review Committee, which gave its blessing to the project months ago. Bonet says the developer plans to set up monthly meetings with the school district to address any concerns about construction as it proceeds.
Bermello's vision extends beyond Brickell View and Southside. He told the city's planning advisory board in mid-January he wants to help the school district "redevelop" the Southside site. He will propose that the school board create an ad-hoc community group to consider replacing the school with a modern facility: "To bring a quality new building, new school, urban, dense, thinking out of the box..., something that will be a joy and a critical aspect of the quality of life in the Brickell area." Some people in the more affluent sections of Brickell hope Bermello's words weren't spoken casually. "Bermello is a very political animal," observes a member of the South Miami Avenue Homeowners Association. "He says all the right things."
The developer's rough idea is to combine a large urban elementary school with retail shops and possibly another residential tower along First Avenue. The project would take up most or all of the block bordered by Coral Way, SW First Avenue, Twelfth Street, and South Miami Avenue. Bermello sees it this way: BAP Development would get the 1.8 acres on which the school now sits (which also happen to be prime real estate) in exchange for building a new school. Then the school facility would revert to the district for management. Sometime in March, Bermello says, he will bring this idea to the school board. Construction chief Phillips thinks the school board could be interested in the idea, but it's hard to say without knowing the details.
Local historian Arva Moore Parks lives within walking distance of Southside Elementary. Over the years she's watched as old school after old school has been boarded up, renovated, or torn down. One of the charms of Southside, she argues, is that it has largely kept its "same sense of itself." She considers the school an anchor of the old neighborhood, one that has managed to bridge the uneasy gap between gentrification and the down-home feel of quiet residential streets. "Willy has the idea of putting a school in the bottom of a high-rise," Parks laments. "I think that's fine for a specialty school but not an elementary school in a traditional neighborhood, which is what it's been since 1914."
One might think the parents and teachers of Southside would want to weigh in on such a significant development, but most don't know what's about to happen next door. Bermello claims he has tried several times to meet with principal Maria Gonzalez to discuss the project, but she hasn't responded. (She also didn't respond to a New Times inquiry.) "You hope that it's going to be for the best," ventures an administrator at the school, who asked not to be identified. "We're a needy school, so we look for partnerships with the community all the time. If you work in a school near construction, you have to be flexible." Maria Martinez, a reading teacher at the school, says she's uneasy about the idea of a high-rise looming over the modest school. "If you asked me, I'd say I don't like it," she declares. "This is such a little school, parents miss it now. With a high-rise they will never see it."
As for parents, many seem not to have heard about the impending development, and they aren't sure what to think of it. Some, like Yamileth Dural, picking her son up from an after-school program, take a live-and-let-live position. "Really I don't have an opinion," she allows, ponytail bobbing above a "Hemp Revival" T-shirt and jean shorts. "The thing is, I have to share my world with everyone. They have a right to be there."
Little Havana resident Edward Shogreen stands in the sandy playground lot behind the school's six portable classrooms. The out-of-work welder absently holds a mermaid Barbie doll in one hand as he watches his two daughters romp on the metal and plastic slides and ramps. Across First Avenue behind him, a steady trickle of people travels home from the Metrorail, the bus stop, or the Publix across Coral Way. "It doesn't seem right to have something like that so close to the kids," he says, frowning at the trees behind the school property where the complex will wrap around one side. "It's a nice little school."
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Gibbs, the attorney, believes the nearly one million dollars in impact fees BAP Development will have to pay to the school district should be plowed back into Southside. But an interlocal agreement between the district and Miami-Dade County requires that impact fees be used to build new schools in a broad "benefit district" roughly in the same sector of the county as the new development. "I'm upset as a resident of the city that impact fees are used to help developers market their communities out west while allowing schools in the inner city to deteriorate," he grumbles.
School officials, on the other hand, don't expect many children to live in the high-rises, and any who did would be unlikely to attend Southside. Bermello agrees. Many children in the Brickell area, he believes, attend private schools, one reason he's pitching the bigger, better, urban-school concept.
According to school district officials, a new school to relieve crowding at several elementary schools, including Southside, already is in the pipeline. (Southside is now at 176 percent intended capacity.) They are predicting construction in the next two to three years on the old Ada Merritt school site, located at 600 SW Third St. The new school, designed to accommodate 1060 students, will include new buildings as well as renovated versions of some of the historic school's old buildings.
Whether Bermello and the district will strike a deal on Southside remains to be seen. "There's no question it's right in the middle of downtown and will become more so each year," Phillips notes. "I can see the handwriting on the wall. Eventually we'll have to get out of there. Not immediately but sometime."