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Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales: Scale back plan for convention center project

Two weeks before the city is set to choose a team for its $1 billion convention center project, Miami Beach’s new city manager is recommending large-scale changes that would result in higher public costs.

Jimmy Morales, in a memo to a city committee released Monday, unveiled a dramatically different vision for the site: no new housing or cultural centers, a fraction of the retail space — and the city would keep control of the 17th Street Garage, possibly building hotel rooms on top of a rebuilt structure.

Without calling it so, Morales’ recommendation is essentially what the city has called a “base case” scenario: one that calls for only a revamped convention center and new hotel. While he does propose some private development, Morales’ scaled-back proposal would result in the city leasing significantly less public land to developers, meaning the city would pay more for the public portions of the overhaul. The additional public costs will be the subject of a subsequent memo, Morales said.

Funding for the project is expected to come from higher hotel taxes, county funds and bonds, plus the lease payments.

Morales, in an interview Monday night, called his proposal an attempt to “seize control” of the project.

“This is the first real opportunity that staff has had to say, ‘This is what we think is the right program mix.’ There is no question this produces less private revenue, but we feel pretty comfortable that through public funds we can make up the difference,” Morales said.

For months, two development teams — South Beach ACE, led by New York-based Tishman Hotel and Realty, and Portman-CMC, led by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings — have been designing, tweaking and pitching grandiose plans for the 52-acre convention center district. They are working with two of the world’s leading architects: Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (ACE) and Bjarke Ingels of Bjarke Ingels Group (Portman).

Among Morales’ recommendations to the city’s Land Use and Development Committee, which will meet Monday to discuss the project:

•  Keep an 800-room hotel, with the possibility of adding 200 more rooms on top of the 17th Street Garage or on the east side of the Convention Center. Both teams had proposed adding housing in these locations.

•  Develop up to 70,000 square feet of retail in the ground and top floors of the garage, which he says should be demolished, rebuilt and be retained by the city. He calls for another 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space north of 17th Street, with no retailer having more than 10,000 square feet. His proposal to cut the retail north of 17th Street is based on concerns about competing with Lincoln Road.

•  Build no new housing. Morales cited increased traffic, possible friction between residents and convention-goers and a desire for more green space. Both developers had called for housing.

•  Possibly preserve the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, depending on the city’s negotiations with the theater’s lease-holder, Live Nation. The Planning Board has recommended demolishing the theater.

•  Provide more green space in the area of the current parking lots around the convention center.

“Most importantly, what is now a lunar landscape of parking lots and concrete ... will be converted into beautiful public spaces and green parks,’’ he wrote.

Morales acknowledged in an interview his recommendation would result in a significant scaling back of both proposals.

ACE has proposed 60,000-square feet of retail space on the ground floor of the garage, an additional 40,000 square feet of restaurant space for the new hotel, four apartment towers along Meridian Avenue, and a new cultural building between City Hall and the Jackie Gleason theater.

Portman has proposed 125,000-square feet of retail space sprinkled throughout the site, a Latin American culture museum and housing built into the convention center’s Washington Avenue facade, as well as four low-scale apartment buildings along Meridian.

“We are ready to work with the city manager, elected officials and staff on the various aspects of this project as it moves forward,” Jack Portman, Vice Chairman of Portman Holdings, said Monday in an emailed statement.

ACE did not respond to a reporter’s inquiry on Monday night.

Morales says his recommendation balances quality-of-life issues for the surrounding neighborhoods while allowing sufficient development to reduce the public burden. The result will be more green space and less impact on traffic, residential areas and Lincoln Road Mall merchants, he noted.

This does not alter the selection process, he said, which remains on track for a commission vote on July 17.

Morales said he won’t ask the competing teams to draw up new proposals, but will ask them for comments and responses.

“I can’t imagine they will be shocked by any aspect of this,’” he said. “We’re just trying to find the right balance.”

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