Somerset Academy’s plans to turn a family-run private day school in a quiet Kendall neighborhood into a charter school housing 2,000 students would overwhelm the area, county planners told school representatives Wednesday at a crowded public hearing in which they rejected the preliminary plans.
Clustering buildings on either side of a public street that splits the campus would endanger students, staff said. Plans call for the school to be built on both sides of Southwest 96th Street.
“You’re exposing these kids to unnecessary hazards when they cross the street,” said Jeff Cohen, with the county’s traffic engineering division.
Somerset, which has already started soliciting applications to Somerset Bay at Pinewood Acres, entered a lease agreement with the Lones family, which has run the school for 60 years. The family decided it could no longer run the Pre-K through eighth-grade school, whose enrollment has declined.
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Somerset wants to tear down the old ranch-style buildings that dot the eight-acre campus at 9500 SW 97th Ave. and build a new school spanning more than 100,000 square feet and eventually serving students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.
Civica architect Rolando Llanes, who modeled the school after other designs the firm has done for Academica, Somerset’s management company, said the plans respect both the legacy of the Lones’ school and the surrounding neighborhood.
“The thought was to create an architecture that was consistent, and respected the scale of the architecture around it,” he said.
“We feel it’s consistent and will actually be an enhancement.’’
But outraged residents, who say they just learned about the plans two weeks ago and packed the small conference room Wednesday, said it would ruin the peace and serenity of their small enclave, which includes one-acre estates, single-family homes and townhouses.
Most of the streets can be reached only by two-lane 97th Avenue, which would serve as the main entrance to the school.
“Going from 290 students to 2,000 students is not harmonious,” said architect Victor Alonso, who lives in the neighborhood and is also director of Design and Sustainability for the Miami-Dade County School District.
Having students cross Southwest 96th Street, which straddles the campus and leads to about a dozen houses behind the school, is also prohibited by the county, he said.
Under the plans drawn up, students would have to cross the street to reach the cafeteria as well as the pick-up and drop-off areas. County rules require that a school’s buildings have to be contained on one side of a street.
“It’s a major flaw in the project,” he said.
But more worrisome to most neighbors is the traffic generated by the project: an estimated 1,850 trips just during morning drop-off.
“We have native oaks and palm trees, baby foxes living there under the rocks, hummingbirds, snakes. Every beautiful animal you can imagine and guess what? They are still there because the area is beautiful,” said Juliette Glasser, who has lived in a house near the school with her husband for 37 years.
“I mean, is this a joke?”
The objections echo a similar battle waged by Coral Gables residents when Somerset took over the school at Christ Journey Church, formerly University Baptist Church, and attempted to increase the number of students from 110 students to 700. Neighbors hired an attorney and succeeded in capping enrollment at 260 students.
Just last week, Somerset officials told parents at Granada Presbyterian Church that it had lost its lease at the church. The school had taken over the kindergarten classes there last year. Rather than continuing on to Christ Journey, as Somerset promised, the students most likely would be bused to the new Kendall campus unless Somerset can rent another site in Coral Gables.
In addition to concerns about students crossing a public street at the Kendall site, the zoning division found the plans too intensive, said Jacqueline Carranza, a member of the Miami-Dade County’s Developmental Impact Committee.
The county planners’ committee urged school representatives to meet with neighbors and craft a plan in keeping with the neighborhood’s wide open space and quiet streets.
Committee coordinator Jorge Vital also asked if enrollment could be cut, but attorney Hugo Arza said he could not respond Wednesday.
“We’ll meet with staff as many times as it takes and meet with neighbors,” he said. “And the process will continue.”