Miami Palmetto Senior High School is one of the last 1950s Eisenhower-era schools in Miami-Dade County in its original form. So, it was with pride and hope on December 11, 2017, that current principal Victoria Dobbs hosted a presentation of the significant renovation plans about to begin.
“This is really exciting because it now feels real,” explained Dobbs. “Seeing the materials board that shows what the finishes will be like means it’s really happening and it’s a beautiful plan. And, it’s a plan that is mindful to keep our mature landscaping and build upon it. It’s a plan that honors the past.”
About 60 interested parents, students and neighbors watched a presentation laying out the construction plan. The centerpieces of which is a three-story building that will house the administration and vocational labs. It also will shift the front of the school to SW 120th Street, which they believe will relieve traffic on SW 118th Street. The $44M bond that is funding the project will also add a new state-of-the-art cafeteria (to replace what has been called the worst cafeteria in all of Dade County, a single-story arts building and a black box theater. Beyond that, many of the existing buildings will be renovated and the whole school will get new paint and furniture.
Pinecrest Councilwoman and former Palmetto High PTSA President Anna Hochkammer reflected, “I’m incredibly hopeful! I remember when my youngest was in first grade and I was part of the PTSA working hard to get the bond to pass. Now my daughter is in 7th grade and when construction is completed she’ll be a sophomore at MPSHS. It sometimes felt like the end was never going to come, but when you keep your eye on the prize and play the long game your community ends up with an absolute jewel.”
Phase one starts this spring. The existing faculty parking and basketball courts will give way to the start of the new 3-story building on the southeast part of the 18-acre campus and two new basketball courts will be added adjacent to the current sports field. The idea is that school life will continue normally throughout construction with minimal impact on students.
Phase two, which begins in spring 2020, will see the demolition of the north campus along SW 118th Street. “The old two-story buildings will be demolished and replaced with one-story structures that are set back further from the street,” explained Zyscovich Architect’s Jose Murguido. “This will enhance student life and lesson the neighborhood impact on homeowners on that street.” Phase two also includes building an enclosed courtyard with a black box theater. “It will allow for students to have an outdoor theater, but also has a special door to convert to a stage environment as well.”
Phase three is updating the existing buildings and putting in new furniture and fixtures. Completion is slated for 2021.
In the end, the 120,900 square-feet of new construction will add capacity for only 90 more students, but the number of classrooms goes up and the educational environment is significantly improved.
Former Mayor Cindy Lerner remarked, “The original scope of the work was for minimal improvements and no new buildings. It was the hard work of so many of us in the community putting pressure on the superintendent that got us here. I told the superintendent that one of the biggest reactions I got from parents who were considering placing their kids at Palmetto High was them saying ‘I don’t care how good the program is, the facility is a dump’ and then turning around and walking out.” She added, “It is now going to be a magnificent school and I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Attendees of the presentation were mostly pleased with the plan, but they did ask a few good questions. Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn asked about green features and whether bike lanes and parking was considered. The response was tepid. While they won’t apply for LEED certification, they did ‘have green features in mind’ for the construction, such as efficient HVAC systems, LED lighting and low-flow plumbing throughout. However, no solar power is in the plan, which seemed odd to many in the audience.
Drew Latta, a Palmetto senior and member of student council had the opinion that, “although the new building looks great, the density could be a negative to student life. Being that consolidated means less student freedom, walking and less activity.” He was also concerned about the safety of students during construction, in particular about airborne particles but felt that the order of construction mostly alleviated that concern.
Several students, parents and residents were concerned about the parking and traffic flows around the schools. One parent called the existing parking lot ‘horrendous’ and many agreed. While the final parking situation will reduce the number of spots by nearly 100 (to 723 spots), the distribution of spaces will likely increase safety and reduce drive times. As for traffic flow, many were very concerned about pick-up and drop-off; however, no one seemed to have a real answer for those concerns and officials noted this may need to be addressed as construction proceeds.
The audience asked about safety features as well. The new campus will include a large number of security cameras and one-way panic doors to thwart unauthorized trespassing.
Valerie Volpe lives nearby on 118th Street, west of 77th Avenue, and went to school at Palmetto in its early years. She was sad that the iconic 50’s look of the entrance was going to be lost.
Principal Dobbs added, “We’ve always had great education here. The facilities didn’t matter, but this this project will certainly make it easier to learn and add a new excitement to the environment.”