Polk historic home becoming a preschool? Not yet, city board says

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A Tampa Bay couple isn’t giving up on their dream of turning a historic Polk County home into a preschool, despite their plan being denied by a city board Tuesday.

“We thought after they heard or vision and our passion for it, that they would kind of understand our hearts a little more,” said Madison Brawner, about the Lake Morton community’s resistance to her and her husband’s plans.

They are under contract for the sale of the Deen House on Frank Lloyd Wright Way, built-in 1917.

They plan to convert it into a maximum of 70-student preschool and promise to preserve as many historic elements in the home as possible.

“We would hope that the residents would be able to see that we’re putting in a preschool with laughing children and growing families. We’re not putting some sort of business that’s gonna put these emissions out or a manufacturing facility,” said Thomas Brawner.

Madison and Thomas Brawner speak to reporters after meeting

The couple was requesting conditional use from the Lakeland Planning & Zoning Board to allow the home to be used as a preschool.

The city’s planning department recommending denying the request, due to parking and traffic issues. The board agreed with the city’s recommendation.

The Brawner’s proposed plan involved using an alleyway for traffic flow, which is their backup option.

The Brawners say they are in the process of working with St. Joseph’s, which owns a parking lot near the Deen House, to either buy or lease the lot.

Doing so would enable the Brawners to go back to the Planning & Zoning Board for approval.

“We hope that maybe the school will come back and lease you the property, but the traffic with the young ones, we are very concerned with,” said Stephanie Franklin, chair of the board.

“I think if they solve the traffic problem, that’s half of it,” said Julie Townsend, spokesperson for the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, which opposes the plan.

Opponents are also against plans to add a fire escape to the exterior of the building.

The building would require either a fire escape or an indoor sprinkler system if the home is to be used as a school.

“How can we best preserve the historical nature of this home? Put fire escapes on the outside, like it’s had in the past by Florida Southern College, when they owned the building and they put a fire escape there,” said Thomas Brawner.

Plans to add two fire escapes were rejected last month by Lakeland’s Historic Preservation Board.

Opponents call the fire escapes a ‘deterioration’ of the structure’s exterior.

“I still think you have the exterior fire escape issues that are going to make drastic changes to the historical integrity of the building,” said Townsend. “The adjacent neighbors don’t want to live next to a preschool. I don’t think that in general, the neighborhood is opposed to a preschool in the neighborhood. I think it’s just the wrong location.”

Brawner argues the opposition is about something much bigger than his preschool: changing times.

“Residents are getting upset with the continued urbanization of their neighborhood but the fact of the matter is Lakeland is growing and it’s changing,” he said.

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