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Miami Beach mayor: City should start over on convention center bid

This summer, Miami Beach seemed closer than it had ever been in 10 years to finally renovating its convention center.

A lawsuit and an election later, newly-elected Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine wants to start over.

In a memo, Levine calls on the City Commission to:

• Scrap current negotiations with developer South Beach ACE. ACE was chosen in July by the former city commission after a months-long, public competition that attracted teams of renowned developers and architects from around the world. ACE says its team spent “tens of millions of dollars” to win the competition with their design for a renovated convention center, new hotel and convention center district.

• Toss out all other proposals that competing teams had submitted for the project.

• Start a new bid process for a much smaller renovation plan, excluding a hotel, using only the money Miami Beach has on hand.

Levine emphasized in his memo that the city should renovate the convention center. He wrote that by decoupling the hotel from the project, the renovation would get off the ground quicker.

“I believe the City Commission needs to reconsider the current program in a way which prioritizes and expedites the renovation of MBCC in keeping with the desires of the community.”

ACE quickly released a terse statement Friday in response to Levine’s proposal.

“Injecting politics into what has been a professional and rational business and development project rarely leads to a sound result,” the team wrote, noting that the city had not informed ACE of the new direction Levine would like to take.

The city’s Convention Center Advisory Board Chairman, Stuart Blumberg, said the mayor’s proposal is not what the industry wants or needs to be competitive. He said the convention center is the third largest economic driver in the area, and needs to be top-notch to compete with other facilities across the country.

The size, scale and price of the Beach’s proposed convention center renovation was a hotly contested campaign issue during the city’s November elections. A new slate of candidates — one that supported a smaller and cheaper renovation plan — was swept into office.

At the same time, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson won a legal battle he waged to make a convention center project more difficult to pass in a required voter referendum.

The original plan, as proposed by the city, called for Miami Beach to lease out public land to a private developer as a way to help pay for the project. On the land, the private developer would build a hotel, shops and restaurants.

When the city picked ACE for the project, the city’s rules called for a voter referendum to approve the lease of city land to any private entity. Only a simple majority was required for the lease agreements to pass.

But Wolfson launched a petition campaign, financed largely by the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach, to change the city’s rules regarding a referendum. He won, and now at least 60 percent of voters would have to approve the lease of any convention center land. Wolfson also took his own city to court to remove a ballot question approving the current plan from the November ballot. His lawyer argued successfully that voters didn’t have enough information to vote on the issue.

Under Levine’s proposal, however, it’s likely that no referendum would be needed. That’s because Levine proposes to nix a convention center hotel and “any requirement for retail or other private commercial uses.”

Industry leaders and studies paid for by the city have suggested that it’s critical to build a reasonably priced hotel near the convention center because the city’s hotels are too expensive for convention-goers and too far away.

Levine’s memo states that the city should “further study” the need for a hotel and “reconsider” the site, number of rooms and deal structure.

“This to me, is a sad day. It really is for the convention business. Because without a hotel, the message is clear,” said Blumberg, the convention center advisory chairman.

That message, he said: Miami Beach does not want to be in the convention center business.

ACE, meanwhile, questioned “what reputable national development company would respond” to yet another city bid “for a project that is on at least its third iteration with no progress, especially after seeing how much time and money the City caused our team, and all the other bidders, to waste.” The city also rejected plans for a renovation drawn up in 2008. The commission at that time had concerns about the design and price of the proposal.

Said Blumberg: “At what point does the city become non-believable? I think they’ve reached that point….every other city is on the second or third renovation of their buildings. We’re still talking about the first.”

The commission is scheduled to take up Levine’s proposal at Wednesday’s regular meeting.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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