Proud landmark now a shambles

Harris School sits empty

Proud landmark now a shambles - A close up of a tree - Florida Keys
The former Harris School at 812 Southard St. in Key West. HAYS BLINCK-MANN/Keys Weekly

It’s a cautionary tale for all, about big decisions made by elected officials. Let’s go back 12 years to 2006, when the Monroe County School Board decided to sell the historic Harris School at 812 Southard St. to a private owner. Leading up to the decision was a contentious 2004 school board race, when John Padget, gubernatorially appointed school superintendent, lost the election to Randy Acevedo. During his tenure, Padget facilitated a deal to sell the property to the Rodel Foundation for $6 million to create the now popular Studios of Key West. Rodel would have also contributed another $6 million toward renovation of 812 Southard, laden with asbestos and in disrepair. Long story short, the property would look very different than it does today if the newly elected officials had considered the outgoing superintendent’s plan more carefully.

Instead, in 2006, the school board voted against the Rodel deal because the offer required the creation of affordable housing for teachers (seems terribly ironic now). While the housing market fluctuated in ’06, the school board accepted a private offer from owner Peter Brawn for $4.5 million – $1.5 million less – and a very different future began for the majestic property.

So what does the property look like today? Littered with scooters, a jet ski, a large Lu La Roe trailer, and work trucks, it’s used as a monthly parking lot, and just recently, a daily parking lot, as advertised by the large plywood, homemade signs decorating the lot. Owner Brawn was issued a Business Tax receipt permit in 2009 to operate a commercial parking lot, as well as a Property Management license. Essentially, the property has become a functioning inner city parking lot in the heart of Old Town. But all has not gone smoothly for Brawn, as the property has been cited multiple times for code violations. According to Code Compliance Director Jim Young, the property has been cited 39 times since 2000 (although Brawn took possession in ’06) and 19 times since 2013. The complaints include overgrown lots, operating unlicensed business, trash and obstruction of traffic.

In May 2017, there was a formal code hearing for “Failure to cut overgrown weeds around subject property,” which was dismissed with no fines. And in April 2018, the city received complaints about business being conducted from a tractor trailer parked at the property. But the neighbors have much more to say about the old school than what’s on paper.

“We’re not sure what’s going on,” said resident Glen Kingsbury. “I’ve seen more miscellaneous things in the past five years. I have seen sex acts in the parking lot, loitering, people coming in and out of the building day and night.” There is no Certificate of Occupancy, meaning no one can live on the property, although the satellite dish atop the building could suggest otherwise.

“Neighbors did not have a problem with using it for huge event parking,” said Kingsbury, “but there was overnight parking, littering and dumping and we hope not other illegal activity.”

There is the misconception that the property is in Commissioner Jimmy Weekley’s district, but he is just a resident of the neighborhood. “I am constantly getting complaints about the school. It’s not hard to tell there are derelict vehicles everywhere and to see the trash. At least we stopped the RV parking on the fields and got the commercial lot only to park on the blacktop pavement.”

The school is in Commissioner Clayton Lopez’s district, who said, “If residents spoke up enough, I would listen; it’s all our neighborhood and of course, I want to help.” The commercial parking license expires in September but a simple payment by Brawn will keep his business license operational. Lopez may be hearing from his constituents unless the property sells before then for its $15 million asking price.

“The African Kapok tree used to be one of the most photographed trees in town; now it is covered by weeds, seedlings and surrounded by scooters,” said resident Don Dotzauer. He would like to see the neighborhood maintained and kept beautiful, noting that many residents have spent a great deal of time renovating old properties surrounding the Harris School. “I don’t thrive on conflict, but we just want everyone to be good neighbors and just do the right thing.”

Brawn did not return a call seeking comment.

Hays Blinckmann is an oil painter, author of the novel “In The Salt,” lover of all things German including husband, children and Bundesliga. She spends her free time developing a font for sarcasm, testing foreign wines and failing miserably at home cooking.