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Miami Beach Planning Board says Gleason Theater should be demolished

If you ask Miami Beach’s Planning Board, the Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater can be demolished to make way for a new convention center district.

And housing will be essential to bringing new life to the site, which is now mostly a vast, asphalt parking lot.

Those are just two of the recommendations the board voted on Tuesday to send to city commissioners, who will vote on July 17 to choose one of two teams for the billion-dollar project. Preservationists have rallied around preserving the theater and commissioners have suggested they may not support building more residential units.

The four board members present on Tuesday — Chairman Charles Urstadt and members Jack Johnson, Robert Wolfarth and Henry Stolar — disagreed over their role in the city’s process to find a developer, and fell short of recommending one team over another. Instead, they sent a list of broad recommendations to the commissioners over how the site should be developed.

Miami Beach is winding down the process to pick a developer for the 52-acre convention center district, in the heart of South Beach. Two finalists have submitted competing plans outlining how they would build a new convention center, a new hotel, and new retail and residential space. The endeavor is considered one of the most significant urban development projects in the country.

Five of the seven board members wrote memos to city staff; some delved into specific criticisms of each team’s plan, while others took a more general approach to evaluating the proposals. Only the South Beach ACE team received specific endorsements in the memos. Urstadt, Johnson and Jean-Francois Lejeune, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, each recommended ACE.

The team is led by New York-based Tishman Hotel and Realty and includes Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm, OMA, as well as local developer Robert Wennett.

Their competition is Portman-CMC, led by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings, in concert with rising architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm, BIG, as well as Miami condo developer Ugo Colombo.

Among the board’s recommendations:

•   Housing will be critical to bringing life to the site. Commissioners have indicated in public meetings they aren’t convinced that new residential units are needed. Both ACE and Portman propose about 300 units as part of the private components of the project.

ACE’s proposal includes four buildings — two that would be 120 feet tall — along Meridian Avenue. Board members indicated ACE’s plan should be scaled-down to fit in with the neighborhood.

Portman’s plan includes four, 60-foot-tall buildings along the same street, but the majority of the housing units would be built into the convention center along Washington Avenue. Board members indicated the buildings along Meridian should be pushed up against the road to give it a more urban feel.

•   The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater can go. “The Jackie Gleason Theater is a structure that has been altered over the years in such a way that any historic structure or historic value that was there does not exist,” said board chair Urstadt.

Portman originally proposed tearing down the theater to make room for a new hotel, but changed its plans after the public rallied to save the Gleason. Music lovers say the venue’s size and location make it unique, and if it’s lost, certain acts won’t be able to come to South Florida. Both teams now propose to retain and restore the theater.

Members were split about where new ballrooms should go. Studies done for the city have suggested that ballrooms, which the convention center currently lacks, will be helpful in attracting new business.

Portman proposes building a freestanding ballroom building, which, on the positive side, board members said, could help bring life to the area surrounding the convention center. Conversely, when there are no events booked there, the ballroom could become a dead space.

ACE’s plan integrates the ballrooms into the convention center building, leaving more room for green space, but making it more difficult for the public to access the ballrooms, board members said.

Last week, the city’s Convention Center Advisory Board voted to recommend Portman-CMC’s plan to the city commission. That board is tasked with ensuring the best operations at the center, while the planning board’s role is to evaluate development in the city.

All these recommendations and evaluations are meant to guide the Miami Beach City Commission. Residents will also weigh in, in a November referendum.

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