March 23, 2013

Hillcrest senior community in Hollywood braces for potential charter school

Hundreds of residents of Hillcrest, a predominantly senior community, say plans to build a charter school nearby just don’t make sense.

John Lecluse likes to start his morning sitting on the porch of his apartment overlooking the 18th green of Hillcrest Golf & Country Club golf course, soaking in the peace and quiet.

But a proposal to build a charter school in the heart of the Hillcrest neighborhood — a sprawling community where the majority of the residents are 55 or older — threatens to wreck the lifestyle Lecluse has come to love.

“They are ruining my life,” said Lecluse, 77. “It’s ridiculous.”

But the developers of an empty building at 1100 Hillcrest Drive see it differently. They say the school will take a deteriorating building that has been shuttered for months and provide an asset to a community that is getting younger.

“I think we are in total harmony with Hillcrest,” said Alan Koslow, the attorney representing the developers, HarwinTobin LLC and 110 Hillcrest Drive LLC, at a recent Hollywood Planning and Zoning Board meeting. “I can’t think of a better use.”

The developers plan on retrofitting the more-than-40,000-square-foot building, which was once a recreation facility called Playdium, at 1101 Hillcrest Dr., into Florida Intercultural Academy. There will be classrooms, a cafeteria and three outside play areas, including one that abuts Building 16, where Lecluse lives.

Charter school officials say parents will drop their children off in three shifts from 7 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. Pick-up will run from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

The school, which is now located at St. John’s Episcopal Church, has outgrown its space, said the charter school’s CEO Cyndi Dotson. There is a second location in Davie.

“That facility currently is inadequate,” she said saying the school has grown from 50 students when it opened in 2005 to 300 students currently.

The new school would eventually accommodate 850 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. It will only have 600 students in the first year, school officials said.

“The new facility will actually provide a lot of technology and hands on applications that we don’t have access to at our location in Hollywood,” Dotson said.

Developers say the 2010 census shows there are more than 400 school-aged children in the area, but residents who live there say that’s not so.

“I don’t know where they are getting their numbers, but there are not that many children here,” said Gil George, 78, who is the president of the condo association for building 16.

George, like many other residents in the area, is a snowbird from Cleveland. He spends about four months a year in his Hillcrest second floor condo.

He said he can’t imagine how the developers think the old Playdium building is a good location for a school.

“It’s not that we don’t like kids,” George said. “It’s about the location.”

Many Hillcrest residents also say Orangebrook Elementary School, which serves more than 800 students, is only blocks away. The combination of two schools will only clog the streets, they say.

Mark Roth, 70, the president of the condo board for building 26, said he agrees with the idea of fixing the building, but the owners should reconsider the use.

“It needs to be fixed,” said Roth, “but a school is not the right use.”

Hillcrest, which was originally built in 1964, has 24 low-rise and high-rise buildings — more than half of which are age restricted.

But Herb Tobin, the son of Ben Tobin, the original owner of the land where the Hillcrest condos and the Playdium were built, said change is good and the old recreation building is only an eyesore for the community.

“It was left alone on its path of destruction, and now is closed and shuttered, and stands as a symbol of the Hillcrest community in decline,” Herb Tobin said. “We look at the Playdium as a building to be reborn as a catalyst for growth.”

He added that the school will also be open to the community on nights and weekends for classes and meetings.

In order for the Playdium to be converted into the charter school, which could open as early as this August, the developers need city zoning approval.

At a recent Planning and Development Board meeting, where dozens of seniors begged city representatives to reconsider, the board gave its blessing to the project.

“I think it’s good for the community; I think it’s good for Hollywood,” said John Passalacqua, Planning and Development Board chairman.

But Lecluse, who bought his condo 20 years ago, doesn’t think the “terrible traffic” the new school will create will be good for the community.

The school will add hundreds of cars to a street that for the most part is only wide enough for one lane in each direction, he said.

Lecluse says if the school gets approved, he will no longer be able to wake up peacefully and enjoy his morning tea, bread and cheese on his porch.

“At this stage of my life I don’t need to be dealing with this kind of stress,” he said.

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