Coral Way Residents Fight Politically Tied Montessori Project

Village Montessori wants to move to this site, located partially in a residential zone.
Village Montessori wants to move to this site, located partially in a residential zone. Photo by Maritza Barrios
Over the course of his life, Frank Rodriguez has lived in multiple houses in Coral Way. He grew up in the Miami neighborhood and moved back as an adult after stints in Kendall and Miami Beach. In 2012, Rodriguez and his wife bought their home on SW 21st Terrace partly because of the great location.

"I'm able to walk to Brickell, to the Rickenbacker, to the beach," Rodriguez says. "I've walked to Coconut Grove. I walk to Little Havana all the time to get my coffee."

Rodriguez's house has always been close to the Coral Way commercial corridor, which is perfectly fine with him. But now he's fighting a preschool development that's trying to move into his residential neighborhood.

"I'm a 100 percent pro-business individual, but always keep it within your business boundaries," he says.

In June, attorneys for the Village Montessori School — a family-run preschool that's been in the area for several years — petitioned Miami's planning department to relocate to a site that includes a portion of Rodriguez's residential block. Dozens of neighbors spoke out against the project. About 50 of them signed a petition opposing the relocation, claiming the school will create a traffic nightmare on the one-way street. Up to 190 children would be allowed to attend the school, which would be staffed by 17 employees.

Miami commissioners are expected to vote on the matter at a meeting in November.
The move requires a special exception because the school would take over a single-family home at 1292 SW 21st Ter., in a residential zone. Initially, the city's planning staff recommended the project be approved by the Planning, Zoning, and Appeals Board (PZAB). At a July 17 meeting of the board, attorney Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, representing Village Montessori, said the home would be used as an administrative office and argued that the preschool is already a part of the neighborhood's footprint.

"Village Montessori has been part of this neighborhood for over a decade," said Diaz de la Portilla, a former state senator and brother of District 1 county commission candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla. "They're simply moving down the block."

But board members weren't satisfied with his explanation of how the preschool would manage carpool lines and parent pickup, and they ultimately voted down the project.

"There's other places you could put the school that would serve the purpose," board member Alex Dominguez said at the meeting. "I just don't think it's a good fit in that particular street."

Neighbors cheered when the PZAB blocked the preschool's relocation. But Diaz de la Portilla appealed the decision August 22, putting the project up for reconsideration, this time in front of the Miami City Commission.

Because the commission meeting won't take place until next month, Rodriguez says he and his neighbors are concerned Alex Diaz de la Portilla would vote on the project if he were elected to the commission.

"We fear that," Rodriguez says.

Miguel Diaz de la Portilla did not respond to an email from New Times asking how he would address residents' concerns about traffic and his political connections.

Residents have also disputed the timetable for the appeal. City Attorney Victoria Méndez tells New Times the appeal was filed within the appropriate window of time, but neighbors disagree with her calculation.

Ultimately, Coral Way resident Maritza Barrios says, it's unfair that the decision about the preschool will be left up to the city's five commissioners.

"It's five people telling the people of Florida, telling the neighbors what's good for them," she says. "We shouldn't have to go through this recurring nightmare every time they decide they want to put something in front of our property."
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb