Jose Lambiet

New book: Arsht Center took 34 years and nearly $500 million to build

Building the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami “was the most controversial public project ever in South Florida, and it cost pretty close to $500 million,” author Les Standiford says.
Building the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami “was the most controversial public project ever in South Florida, and it cost pretty close to $500 million,” author Les Standiford says. Miami Herald file

When you live with something, say the Adrienne Arsht Center For The Performing Arts in downtown Miami, you might take it for granted.

You might not appreciate what it took to get it built.

For that reason, author Les Standiford decided to take a comprehensive look at just how the avant-garde building sprung up in the heart of a politically fragmented city, and the result is a just-published 250-page book.

"Center of Dreams: Building A World-Class Performing Arts Complex in Miami" (University Press of Florida, $25), chronicles the 34 years it took to plan, then build, the architecturally daring venue, one with outside walls that have no right angle and world-quality acoustics inside.

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'Center of Dreams: Building a World-Class Performing Arts Complex in Miami' by Les Standiford.

That’s right — 34 years from inception to completion!

“I don’t think most people realize how long it took,” says author Standiford, a Florida International University professor and former Miami Herald book critic. “It was the most controversial public project ever in South Florida, and it cost pretty close to $500 million.”

That’s nearly three times the original budget of $169 million.

Here’s the good news, says Standiford: He wasn’t able to dig up under-the-table dealings and scandals during his research, and he says the project, amazingly, was built fair-and-square without a whiff of corruption.

It’s just that there were delays due to construction problems, political bickering and territorial rivalries. And there was plenty of self-doubt from the part of community leaders, some of whom said we’d be better off spending the money on schools, public safety and transportation instead of on some cultural venue.

“And with each delay, the final cost would go up by $20 to $30 million,” said the author. “But what people need to remember is that there wasn’t one cent spent from the pockets of Miami-Dade County taxpayers.”

The Arsht was funded by bed taxes from tourists.

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Les Standiford, author of 'Center of Dreams: Building a World-Class Performing Arts Complex in Miami.' GARRY KRAVIT

In the end, according to Standiford’s book, some of the area’s rich and colorful residents also came through.

Within months of the grand opening in 2006, the center — then named the Carnival Center — was already running out of money.

“There wasn’t enough money to offset the initial operating losses,” Standiford said.

So, when the only solution became shuttering the brand-spanking-new venue, philanthropist and attorney Adrienne Arsht wrote a check for $30 million.

With the money, the former banker allowed the center to keep the doors open and thrive with more adventurous programing.

“In the art community,” says Standiford, “the name of the center is spoken in the same breath as the Lincoln Center in New York and the Kennedy Center in D.C.

“It’s amazing we have something like that in Miami.”

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