By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Five weeks after receiving approval for a middle-senior high school in Hollywood, Ben Gamla charter school officials are exploring “substantive” changes to the project, sparking renewed controversy.
Officials for area civic and residential groups who oppose the project say they are stunned that the school wants to add another floor so soon after the city Planning and Development Board ‘s Dec. 19 approval of a zoning exception allowing a two-story, 34,000 square foot facility for 600 students on Van Buren Street near City Hall.
The proposed changes, opponents say, demonstrate that Ben Gamla officials are not satisfied with the recent agreement and now want a bigger impact in the area. They want city officials to hold the school to the recently approved agreement.
“I can’t believe that in a little over a month he’s back,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary for the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, referring to school founder and former U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch.
“He’s got chutzpah,” Fowler said. “Now he’s come back to take green space on the roof to make a third story. Once you build it can be converted later.”
“If they enclose the third floor they can redo it [later] for classes,” added Shirley Stealey, secretary-treasurer for the Highland Gardens Civic Association. “We are concerned and upset.”
City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the area and opposed the project, said, “I’m not surprised; they want more.”
Hernandez and unhappy neighborhood groups fought the project saying, among other things, that traffic is already congested in the area due to the existing Ben Gamla K-8 school, across from the proposed new school.
Word of the possible change in plans spread after a Jan. 28 meeting between Deutsch and his lawyer, former Hollywood City Attorney Alan Koslow, with city planning officials.
City spokeswoman Raelin Storey said Ben Gamla officials had asked for the meeting to discuss the project.
“We didn’t expect these types of changes,” she said.
Deutsch and Koslow informed the city the school was exploring enclosing the third floor rooftop – designed previously as green space — for gymnasium complex, and proposed to use a lot to the south of the building site for additional parking.
These are “substantive changes” that would require additional approval by the planning board, Storey said. The board’s previous approval included 29 conditions, most dealing with traffic, the school agreed to implement in order to gain the zoning exception.
Ben Gamla did not present a formal application regarding the changes, but the day after the meeting conceptual renderings for the third floor enclosure – a main gymnasium, a second smaller gym, a weightlifting area, and locker rooms – were delivered to the city, Storey said.
The top floor addition would be approximately 15,000 square feet, bringing the size of the entire structure to around 49,000 square feet. That’s about the same size of Ben Gamla’s initial plan for a school to accommodate 1,050 students.
City planning director Jaye Epstein did not return a call seeking comment.
Deutsch, an expatriate now living in Israel, and Koslow did not respond to requests for comment. City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark also did not return calls for comment.
Residents were critical of the city amid the renewed flap about the project, which is a partnership between Ben Gamla and the Doral Academy, a Miami-Dade based charter school in Doral.
Fowler, of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, called the city’s planning and development process “favorable to development.”
Helen Chervin, of United Neighbors Civic Association of South Hollywood, said the city’s interests in a project of this magnitude and controversy should not be represented principally by the planning department.
“ The city manager (Swanson-Rivenbark) should be handling this,” said Chervin, who predicted Ben Gamla will likely get “what it wants.”
Hollywood’s planning process for approving zoning exceptions does not directly involve city commissioners. For example, Ben Gamla’s exception was approved by the planning board on Dec. 19, but wasn’t reviewed later by the city commission because only one commissioner, Hernandez, sought a review. Three commissioners must request a review.