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Near booming Little Haiti, a beloved but doomed Catholic high school could be sold

The entrance to Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School, which will close after the academic year ends in 2017 because of declining enrollment and changing demographics. Nearby Little Haiti is teeming with builders seeking to get in on the ground floor of Miami's next big thing. One firm wants to turn 22 acres directly to the north of Curley into a mixed-use urban center with towers as high as 28 stories.
The entrance to Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School, which will close after the academic year ends in 2017 because of declining enrollment and changing demographics. Nearby Little Haiti is teeming with builders seeking to get in on the ground floor of Miami's next big thing. One firm wants to turn 22 acres directly to the north of Curley into a mixed-use urban center with towers as high as 28 stories. pportal@elnuevoherald.com

Just south of booming Little Haiti, the Archdiocese of Miami is sitting on a potential gold mine: 15 acres of land that make up the campus of Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School, a beloved but doomed Catholic school.

Curley, which opened in 1953, will close next year once its programs and students move to a Catholic school in Miami Gardens — and the church might be getting ready to cash in on the land.

“Interested parties” have approached the Archdiocese about buying the school, the victim of declining enrollment and changing demographics, said spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta.

“On behalf of the Archdiocese, no decision has been made,” Agosta said. “We’re not out looking for offers.”

The location is a developer’s dream: a leafy neighborhood less than one mile from the Louis Vuitton and Hermès shops of Miami’s rapidly growing Design District.

 

Little Haiti is already teeming with builders seeking to get in on the ground-floor of Miami’s next big thing. Reflecting the area’s potential, one firm wants to turn 22 acres directly north of Curley into a mixed-use urban center with 2,798 residential units and towers up to 28 stories high. That developer says it isn’t interested in the adjoining Curley site at 4949 NE Second Ave.

Who is? The church’s tight-lipped policy on public statements (Proverbs 21:23: “Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from trouble”) is fueling rumors and frustrating alumni. The silence is unusual for South Florida’s chatty real estate scene.

Now boosters and parents are asking questions. What will happen to the unspent money they raised to benefit the school? (By some accounts, as much as $700,000.) Why isn’t the Archdiocese being more open about its plans for the site? Was the school closed simply to sell off valuable land?

Sources close to the Archdiocese and school say they’ve heard a $65 million deal is in the works, something the church denies.

“We are being kept in the dark,” said Francine Holland, a member of the school’s board and parent of five Curley graduates. “We’ve heard that a contract has been signed and we’ve heard that talks are going on, but we can’t confirm anything. … It could all be speculation.”

We're not out looking for offers.

Mary Ross Agosta, Archdiocese spokeswoman

Schools looking to expand could be interested in a deal. Maintaining the property for educational uses would save a lengthy re-zoning process. Before the closure was announced, the nearby Cushman School asked about leasing Curley’s athletic fields.

“We wanted to partner with them on sharing the property,” said Arvi Balseiro, who heads private, non-parochial Cushman. “We were looking … to see what we could to do help.”

Around the time Curley’s fate became public, Balseiro heard the property was going to sell “for a tremendous amount of money” far beyond Cushman’s budget. The school instead pursued a property near Biscayne Bay where it plans to open a high school next fall.

Schools aren’t the only ones sniffing around.

The area’s proximity to hotspots like the Design District and Wynwood makes it ripe for the kind of redevelopment projects that can help revitalize a neighborhood — but also push out the people who live there.

Residents of predominantly black neighborhoods close to downtown Miami such as West Coconut Grove and Overtown face the same fears. Already, restaurants and art galleries from other parts of town are relocating to Little Haiti. Investors are snapping up properties and raising rents.

Our culture and history are disappearing.

Jan Mapou, Little Haiti business owner

“Everybody is concerned,” said Jan Mapou, the owner of Liberi Mapou Bookstore in Little Haiti. “It’s going full blast now. These projects are going to swallow Little Haiti. … Our culture and history are disappearing.”

He said two businesses on his block have been forced out by rising rents over the past three months. Almost every week investors ask Mapou to sell the shop he bought for $81,000 in 1994. Now he’s being quoted prices seven and eight times that.

“I tell them no way,” he said. “Over my dead body.”

Fall from grace

In September, the Archdiocese announced it would close the Curley campus after the current academic year. Students will attend a long-time rival in Miami Gardens, Monsignor Edward Pace High School, starting in the fall of 2017.

Enrollment in urban religious schools is falling nationwide as families move to the suburbs. The number of students attending Curley dropped from 272 in 2015 to 229 this year. (And that’s down by more than half since the 1960s.)

