January 15, 2014

Miami Beach kills $1B convention center project, prepares to start over

The new commission agreed unanimously Wednesday to start over, seeking bids only for a convention center redo initially.

Miami Beach, with a new mandate by a new mayor, has called off the proposed $1 billion redevelopment of its convention center district, upending a years-long process that garnered international attention, star architects and an ambitious plan to transform the decades-old center and surrounding neighborhood with a hotel, shops and restaurants.

Commissioners unanimously agreed Wednesday to terminate negotiations with South Beach ACE, the master development team the city had chosen in July to design and build the 52-acre project.

Instead, the city will issue a new bid for just the renovation of the city-owned convention center, and also will scout possible locations for the development of a nearby hotel. Both projects will be pursued concurrently, but separately.

Previously, the hotel and convention center renovation were considered the same project, and ACE would have developed both.

Industry leaders say it is imperative that the city bring its convention center up to date and add a hotel if it is to stay competitive, keep hotel rooms full and shops and restaurants bustling. The city’s budget relies, in part, on tourist taxes.

Commissioners emphasized they support improving the convention center. By starting over, Mayor Philip Levine said he hoped the city could get a renovation project completed more quickly.

As previously envisioned, the project required 60 percent voter approval of leases that had yet to be negotiated. The ACE plan needed voter approval because it required the team to lease city-owned land. Miami Beach rules have always required a referendum to lease any city land within the convention center district.

Under the new approach, the convention center renovation’s could move forward without a referendum.

“For the purposes of getting this project done fast, on time, on budget, it’s unfortunate that we’ll have to make a very tough, challenging decision,” Levine said. “To some people, it’s a little disheartening. To other people, it’s a very fresh start.”

The seismic shift in approach is the result of a mostly new City Commission elected in November, and one commissioner’s campaign against the project. Voters overwhelmingly rejected incumbents who had supported the larger, now-scrapped redevelopment plan.

The November elections’ outcome might not have been the result of residents’ discontent with the project, said Commissioner Ed Tobin, noting that misinformation was prevalent during voting season.

“The community experienced about a half a million dollars-plus of advertising that I felt was mostly false,” Tobin said.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, funded in part by the Fontainebleau, led a campaign against the size and price of the ACE convention center project. He successfully led the charge to get the ACE plan kicked off the November ballot when residents were originally supposed to vote it up or down.

And, he pushed to increase the threshold of voter approval needed for leases of city land in the convention center district. Now, rather than a simple majority, at least 60 percent approval is needed.

A previous city commission selected ACE from a team of world-renowned architects and developers who competed for the chance to remake a huge tract in the heart of South Beach. The city offered up its land for lease in exchange for a development team building a hotel to serve the convention center. The lease proceeds, in part, would help pay for the convention center’s renovation. The convention center would stay in city hands.

The new approach could leave the possibility of a new hotel on shaky ground. Without a hotel, said past Miami Beach Convention Center Advisory Board member Joshua Wallack, a convention center renovation “doesn’t matter.”

On Tuesday, the development team, which is also known as SBACE, sent commissioners a letter stating the city is “contractually obligated to proceed.”

“We consistently expressed our commitment to working in good faith with the new administration on any changes they wanted. However, SBACE was never given the opportunity,” the team wrote.

Also, a member of the American Institute of Architects wrote to commissioners to say that the group’s 16,000-member convention, which picked Miami Beach in 2010, won’t be coming back.

“Miami Beach is not under consideration due to the substandard design aesthetic, the abhorrent condition of the convention center, antiquated technological infrastructure, insufficient air conditioned exhibition space and lack of a convention center hotel,” wrote John R. Forbes, president of the institute.

Said Bill Talbert, head of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau: “The need for a headquarter hotel — that comes from the meeting planners. All of our competitors have an adjacent headquarter hotel.”

Meanwhile, the city plans to have a new bid proposal ready in March for the convention center and in April for the hotel portion.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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