The closure of Johnson & Wales University’s South Florida campus this summer has blown a 25-acre hole in the heart of North Miami and left city leaders desperate to know what will take its place — but they say they’re not getting the answers they need from a developer purchasing the property.
Last month, one piece of the puzzle was solved when the city council approved a permit for Doral College, which offers college classes to high school students, to utilize about eight acres on the site. Plans for the remainder of the campus, however, remain a mystery, and city officials are demanding more information from Property Markets Group, the developer that has a contract to buy the entire campus.
“There’s no master plan,” Councilman Scott Galvin, whose district includes the campus, told the Miami Herald. “Because we’re a smaller city and this is a large chunk of land, they’ve got a responsibility to be more forthcoming.”
The property represents a critical piece of land near Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 123rd Street, two main arteries in a Northeast Miami-Dade city that is ripe for development. Plans for the property’s future could have substantial implications for the city, including its tax base. Johnson & Wales, which occupied the site for 28 years, didn’t pay property taxes because it’s a nonprofit.
“To North Miami, this isn’t just another real estate deal. This is at the heart of our neighborhoods. We must know what’s happening,” Galvin wrote in a June 11 email to constituents.
A campus for Doral College
At a May 25 council meeting, city officials voiced support for Doral College’s use of the main academic building on campus. The institution, founded by charter high school Doral Academy with the help of for-profit education company Academica, has about 2,500 dual enrollment students, similar to the enrollment at Johnson & Wales.
It’s a step forward for the college, a unique institution created to offer in-house dual enrollment courses to charter high school students. Doral College — whose chief operating officer is Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. — has been viewed skeptically since its creation in 2011 by some Miami-Dade public school officials, who questioned the school’s financing and, until recently, lack of accreditation. It became accredited in 2018 when it received approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, but isn’t eligible for federal financial aid.
Pedro Gassant, an attorney representing the college, said at the May 25 council meeting that it’s an “innovative educational program … that has been shown to improve educational outcomes.” More than 20 schools in Miami-Dade County contract with the college for dual enrollment courses, according to its website, and it offers an Associate in Arts and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education degree.
‘Misinformation’ or missing information?
The North Miami City Council voted 4-0, with one member absent, to approve the college’s conditional-use permit, which Gassant said “will allow Doral College to create a dual-enrollment hub at the property.” The college previously operated out of the Doral Academy campus in West Miami-Dade.
Still, Galvin said that unless PMG becomes more transparent about its other plans for the site, he would reject future projects.
“I’ll say no going forward to everything if they can’t communicate with this city and our public about what they plan to do with the land,” he said during the meeting. “I’m tired of their excuse that they can’t break confidentiality agreements. They lose my support after this item if they don’t immediately come to the table and talk publicly with everybody involved.”
Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime echoed Galvin’s frustration in an interview.
“I’m very unhappy with the way the company is going around and trying to do small-scale projects,” Bien-Aime said. “It’s 25 acres at a prime location. We were expecting something very nice that was going to really increase the quality of life of the people around Johnson & Wales.”
Reached by phone, Carter McDowell, an attorney representing PMG, suggested there was “misinformation” being circulated about the site. But he declined to comment further.
Daniel Kaplan, a managing partner at PMG who is overseeing the project, also declined to comment. In an email, he cited the fact that PMG has yet to close on the property, which according to Galvin is likely to happen in July.
“At this point I don’t feel comfortable either confirming or denying any facts the councilman believes he is stating,” Kaplan said.
In Miami, PMG’s current projects include the E11even Hotel and Residences, a flashy partnership with the E11even nightclub across the street on Northeast 11th Street. The company also developed Echo Brickell and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel & Residences Miami, a 100-story skyscraper slated to become the tallest building in Miami.
In the absence of public statements from PMG about the Johnson & Wales site, Galvin says he has been chasing down information from potential buyers to try to piece together what’s going on.
He told the Herald that PMG, which has offices in Miami and New York, is subdividing the site into 28 parcels and has been working quickly to try to sell them. He said the company is expected to pay about $55 million for the campus; that Doral College has a contract to buy its three parcels for about $10 million; and that three additional parcels are now under contract to be sold.
PMG is also planning to use one parcel for its own offices, Galvin said. He said the developer told him that properties toward the south of the campus would likely be utilized for “mixed use, including commercial.”
The councilman is particularly focused on the Wildcat Center, a 35,000-square-foot athletics and student life facility at the site that opened in 2011. Galvin is pushing for the city to acquire the facility, citing a lack of recreation options in the area.
“I have made its acquisition my highest priority and have had several chats with PMG about how we might make that happen,” Galvin said in his June 11 email.
Galvin said he was told that a school, which he wouldn’t name, was considering buying the Wildcat Center for $16 million but backed off after Galvin informed its officials that there was no master plan for the site. PMG representatives declined to comment.
Johnson & Wales, known for its culinary school and other hospitality programs, announced last June that it would close its North Miami campus at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. The university also shut down its campus in Denver while maintaining its main campus in Providence, Rhode Island, and another in Charlotte, North Carolina.