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Miami Beach commissioners ponder taxpayers’ share of convention center redevelopment

After being dazzled for months by stunning designs of what a redeveloped Miami Beach Convention Center district could look like, commissioners on Wednesday got their first serious look at the public price tag associated with the massive project.

After a full day of meetings, only one thing was clear: Commissioners want more time to “digest” the financials.

“I just want to understand the numbers better,” said Commissioner Ed Tobin.

That’s going to take time, and City Manager Jimmy Morales said during Wednesday’s meeting that commissioners aren’t likely to vote on a plan on June 5, as originally scheduled.

Miami Beach is in the final stages of choosing between two teams — South Beach ACE, headed by New York-based Tishman Hotel & Realty and Portman-CMC, headed by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings — to execute one of the biggest urban revitalization projects in the country. Where there is now 52-acres of parking lots, an aging convention center and almost no landscaping, the city wants a team of master developers and architects to create a new urban core that connects neighborhoods, overhauls the convention center and adds an affordable hotel to serve convention-goers.

The competition has attracted some of the most well-regarded architecture firms in the world. ACE has Rem Koolhaas and his firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture on their side; Portman has enlisted Bjarke Ingels and his firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group.

The city envisions paying for improvements to the parts of the convention center district that will remain in the public’s hands, such as the convention center and road improvements. The cost of any private development, such as retail space and rental housing, would fall to developers, who would pay to lease the publicly-owned land they propose to build on.

In proposals submitted to the city, Portman says it can get the entire job done for $1.15 billion. ACE says it will take $1.2 billion. Ultimately, Portman’s plan would require $73.4 million less in public investments than ACE’s, according to a breakdown by the Strategic Advisory Group, the city’s consultant handling the convention center deal.

According to the group’s comparison:

• Portman’s convention center, which would cost $498 million, is less expensive than ACE’s, which would cost $506.2 million. Dan Tishman of the ACE group, however, says his team is building is a “fancier, more complicated project.”

• Portman would make $81 million more in lease payments to the city. Representatives from ACE say the difference is largely explained by the fact that Portman proposes to lease more space for retail development, and that local businesses don’t want so much competition built at the convention center site. Portman says the difference in square-footage isn’t that big, because ACE doesn’t include a “food and beverage” building, which would serve the hotel, in its count.

The city could pull from a few pots of money to pay for the development.

Miami Beach already gets about $4.5 million a year from the county’s convention development tax. Another $54 million in already-issued bonds is also at the city’s disposal. Additionally, voters in August 2012 approved a hotel tax increase of up to one penny specifically to pay for improvements to the convention center — but that new tax would have to be passed by the City Commission, and would not take effect until the city has a plan in place for the redevelopment, according to an opinion by the city attorney’s office. The city could also use $90 million in funds from its redevelopment agency, according to the analysis by the advisory group.

Costs could also be defrayed by lease payments made to the city by developers, and the taxes their new buildings would generate.

Commissioners will take another look at the numbers at a finance meeting on Wednesday.

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