Centner Academy owners score approval to convert Buena Vista building into preschool

The couple paid $10M for the failed commercial building near the Design District

4136 North Miami Avenue and David and Leila Centner (Credit: Pintrest)
4136 North Miami Avenue and David and Leila Centner (Credit: Pinterest)

UPDATED, June 10, 10:52 a.m.: Last year, David and Leila Centner paid about $10 million for a brand new, empty office building in Miami’s Buena Vista neighborhood, near the Design District.

On Wednesday, the couple won the right to operate a preschool in the three-story, 20,000-square-foot commercial building that will teach languages like Mandarin, Spanish and English – in spite of opposition from neighbors.

The Miami Planning Zoning & Appeals Board unanimously approved the application to open the Centner Academy at 4136 North Miami Avenue after they agreed to reduce their student body from 195 to 120. The Centners also promised to redesign an emergency staircase that currently leads directly into the path of the building’s underground garage.

In 2018, the Centners bought the three-story building with underground tandem parking for 26 cars. It was built in 2017.

Leila Centner, founder and CEO of the Centner Academy, said she plans to open the preschool in September with a student body of up to 18 children between the ages of 2.5 years old and 6 for the first academic year.

Centner said although the academy will charge $24,000 a year, a number of scholarships will be granted.

The planning and zoning board’s decision may still be appealed by Buena Vista homeowners who are not only worried about the additional traffic generated by the school, but also by future projects the Centners may build on adjacent properties.

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Ulysee Kemp, president of the Buena Vista Heights Neighborhood Association, said the group is considering if it can afford to appeal. Should an appeal be filed in the next 50 days, the Centner Academy application will then need to go before the Miami City Commission for approval.

In 2000, David Centner started Highway Toll Administration LLC in New York, a company that provided electronic toll paying technology for rental car companies and other vehicle fleet operators, which he sold in 2019 to Platinum Equity. The couple journeyed to Miami, where David was raised, and started giving away money and buying real estate.

The couple bought a 37,000-square-foot site at Northeast 34th Street and Biscayne Boulevard for $11.5 million, where they intend to invest $40 million to build affordable housing for teachers and learning facilities. That project may include a 34-story building with 251 workforce housing apartments and 45 affordable condo units, according to the South Florida Business Journal.

The Centners also purchased seven lots near the office building and are considering building housing for teachers there, a move that would require zoning changes.

Buena Vista residents who opposed the project complained that most of the supporters don’t live in the neighborhood.

Rosa Ramos, a Buena Vista resident, applauds the Centners for their philanthropic activities, but insisted the project can’t work in an area where she said parking is scarce and traffic is horrendous.

“I hope you think about this really good and understand our point of view,” Ramos told the board. “This is our neighborhood and we are trying to fight for it, just like they’re trying to fight for their school.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the wrong square footage for the building, and had an incorrect timeline for the timeline of the couple’s move to Miami. It also stated that the Centners would invest $40 million in an opportunity fund led by Ron Beit, but Beit is no involved.