Miami-Dade schools, county hall partner on development deal

Miami-Dade’s two largest governmental bodies are looking to formalize a partnership that could help bring yet another condo tower – and possibly a school – to downtown Miami.

The school district and county hall have drawn up a “memorandum of understanding” that would help provide parking for the publicly-owned Adrienne Arsht Center in exchange for an undisclosed plot of land in the urban core that could one day be used for a new school.

The non-binding agreement hinges on the school district successfully selling or leasing a parking lot it owns on Northeast Second Avenue and Northeast 14th Street, just across from the performing arts center. District leaders say their “preferred option” is that the land be developed privately, possibly into a condo tower, with 600 parking spots that the school district and Arsht center can use.

Details such as financial arrangements are sparse because district leaders say they want flexibility to negotiate the best deal.

“I think that this is a great start to what will define the future of this school district and the future of downtown,” said school board member Raquel Regalado.

Some school board members are cautious, however. There are concerns about what selling the land would mean for the district’s headquarters, and about how a new school in downtown might impact schools already in the area.

“We do know the community is changing drastically and we don’t want to usher out the children who don’t have a voice,” said school board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

A solicitation for bids on the district’s land is expected to be released within the next 30 days or so, said Jaime Torrens, the school system’s chief facilities officer. It would be at least the third time the plot is put out to bid.

This time could be different. School and county leaders have been in talks with Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut, who owns vacant land that abuts the school district’s parking lot.

Galbut and the district have talked about building a mixed-use tower that spans both plots, and also provides a new headquarters for the school board. School board member Marta Pérez Wurtz, who represents far-flung west Dade, has said she’d rather see a new headquarters in a more central location.

Galbut will have to respond to the district’s public bid if he really wants the land, and other developers will also have a chance to offer alternatives.

“We don’t want to limit ourselves to one single solution. We are saying there are a number of options,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The latest plans throw the possibility of a new school into the mix, which could be a difficult topic. The neighborhoods that feed into downtown’s schools are vastly different – rich and poor, black, white and Hispanic.

District leaders say there are no immediate plans for a school. But with lots of new residential towers on the drawing board for downtown, school officials say they need to secure a site just in case there’s a future need.

“This is a long-term view,” Torrens said.

School board member Regalado and billionaire activist Norman Braman have pushed for a new high school in the downtown area, even though the high school that serves the neighborhood, Booker T. Washington, has plenty of room for more students.

Carvalho has assured that the school system is committed to keeping Booker T. open and thriving. Besides, the need is for more space in the early grades – not high school. But Bendross-Mindingall reminded district leaders about “iconic” elementary schools in the area that should be protected, too.

“We are not going to do anything that would compromise the viability of a school like Booker T. Washington,” Carvalho said.

Pérez Wurtz, meanwhile, said she’d rather see land secured in southwest Dade for future growth. She said more charter schools are moving into the area, pulling students and funding from district-run schools.

“They’re trying to be the competition out where they’re able to attract parents,” she said.

The agreement needs to be approved by a vote of both the school board and the county commission. The school board vote is scheduled for May 11.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga