The City of Coral Gables has given a carte blanche approval to developer REDEVCO Grand LLC, for their project called Bahamian Village on US1 and Florida Avenue, across the street from George Washington Carver Elementary and Middle School.
The project calls for the construction of a Wawa gas station and convenience store, right across from the front door of the school.
The process began 6 years ago, according to Assistant City Manager Ed Santamaria, who addressed the issue at the October 16th School Community Relations Committee meeting. During said time, he explained, the City deemed it unnecessary to inform residents, the school, parents or the school district, as there was “no legal notification requirement.”
However, City Attorney Miriam Ramos claims the developer went “above and beyond” informing residents within 1,000 feet of the development project. However, the school that sits directly across the street was not notified. Instead, the notification of the development was sent in the form a letter to a general mailbox at the school district, but no notification was ever made to anyone at the actual school.
Additionally, the project was never brought to the attention of the School Community Relations Committee (SCRC), one of the City’s many volunteer advisory boards that help advise the Commission on issues related to their scope. In this case, the SCRC’s scope relates to issues affecting the schools and the school community at large.
Like parents, members of the SCRC, some who are parents at the school, only found out about the project after the fate has been sealed by City staff and the Commission.
School Board Member Mari Tere Rojas, who attended the virtual SCRC meeting, informed that no one at the district has any record of receiving said letter and as the School Board Member representing Coral Gables residents and this school, she too was excluded from notification.
“I have been advised that on Tuesday, October 13, 2020, Mr. Victor Alonso, Eco-Sustainability Officer contacted Ms. Patricia Fairclough, Principal to obtain additional information and determine whether the school had received any notification from the City. Ms Fairclough informed Mr. Alonso that some of the school’s parents had earlier that day provided a copy of a petition signed by over 40 neighbors in support of the WAWA gas station and asked whether the school had been informed of the impending construction. The principal expressed that she was totally unaware of any plans for the gas station. The parents further informed the principal that they believed that the City of Coral Gables had already approved plans for the project and had informed residents within 1,000 feet of the property, including the School Board. As of Friday, October 16, 2020, District staff has been unable to confirm the receipt of any notice from the City of Coral Gables regarding the proposed gas station,” stated Rojas in an email to the City Attorney and City Commission.
NO PUBLIC COMMENT
Normally, projects such as these provide for a public comment period so that residents and stakeholders can share their concerns and allow for community input to the City and the City Commission, in order to properly address concerns. In this case, public comment was limited to 30 days after the City attorney released an opinion in January of this year, which was published online without any formal notification to anyone of its existence.
In fact, the settlement, which was approved by the City Commission specifically states that no public hearing can take place, as outlined below in an a timeline shared by the City Attorney with School Board Member Mari Tere Rojas:
In September 2014, the City Commission approved a PAD and site plan for a project referred to as Gables Pointe Plaza which consisted of two phases. Phase 1 was a community center facility and office space. Phase 2 was a restaurant. Due to significant delays in the redevelopment, litigation ensued. Initially the litigation was between the Foundation and Miami-Dade County, but the City subsequently intervened. In 2015, via Resolution No. 2015-303, the City Commission acknowledged the importance of the area, acknowledged the delays, urged the County to reach a settlement that would allow for the completion of the project, and authorized the City Manager and City Attorney to take all necessary action to facilitate a resolution to the dispute.
In November of 2017, the former City Attorney entered into a settlement agreement which concluded the litigation. In the settlement agreement the City agreed to, among other things:
– Waive all building permit fees;
– Expedite the review and approval process for any site plan modifications, require only one submission to the BOA, and no further public hearings before any board; and
– Complete any and all approvals of the proposed site plan modifications administratively by the City Manager and City Attorney.
The concerns of parents arise from several different areas, including safety, health, environmental and traffic.
Safety concerns range from the sales of alcohol and tobacco products at the convenience store, to the accessibility the gas station adds to the range of view of the school by sexual predators, to loitering aided by the Wawa model of providing outside dining areas for patrons.
Environmental and health concerns revolve around the impacts a gas station has to air quality in close proximity to a school, ground water contamination and the increased risk in childhood cancer and respiratory issues in children who are in close proximity to a gas station, just to name a few.
When pressed for studies the City has conducted on these issues, the City Attorney explained that none could be provided, as “any environmental approvals required will need to be complied with by the developer to the satisfaction of the agency with jurisdiction over said approval.” This begs the question, did the City every request them or consider them prior to making this seemingly irrevocable decision?
When it comes to traffic, all schools in Coral Gables are already plagued with traffic concerns at drop off and pick up times. Carver is not exempt from this. The gas station’s location directly across the street from the school will have traffic implications on the school.
Regarding concerns, Board Member Rojas added the following in her email: “With the safety and security of our students as the number one priority, it is my hope that we are able to further discuss in order to bring clarity to this matter in an extremely expeditious manner.”
The George Washington Carver PTSA released the following statement:
“We, GW Carver Elementary PTA, are appalled that the City of Coral Gables has pressed ahead with issuing permits for the construction of a WAWA gas station and convenience store without notifying the school, its Principal, or District 6 School Board member. We do not believe that this is in the best
interest of our students or our school community. Not only will it bring increased pollution within close proximity to the school but could also be a magnet for violent crime.
The GW Carver Elementary PTA is fundamentally opposed to the project because of the safety risks to young children arising from additional traffic at an intersection, which is already struggling to accommodate a large number of cars.
Failure to notify the school that has been in the community for over a century and is located less than 1000 feet from the proposed project is an inadmissible error. We urge the City of Coral Gables Commissioners, the Miami Dade County School Board and the Miami Dade Board of County
Commissioners to take action to prevent the project from moving forward and find a suitable replacement project.”
THE PATH FORWARD
The SCRC made a resolution at the October 16th meeting, “requesting that the City Commission reconsider the approval of this project and open up a truthful public comment period, which was not offered in the first place, so that all stakeholders in this process are able to voice their concerns and a decision can be made that takes everybody into consideration.” The resolution passed by an 7-1 vote of the SCRC, with the lone dissenting voting board member saying they were in agreement with the premise of the resolution, but they would like to have more evidence as to whether a public comment period had been offered.
City Attorney Ramos has since advised the Commission not to take up the issue as it would violate the terms of the settlement. However, the item does appear on the City’s agenda for the Commission’s October 27th meeting.
The SCRC is expected to take up the issue once again at its October 30th virtual zoom meeting at 8:30AM, requesting the participation of School representatives, the City Manger, the developer and parents and in order to facilitate an open dialogue.
Co-Founder of Gables Insider, Ariel Fernandez, serves as the Chairman of the School Community Relations Committee.