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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
August 2017

College claims North Miami Beach went from pro-business to pro-developer

AASA_1lex Shchegol believes his school is a victim of a plot hatched by father-and-son real estate developers who want to take his land and build a high-rise community on top of a shopping mall in the Eastern Shores community of North Miami Beach.

“This is a total disregard to the small guy,” protests Shchegol. “When I came from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, I didn’t think something like this could happen!”

For two years, Shchegol, the founder and president of ASA College, has been locked in litigious warfare with developer Michael Dezer and his son Gil over the school’s right to operate at Intracoastal Mall, a shopping center situated on 31 acres at NE 35th Avenue and NE 163rd Street.

The Dezers own most of Intracoastal Mall and have announced plans to start building 2.5 million square feet of commercial space and 2000 condo units on the 26 acres they own by 2021. That project has been watched by affluent residents of neighboring Eastern Shores who fear the additional traffic congestion. As a precondition to development, the city has stipulated that additional roads be built to handle future traffic.

The Dezers have built several towers in Sunny Isles Beach, just east of the Intracoastal Mall. These include Trump-branded projects that attracted $98.4 million from Russian investors, some of whom have connections to the Russian government, according to a Reuters investigation published in March 2017.

Shchegol contends that the Dezers won’t be able to build 2000 condo units at the site. That’s because his ASA College controls 1.3 acres of land at the mall’s northeast corner, near the Intracoastal Waterway, including a three-story office building that acts as ASA College’s main campus in greater Miami. On that land, 500 of the Intracoastal Mall’s 2000 units could be built, according to an analysis conducted by Sklar Architecture on ASA College’s behalf.

That means, Shchegol clarifies, that the Dezers now “only have a right to build 1500 units, not 2000.” And that’s why, he says, the Dezers are trying to pressure him into selling the property. He also believes that city officials are colluding with the builders. “They’re trying to buy us out at a very low price,” he declares, “but we have no intention of selling.”

In a written statement to the BT, Gil Dezer states that the ASA College parcel is “not necessary for, nor planned to be, part of the redevelopment of the Intracoastal Mall.”

Asked if the Dezers ever wanted to purchase the ASA College property, Dezer replies: “Since there is a lawsuit currently pending between the Dezer affiliate that owns the Intracoastal Mall and the owner of 3909 NE 163rd St., Florida law prohibits the disclosure of any settlement discussions.”

ASA_2

For his part, Dezer maintains that Shchegol never had a right to operate a school in the office building in the first place. “At the time ASA purchased the building,” he says, “they acknowledged that the property was subject to a recorded covenant limiting use of the building to only office.”

So far, the courts and the city are siding with the Dezers.

Since October 2015, the City of North Miami Beach (NMB) has refused to renew ASA College’s business license because the school only has 100 parking spaces on its land. Last summer, Circuit Court Judge John Schlesinger slapped ASA College with an injunction that forbade the school from holding classes in the building. That ruling was affirmed this past May by Schlesinger, who ordered ASA to close its campus.

“The court has ruled on at least two occasions that he has no right operate there,” says José Smith, city attorney for North Miami Beach.

For months, Shchegol sought to delay the injunction’s enforcement while still holding classes on site. In response, the Dezers sent in private investigators to document ASA College activities. The Dezers also sought criminal contempt charges. Shchegol, however, insisted that the more than 800 students who signed up for ASA summer courses at the Intracoastal building were transferred to classroom space leased in office buildings in Hialeah and Golden Glades. On June 28, Judge Schlesinger was satisfied that ASA College had complied with the order and dismissed the Dezers contempt charges.

A gruff-voiced 65-year-old, Shchegol insists the city has always known that ASA operated a college at the site, and that NMB officials once welcomed his school. “We were operating a college over here for six years, and then all of a sudden, we’re told that we can’t be here anymore,” he says. “They’re using any means to push us out, to deprive minority students from getting an education so they can change their lives.”

Founded by Shchegol in 1985 as Advanced Software Analysis, ASA started in Brooklyn, offering computer programming classes, according to the college website. Over the years, the curriculum expanded, as did its branches; today, 3000 students take classes at three campuses, two in New York and the Miami campus, offering associate degrees and certification programs in business, nursing, health, legal, and computer fields. Its stated mission is “to educate a diverse and qualified student population to become responsible professionals committed to lifelong learning.” ASA also has an array of sports teams that compete against other community colleges across the country.

But the for-profit college has had its share of controversy. In October 2014, Stephen Hirst, a former instructor at ASA College in New York, wrote an article for the Huffington Post that praised the school for its ESL programs and the diversity of its student makeup, but accused it of being “an overpriced, predatory and disingenuous institution suckling at the government teat and enrolling/tricking students who often don’t understand the difference between an AA and a BA, or a for-profit college and a state school or private university.”

ASA_3

Earlier that year, the New York Legal Assistance Group filed a racketeering and fraud lawsuit against ASA on behalf of eight former students, claiming that the college “falsely tells potential students that its costly programs lead directly to employment in fields such as healthcare and technology.” The lawsuit was dismissed in June 2015, however, with the court citing a failure to prove intent under racketeering laws.

