By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Update Dec. 20 – Former U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch won conditional approval early Friday morning from a key Hollywood board to build a controversial Ben Gamla middle and senior charter high school in a traffic congested neighborhood near City Hall.
In a vote taken about 1 a.m. today, the Hollywood Planning and Development Review Board approved a zoning exception that would allow construction of a three-story, 34,000 square foot building for up to 600 students.
The board also approved 29 conditions – one more than originally requested by the city — that the school must adhere to. Those conditions mostly address traffic an school operational issues.
City Manager Kathy Swanson-Rivenbark said the city would make sure Ben Gamla lives up to the provisions.
The meeting lasted seven hours. The board heard from speakers on both sides of the issue.
Nearby residents were against the project because of what they said are difficult existing traffic conditions. Parents of children attending Ben Gamla’s adjacent K-8 school spoke in support.
Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla schools in South Florida, could not be reached for comment.
City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the community surrounding the Van Buren Street school, said residents were disappointed. He said the board’s action “this seems like business as usual.”
Hernandez said he will request a review by the city commission, but he’ll need the support of two other city commissioners before the matter would come before elected body. If not, the school can proceed with its project.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Dec. 17 – A Hollywood city commissioner says former U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch will likely receive approval this week from a key review board to build a Ben Gamla middle and senior charter high school on traffic congested Van Buren Street near City Hall.
Commissioner Peter Hernandez predicts the city’s Planning and Development Review Board will back a recent city staff recommendation to grant a zoning exception that would permit construction of a three-story, 34,000 square foot building for up to 600 students in the residential neighborhood east of I-95.
Hernandez, who represents the area, said the staff report generally influences planning board members. “There are people on the board who endorse whatever staff recommends,” he added.
Asked if Deutsch would win, Hernandez said, “That’s what it looks like,” adding, “The neighborhood will lose.”
“The administration has catered to this applicant,” Hernandez said. He explained that the city administration had promised, but failed to keep the community updated on discussions with Ben Gamla officials about various issues, including traffic solutions.
The proposed school stirred neighborhood opposition when Ben Gamla’s original plans for a 1,050 student middle-high school, across from an existing Ben Gamla K-8, became public four months ago.
APPROVAL WITH CONDITIONS
On Thursday, the planning board will review the staff report, which includes an approval recommendation subject to 28 conditions.
“We are recommending approval subject to [Ben Gamla] meeting all of the conditions,” said Hollywood City Manager Kathy Swanson-Rivenbark, who could not be reached later for comment on Hernandez’s remarks.
Area residents are expected to speak against the school because they say it would worsen traffic already congested by the existing school. Ben Gamla parents and students are expected to speak in support of the proposed school, as they have done at other public sessions.
Approval by the nine-member planning board would allow Ben Gamla be able to move forward, unless three of seven city commission members call for their own review.
John Passalacqua, who chairs the city planning board, did not return calls seeking comment.
Neither Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla charter schools, nor Ben Gamla lawyer Alan Koslow, a former Hollywood city attorney, responded to requests for comment.
Sharon Miller, principal of the Ben Gamla K-8 school in Hollywood, has been involved in some meetings regarding the project, but said she was not prepared to discuss the matter. “Thanks for reaching out,” she said, declining comment.
The proposed high school is a joint effort of the English-Hebrew language Ben Gamla Charter Schools and the Doral Academy located in Miami-Dade. Both are managed by Academica, a large for-profit charter school management company based in South Miami.
Commissioner Hernandez is skeptical about the process, having received the staff report only days ago. “I don’t know how much scrutiny this will get,” he said.
While the board will have a 157-page report from staff that supports approval, Hernandez said speakers will only have three minutes to outline their views. “The residents’ voices will be muffled,” he said.
A DONE DEAL?
“I hope they give the time and due diligence,” Hernandez said of the Planning and Development Board members. “But as far as the city staff is concerned this is a done deal by the city administration.” He said he would ask the matter be postponed because he has questions about some of the information provided by the city staff.
City Planning and Development director Jaye Epstein’s staff said he instructed that any questions be referred to the city’s public information director Raelin Storey.
Storey said city staff members have met a number of times with representatives from Ben Gamla to discuss issues. She said she could not say whether Ben Gamla officials agree with the 28 conditions needed to gain approval for the school.
Most of the conditions involve school operational and traffic issues, such as drop-off and pickup times and locations and use of police and traffic guards.
Several issues have apparently been resolved, altered or clarified since plans were first announced, according to city documents.
Ben Gamla has scaled the project down to a $3.7 million, three-story, 34,000 square foot building for a maximum of 600 students. Originally, it proposed a $5 million, four-story, 49,000 square foot building for 1,050 students. The school will start out with 524 students and can only go to the maximum 600 if it provides 21 more parking spaces.
Ben Gamla had sought to be ready to open for the 2014-2015 school year, but a delay until 2015-2016 is likely.
As a buffer for the surrounding residential areas, the school would be required to build a six-foot concrete wall along the east, south and west sides of the 1.52 acre school property fronting Van Buren Street, between 26th and 28th Avenues.
The proposed recommendations also resolve an issue about the capacity of the existing K-8. During the city’s review for the proposed school, the city staff stated that city documents indicated Ben Gamla was to have a maximum of 584 students at the K-8 when the school added several classrooms.
In response school officials said plans approved by the city would allow for 672 students, although the school currently has 660 students. The issue was resolved in favor of the school; the city staff recommendation sets the Ben Gamla K-8 capacity to 660.
While the city is permitting only 600 students at the proposed new school, the Broward School Board agenda item set the student capacity of the Ben Gamla-Doral Academy school at 1,050. The school board approved charters for the proposed middle-senior high school in November. A spokesperson for the school district said the actual capacity of the schools would be established during negotiations following the school board approval.