Alumni grieved the closure of a high school that in 1960 became the first in Miami-Dade County to integrate African Americans and the first Catholic school in Florida to desegregate. Curley went co-ed following a merger with all-girls Notre Dame in 1981. It has also welcomed Cuban refugees and, more recently, newcomers from the Caribbean and Latin America. Many of its students are from low- and mid-income families, straining scholarship funds.

The school is already being dismantled. On Wednesday afternoon, workers loaded football pads and musical equipment onto a truck bound for Pace.

The Archdiocese maintains Curley is merging with Pace, rather than closing, and said Curley high school students in good standing are guaranteed a spot at Pace for the next school year.

“Doors are not being closed to the students,” spokeswoman Agosta said. “Doors with an expanded academics, campus life, sports, appropriate financial aid, and strong Catholic presence in the community are being opened.”

And the church says it will honor all donations made to Curley. Agosta said the Archdiocese will communicate its plans “before the completion of the merger.”

Meanwhile, many donors feel out of the loop.

Tom Shannon graduated from Curley in 1961 when tuition cost $18 per month. He later grew wealthy in the restaurant business and contributed generously to his alma mater. One check for $50,000 was cut specifically to renovate the school’s aging athletic facilities, he said. Those improvements never happened. Since then, silence.

I would like to understand where the money went.

Tom Shannon, alumnus

“They told me the funds would be held in escrow,” Shannon said. “I would like to understand where the money went.”

Even so, he said, as a businessman he understands the church’s predicament.

“If there’s no market for your product and you’re sitting on valuable land, you have to consider your options,” Shannon said. “That piece of land is gold. They could flip it and build a new school.”

The now defunct North Dade Medical Foundation also donated to the athletic facilities project, awarding Curley a $133,000 grant in 2007 to help build a new physical education building. In a civil court petition filed in 2015 to allow the use of the money for other purposes, Curley stated that because of the economic downturn, the school had been unable to raise the rest of the funds needed to build a new facility.

When they heard the school was closing, some donors sent letters to Archbishop Thomas Wenski asking they be given the option of receiving a refund.

“I could use some of the money for other charities I support since the school is not going to be there anymore,” said Curley alumnus Guy Brickman, who donated $75,000 for a new athletic center, which was never built. He was told the Archdiocese would contact him, but hasn’t heard from the church again.

Curley was the first high school in Miami-Dade to integrate.

Charles Intriago, a former federal prosectuor who graduated from Curley in 1960, is skeptical economic difficulties alone can explain the decision to shutter Curley, northeast Miami-Dade’s only Catholic high school. He speculated there could be a “hidden agenda … to peddle the land” on the part of the Archdiocese.

One family that has donated heavily said they were saddened to learn that the school they helped build would soon close. John Quirino and his wife Gabriella sent their son to Curley in the mid-1990s and have given money to build a softball field and to remodel the library computer lab, school restrooms, the gym locker room and the school’s main office, among a number of other projects. All have been completed.

“I think if you were in my position you would be very sad that all of our efforts have gone to naught,” Quirino said.

Mystery buyers

It’s not clear who is leading the pack to buy Curley.

The property stretches from Northeast Second Avenue to Northeast Fourth Avenue in a quiet neighborhood that seems destined to grow more upscale. Nearby shops reflect a stable but far-from-wealthy neighborhood with a strong immigrant presence: a fish market, coin laundry and Western Union.

Here’s one measure of how valuable Curley’s land could be — and how much the neighborhood is set to change.

Just to the school’s north, developers have unveiled a $631.5 million plan to turn a gated complex of aging low-rise apartments called Design Place into a massive, mixed-use development with rental apartments, retail, hotels, high rises and parks. City approval is required for the 22-acre project, called Eastside Ridge.

At a meeting of the city’s Urban Design Review Board on Wednesday, board members raised questions about the plan’s scope and deferred its approval until a January meeting. The board was short-handed just before the holidays and wanted more members present. Dozens of neighborhood critics showed up to the meeting, according to the Real Deal.

As for Curley, the architect and designer of Eastside Ridge, Kobi Karp, says his clients have not expressed interest in the site, despite chatter from alumni that they might be interested. The special area plan Karp submitted to the city — which would allow for rezoning and more density — does not include the school.

We have 22 acres. It’s plenty big already.

Kobi Karp, architect

“We have 22 acres,” Karp said. “It’s plenty big already.”

But bidders are circling the Curley site, said Tony Cho, a developer who is embarking on a major, mixed-use project 10 blocks north. (Cho says he’s not among them.)

“I have heard there has been some interest on both sides, from buyers and the seller,” Cho said.

Miami historian Paul George, a Curley graduate from the class of 1960, believes change is inevitable for Little Haiti and the neighborhood around the school.

“It’s going to be a really pricey, hip, upscale neighborhood,” George said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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