Honking cars trapped in gridlocked roads have become the norm in Palmetto Bay.
On an average weekday morning, the streets snarl with traffic jams as early as sunrise, and an otherwise short commute in a tiny village to the corner store can take an hour.
So when a developer announced plans to build a charter school in the center of the city's rising downtown, Palmetto Bay was quick to take out its checkbook.
Last month, the city purchased a vacant 2.34 acres of land at the intersection of 97th Avenue and 178th Street for $2.94 million, fearing that a charter school — which was slated to one day welcome up to 1,000 students — would only exacerbate existing traffic woes.
"A charter school would have completely and literally destroyed that area," said Palmetto Bay councilman David Singer. "All these people who don't live here would come, not pay taxes, increase traffic and use our services. There were no benefits at all, so we had to do something."
What would benefit Palmetto Bay's citizens, Singer said, is a community center. Earlier this year, the village council voted 3-2 to scrap the charter school by scrambling to buy the land. Their hope? Building a facility that would feature anything from a pool to classrooms and a gym.
"We have no preconceived notions on what it should have or look like. However a community center is the direction that we're heading in," said Ed Silva, Palmetto Bay's manager. "The intent is to not have to float a bond or raise our taxes and fulfill a need that the community asked for as per the 2007 master plan — they wanted a community center."
About $80,000 of the money was pulled from the city's $10.9 million reserves. The rest of the funds were reallocated from two other restoration projects, including plans to improve roadways near downtown and redevelop the Coral Reef Park multi-use center, city officials said.
Though the council is on board with the idea of a communal facility — which would still have to go up for a vote by the fall — not everyone agreed to the multimillion dollar purchase.
The city's vice mayor, John DuBois, called the purchase "extortion."
"All we did was waste a few million taxpayer dollars," DuBois said. "This is what happens when developers try to sell property to governments at significant profits. They will threaten with land uses that are undesirable to the community — like a charter school in a high-traffic area that will soon be booming with apartments — in order to twist the arm of the government into buying the property. At the end, I highly doubt a charter school would have been built there because it wouldn't have had a high return on investment."
The two-acre parcel, which abuts three acres of soon-to-come condos, was valued at $3 million and $3.9 million by two appraisals paid for by the village.
The developer, Wayne Rosen of Shores Development, asked for $3.2 million, an amount the city couldn't agree to because of state statutes that don’t allow municipalities to buy property above appraised value.
The deal was done for $2.94 million, and the city has already made moves to explore options of what the space will ultimately house. In 2005, Rosen bought a 5-acre plot, including the land he just sold, for $5 million, property records show. About 3 acres of that land he's using to develop condos.
According to Silva, $20,000 was paid to Ballard King and Associates, a consulting firm that will brainstorm what are elements should go into a community center. Also hired for $18,000 was Lambert Advisory Group, a company charged with conducting a feasibility study on how the city can generate revenue from the efforts.
Town hall meetings will be held in the coming months to gather residents' thoughts.
"We're one of very few cities in Miami-Dade without a community center," Silva said. "West Miami, Miami Shores, Miami Lakes, Miami Springs, South Miami, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, North Miami Beach, Pinecrest, Homestead, Doral, and Sweetwater all have some sort of community facility."
Pinecrest is currently working on expanding its community center. Come June 5, Cutler Bay will have a special election, asking residents to approve or deny a $40-million bond for the purchase of open land. Future plans may include a community center and a park, Cutler Bay Mayor Peggy Bell said.
" I see it as a positive addition to our community," Orestes Mayo, a Palmetto Bay resident, told the Miami Herald. "Our downtown area needs to be cleaned up and made attractive. I don’t want to see six-story buildings but rather low-rise growth. A community center doesn’t have to be some massive building. It could be a semi-open space with shelter for gatherings and small events. Imagine two acres that have areas to sit, keeping the downtown from becoming a cement canyon."
But not everybody is on board.
"The whole idea of turning our quiet village into an overcrowded city is what it’s all about. I’m against overdevelopment. [The area] was green before and they’re making into a concrete jungle," Carol Johnson Vega said Monday. "They are trying to build New York City in South Florida."