After the ruling, Shchegol released a statement, noting that “ASA College is proud to provide the New York City and Miami business community with well trained, qualified, educated workers. We look forward to many more alumni success stories in the future.” (ASA tuition for many course programs is around $17,000.)

ASA College initially leased the Intracoastal office building but bought the property outright in April 2013 for $4.6 million. A year later, in April 2014, an ASA College open house and “grand opening” took place at the Intracoastal building. Guests included NMB Mayor George Vallejo, North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau, and dozens of high school student athletes trying out for a spot on the ASA athletic teams.

“We were doing very well,” Shchegol says. “But that was before the zoning was changed.”

The Dezers bought the rest of Intracoastal Mall in December 2013 for $63.5 million. Then, in March 2015, the North Miami Beach City Commission designated the Intracoastal Mall as the “Eastern Mixed-Use Waterfront District.” That designation allows for buildings up to 495 feet tall along the Intracoastal Waterway. And one of those waterfront parcels belongs to ASA College.

Shchegol says the Dezers and their representatives have tried to buy the ASA building since December 2013, and that their attempts became more aggressive after the rezoning. “They wanted to make a deal with me to sell it,” he says. “But it’s a beautiful place, enrollment is growing, and I have no desire to sell.”

By the summer of 2015, the Dezers demanded that ASA employees and students park in a certain area and use stickers. The Dezers also cut off the waterfront with a fence. Shchegol responded by suing them, claiming that a covenant with the mall allowed for access to the waterfront and to the hundreds of parking spaces surrounding the mall. After several months, the fences were taken down. In his statement, Gil Dezer claims the fence was put up for a short time during a parking lot resurfacing project.

But the litigation wasn’t over. The Dezers soon countersued, arguing that the covenant forbade the office building from being operated as a school, claiming that a student body in excess of 400 students would negatively affect the mall’s parking. The Dezers also hired private investigators with cameras. And the city refused to renew ASA College’s business license.

Sarah Johnson, the NMB deputy city attorney, says the covenant specifies office use for the property. When the building was used as a school instead, Johnson explains, ASA College administrators violated the covenant and no longer had the right to Intracoastal Mall’s parking spaces. As a result, Johnson reasons, ASA College doesn’t have enough parking spaces to operate a school at the building per the city’s code.

Shchegol insists that this logic is ludicrous. For one thing, many of ASA College’s students are bused in from dorms. And, he adds, most colleges like his around the country exist in office buildings.

ASA_4Shchegol believes that NMB has traded the pro-business stance that attracted him to the city in the first place for a pro-development stance. In an effort to attract a larger tax base, the city commission, led by Mayor Vallejo, has encouraged intensive development in various parts of NMB.

So in an April 17, 2017, e-mail to the mayor and commissioners, Shchegol stated his interest in co-developing a 40-story tower on the office parcel. “We are in discussions with developers larger than Dezer on realizing the city’s goals in development, to fit the mayor and city’s goals,” he wrote. He also claimed to “have a strategic plan with a national developer to utilize the appropriate zoning rights on our 40-story zoned property.”

Shchegol also vowed he’d never sell the parcel to the city or the Dezer family, and asked the mayor and commissioners to “stop your joint campaign against us.”

“The Dezer family has told us that the city is working exclusively with them,” Shchegol wrote in that e-mail. “Specifically, our employee [overheard] Dezer’s employee [telling] Dezer, ‘don’t worry about [it], the city is in our pocket.’ At the time, we didn’t pay too much attention to that, but now we can see that it takes place.”

City Attorney Smith tells the BT that Shchegol made similar claims during a meeting with him and threatened to go to the media. “He tried to bully me and push me around,” Smith says. “He was threatening me and the mayor.”

“They’re all corrupt,” Shchegol tells the BT. “The mayor’s wife works, or worked, for Dezer,” later adding, “It’s well known information.”

Neither Mayor Vallejo nor his wife, Sandra Shinego-Vallejo, could be reached by deadline. VotersOpinion.com blogger Stephanie Kienzle, who often reports and opines on NMB politics, says Shinego-Vallejo has told her she is an independent party planner who often holds parties at the Miami Auto Museum in North Miami, which is owned by Michael Dezer.

Asked if the mayor’s wife is under his employ, Gil Dezer replied: “A company, unrelated to the Dezers, and which employs Ms. Shinego, arranges events and parties at the Miami Auto Museum.”

Last year, in a Facebook posting, Mayor Vallejo acknowledged that he was under investigation by the State Attorney’s Office. An August 2016 report on Local 10 News claimed that the investigation had to do with the mayor voting to give tax credits to a developer who did business with Allied Florida Group Inc., a property brokerage firm his wife owned.

“[Mayor] Vallejo, who at one time was listed as an officer in the company, is a registered real estate broker,” the Local 10 story noted. “Sources said the mayor voted to give tax credits to a company for which Allied served as real estate broker, but that remains unconfirmed.”

Kienzle believes the State Attorney’s investigation was orchestrated by the mayor’s enemies. “There are people who hate George Vallejo,” she says, “some because they are jealous.”

Shchegol isn’t jealous, but he is angry. He says he’s even thought about inviting Al Sharpton to organize a march on ASA College’s behalf.

“Right now, we don’t care,” he says. “My lawyer tells me, ‘Don’t do anything.’ But my African-American students, they know everything about this.”

 

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