Smaller size of Pinewood Acres school does not satisfy neighbors

The company proposing a massive charter school that residents say will destroy the tranquility of their East Kendall neighborhood unveiled revised plans Thursday that reduce its footprint by 10 percent.

But company representatives refused to tell nearly 200 angry residents the number of students the new plans would accommodate.

“I don’t want to guess and give you a number and disappoint you later,” Holland & Knight attorney Juan Mayol told the crowd.

Academica, which manages Somerset Academy along with dozens of other charter schools around the country and online, is taking over the small, private Pinewoods Acres school at 9500 SW 97th Ave. in the fall.

For the last six decades, the same family ran the school on a ranch-like campus that in recent years enrolled fewer than 200 elementary and middle school students. Academica is proposing a campus with 2,000 students from prekindergarten through 12th grades.

The school, called Somerset Bay at Pinewood Acres, has received a charter from the school district and will open this month with students from pre-K through sixth grade. But to expand beyond the 290 students now allowed, it must win approval from the county.

Tucker Gibbs, an attorney hired by nearby residents, said he expects the county commission to hold its one and only hearing on the matter at the end of the year or early 2014.

In February, during a meeting attended by dozens of residents, county staff rejected Academica’s initial plans for buildings totaling more than 100,000 square feet on the eight-acre site, saying that size would overwhelm the surrounding neighborhood. The school is entered through 97th Avenue, a two-lane road that serves not only residents but Killian High School, about 4,000 feet away.

Neighbors have vigorously opposed the project based on the traffic it would generate: an estimated 1,850 trips during morning drop-off alone.

“Right now, I can’t even get out of the house when Killian is letting out,” said Dr. Alvaro Gomez. “At the end of the day, this may be a beautiful school, but it comes down to number one, traffic, number two, traffic and number three, traffic.”

School architect Rolando Llanes told residents he tried to address their concerns by changing the flow of traffic into and out of the campus, and providing longer drop-off lines as well as space for buses. In addition, the number of parking spaces has been increased to 196, he said, although only 25 would be reserved for student drivers.

He also detailed a new site plan that redistributes buildings previously clustered on the south side of 96th Street, which bisects the campus. The new design, he said, calls for open corridors and buildings more equally divided on either side of the street.

“It takes into consideration the key points: traffic, the positioning of the buildings on the site, the nuances of the building, their transparency and volumes of mass,” he said.

Llanes said the company plans on resubmitting the new plans to the county by late September. Also, the new design places the elementary school on the north campus and the middle and high schools on the south campus.

But resident Victor Alonso, who is also an architect and director of Design and Sustainability for the Miami-Dade County Schools, said the design still poses a safety risk because students would have to cross a public street, something not allowed in public schools under the State Requirements for Educational Facilities (SREF). The Legislature, he said, exempted charter schools from the regulations, which also dictate classroom size.

“It really comes down to traffic and safety, whether its 2,000 students or 1,800,” he said. “They have every right to open a charter school. The point is what they’re proposing for that site, it’s not safe.”

The plans, he said, also show smaller classrooms than district classrooms, which average 750 square feet.

“Their average classroom’s 580 square feet,” he said. “They’re like sardines.”

Objections to the school echo a similar battle waged by Coral Gables residents when Somerset took over Christ Journey Church, formerly University Baptist Church, and tried to increase the number of students enrolled in the church preschool from 110 to 700. Like those residents, Kendall neighbors have hired Gibbs, who succeeded at having enrollment at the Gables school capped at 260.

Gibbs explained to residents Thursday that if they oppose the project, they must let commissioners know.

“They have told us they will be open this year with 290 students,” he explained. “So you will see what 290 students brings to your neighborhood.”

Neighbor Jose Suarez, an architect whose glass and concrete home abuts the school campus, formed the East Kendall Homeowners Federation in April and asked residents to donate money to help wage the legal battle. Donations can be made through the group’s web site:

“We’re not against schools. We’re not against education. But we are against what they’re trying to do to our neighborhood,” he said. “We are going to need your financial support, because this is going to be very expensive for us.”

Residents, many of whom received more than 3,500 flyers mailed by the group, asked about getting yard signs printed and vowed to hand out additional flyers.

“I will go door to door and get bodies to come to this meeting,” said resident Nancy Lyons. “We can’t accommodate the traffic we have now. What do you think it’s going to be with 2,000 more students?... Our whole little community is going to go to the dogs. It won’t be worth anything.”

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