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Developers scramble, residents debate pared-down Miami Beach convention center project

A last-minute recommendation by Miami Beach’s city manager to dramatically down-scale redevelopment of the city’s convention center district has been met with relief, bewilderment, and — in the case of the development teams competing to land the billion-dollar deal — a mad dash to figure out what it all means.

The two teams learned Tuesday they have until 5 p.m. Friday to crunch new numbers and confirm they still want to be a part of the project as now proposed. This, after City Manager Jimmy Morales on Monday upended more than a year of the teams’ work by proposing to eliminate all housing, significantly decrease retail and restaurant space and allow the city to retain control of the 17th Street parking garage.

Charles Pinkham, vice president of Portman-CMC, one of the two teams, said they’re analyzing the financial impact of Morales’ proposal.

The other team, South Beach ACE, led by New York-based Tishman Hotel and Realty, was on a conference call “non-stop discussing this,’’ Tadd Schwartz, a spokesman, wrote in an email.

While the teams go into overdrive, residents were mixed about paring back the project. Some were pleased the new proposal called for greater control by the city of a 52-acre site in the heart of South Beach. Others closer to the district worried about losing the vitality that comes from people moving into the neighborhood and the restaurant and retail that follows.

“If you look at the convention center now, when there isn’t a convention going on, it is a dead zone smack in the middle of Miami Beach,” said Collins Park Neighborhood Association President Ray Breslin. “To me, adding residential components made all of the difference in the world to activate it.”

Morales did not respond to a telephone call or text message on Tuesday, nor did Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower.

When Miami Beach first sought developer proposals in January 2012, then City Manager Jorge Gonzalez envisioned an iconic site with a renovated convention center, new hotel, public parks and, to help pay for the the project, private development that would generate lease payments to the city.

Teams of the world’s preeminent developers and leading architects answered the call, spending months and millions of dollars designing, tweaking and pitching plans that call for acres of public parks, hundreds of new housing units and tens of thousands of square feet of shops and restaurants. The scale and potential of the site and prominence of the competing teams led observers to call the project one of the most significant in the Beach’s history.

The finalists are:

* Portman-CMC, led by Atlanta-based Portman Holdings along with rising architect Bjarke Ingels.

* South Beach ACE, led by New York-based Tishman Hotel and Realty, along with Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas.

City commissioners are set to pick a development team as early as July 17.

Morales, who joined the city on April 1, has a markedly different vision from his predecessor.

His recommendations, made in a memo to a city committee, would result in less development at a higher public cost. Without the long-term lease payments the city could have commanded from more housing and retail on the site, the price of renovating Miami Beach’s convention center district would fall more heavily on the shoulders of taxpayers. The city has not publicly disclosed how much more the project would cost, or where the money would come from.

Terry Bienstock, a board member of Miami Beach United — a coalition of residents from all over Miami Beach — said the scaled-back development would be worth it.

“Even if it costs the city a little more in the short run, in the long run, we control it, we own it, we manage how it’s used,” he said. “Because once you start with these 99-year leases, that’s it.”

Speaking for MBU, Bienstock said Morales’ recommendations reflect “a lot of what we’ve been talking about.”

“I think there was a great amount of concern that it’s a lot of concrete.”

His arguments echo ones that City Commissioner Jonah Wolfson has pushed since the onset. He has warned that ceding so much public land — in the heart of the city — is a risky proposition. While Morales’ recommendations reduce the privately leased land to only 20 percent of the site, Wolfson said the restrictions don’t go far enough. The district would still include 90,000 square feet of shops and restaurants — much of it just a block off Lincoln Road Mall, where merchants worry about competition from the new development.

“It is still way in excess of what the area can handle,” Wolfson said. “They’re trying to act like this is no big deal, like it’s not that much. It’s enormous. It’s massive.”

Not massive enough, said some residents.

Michael Jarboe, who lives in the Palm View neighborhood on the convention center’s western flank, said he and many neighbors liked the developers’ plans to line Meridian Avenue with apartment buildings. He said they would buffer the neighborhood from the convention center. Morales proposed green space instead of apartments.

“It’s a big curve ball at the end of the game for everybody,’’ Jarboe said. “If no residential goes in for either team, that opens up a whole other set of issues. Just park area sounds really beautiful, but the question is, ‘Is that just wasted space?’ We have a lot of parks you can’t use for six months because it’s too hot.’’

Planning board member and University of Miami architecture professor Jean-François Lejeune said Morales’ recommendations torpedo the urban planning concepts driving the developers’ proposals. In fact, Lejeune has advocated for an even denser development, with more concentrated uses, to make the area more city-like. The city manager’s suggestions, he said, show “no understanding of a vision for a city,” and favor tourism over residents.

“Housing, for me, is most important, because if you want to make the public spaces used and more attractive, I think it has to be surrounded by more active uses,” Lejeune said. “We’re going to have an empty site with a bigger convention center and a hotel.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report. Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.