No Tree Left Behind

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The folks in charge of new construction at Miami-Dade County Public Schools need a lesson in community involvement. Had Chief Facilities Officer Jaime Torrens and Design Officer Victor Alonso consulted neighborhood homeowner groups in conceptualizing the expansion planned for Coral Way K-8 Center’s seven-acre campus, the school district would have avoided an Earth Day public relations fiasco.

Located at 1950 SW 13th Ave., Coral Way K-8 Center is in the historic Roads neighborhood of Miami, where a majority of the residents take pride in protecting the beautiful and bountiful tree canopy in their part of the city. So it didn’t sit well with members of the Vizcaya Roads and Miami Roads homeowner associations when they found out the school district had requested permission from the city to remove fourteen trees on school property to make way for a pair of two-story buildings.

This past April 16, homeowner tree activists Yvonne Bayona, Josefina Sanchez Pando, Beba Mann, Luis Herrera and Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado met with Alonso, Coral Way Principal Alejandro Perez, and the project landscapers.

Bayona, who has lived in the Roads for the past 16 years, said Coral Way doesn’t need to be expanded because the school district could send children to Ada Merritt K-8 Center at 660 SW 3 Street or Shenandoah elementary and middle schools on SW 19th and 21st avenues. Sanchez Pando argued that Alonso could redesign his plan by placing another floor on top of the second-story of the building added to the Coral Way campus in 2004 to reduce the size of the two proposed structures.

During the meeting, Bayona and Sanchez Pando recalled, the school officials agreed to slightly scale back one of the proposed buildings that was too close to a couple of banyan trees more than 72 years old. But Alonso was moving ahead with removing the fourteen trees, as well as relocating some 40 palms, Sanchez-Pando said. “He doesn’t feel like going back to the drawing board,” she groused. “So he’s destroying the beauty of the school.”

Regalado warned the schools representatives that they would be subject to Miami’s tree ordinance which imposes stiff penalties on anyone who removes a tree without the city’s permission. Meanwhile, Bayona and Sanchez Pando sprang into action.

On the eve of Earth Day, shortly after 5 p.m., the Roads homeowners and their children, dressed in their Coral Way blue uniforms, stood on the corner of SW 19 Street and 13 Avenue. A forty foot Banyan inside Coral Way’s fenced-in courtyard towered over them, its bushy robust limbs providing at least 100 feet of shady canopy. The gathering chanted in unison: “Save our trees! Save our trees!”

A pre-kindergartner held a sign that read: “Our school doesn’t teach how to save our planet.” An older boy next to her had a placard that pleaded: “Don’t destroy our trees, they are older than my grandma!”

Outside the entrance to the school, Alonso and Torrens (flanked by public schools spokesman John Schuster) informed Banana Republican that the demonstrators were misinformed. Even though the site plan they submitted to the city shows the school district removing fourteen trees, Alonso insisted that only one ficus tree is being eliminated. “And that’s because it has been eaten up bad by termites,” Alonso proclaimed. “There are a handful of trees that are being relocated.”

According to Alonso and Torrens, the new additions (which will have 32 rooms and a media center) will spread out the student population at Coral Way, where the average class size is 30 children. As of April 11, 1628 kids attend the school. Of that total, 196 pupils are taught inside 17 portables at nearby Shenandoah elementary school. The school district pays $13,379 a year for each portable at Shenandoah.

The new buildings would bring those students back to Coral Way, Torrens said. In addition, the school district is installing two new basketball courts and a primary school playground. Total cost: Approximately $22 million.

“We feel strongly this expansion will tremendously benefit the kids, the neighborhood and the schools,” Alonso concluded. “We’ve handled the trees in a very sensitive way.”

Bayona isn’t buy it. On behalf of the Vizcaya Roads Homeowners Association, she has filed an appeal with the city’s public works department to block the school district’s tree removal permit application. “That they will try to save the trees is a lie,” she says. “They are just dumping taxpayer money.”

UPDATE: Banana Republican spoke with Alonso this afternoon so he could explain why he said only one tree was being removed when the school's site plan indicated otherwise. He said the original plan called for removing fourteen. But that even before he met with the homeowners last week he was already going to revise his architectual drawings to keep the trees in place or move some of them. "The parents just further cemented our thinking to do whatever we can" to save the trees. Alonso added: "People get hung up on the number of trees that get removed so to avoid a problem and to respond to their concerns we won't take the trees out."

He reiterated that the only tree that will not be replaced is the termite-infested ficus. Alonso added that he will reduce the size of the proposed building on the north-side of the campus to further minimize the danger of cutting the roots of the large banyan trees facing SW 13 Avenue.

The public schools chief architect says he met yesterday with City of Miami officials to notify them that he will be revising the school's plan and architecture drawings. An email from Code Enforcement Director Mariano Loret de Mola confirmed it: "In a meeting with the School Board project Director yesterday he explained to us that he will withdraw the present trees removal permit application and re-evaluate the project."

-- Francisco Alvarado

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