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Miami Beach commission picks South Beach ACE for convention-center overhaul

South Beach ACE is the winner of a protracted, at time precarious public competition to land the most important development deal in the history of Miami Beach.

Commissioner Michael Gongora made a motion to award the lucrative bid to the South Beach ACE team, which was seconded by Commissioner Jorge Exposito.

But before a vote could be taken, Commissioner Ed Tobin launched into a lecture, complete with a poster board propped up on an easel. He tried to break down the various twists and turns of the negotiation process, revealing that negotiations with two teams of developers for the deals had been taped – much to the surprise of commissioners and Mayor Matti Herrera Bower. He made a case for the opposing team, Portman-CMC.

When pressed for a recommendation, Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said he’d choose the Portman team because the team’s plan costs the public less and gets construction done quicker.

Said Tobin: “On the money, on the timing, on who’s easier to negotiate with, your pick is Portman.”

Only Tobin and Commissioner Jonah Wolfson voted against ACE.

ACE and Miami Beach now move on to negotiate financial terms and what the 52-acre project will ultimately look like. Plans call for the public to shoulder a $600-million upgrade to the city’s out-dated convention center and the addition of acres of public parks where there is now only asphalt.

To help pay for the project, and to bring life to an area that has been described as a dead-zone in the middle of vibrant South Beach, the city hopes to negotiate leases with ACE for the development of a new convention center hotel, shops, restaurants and possibly apartment buildings.

Over the course of many months, competing teams created, pitched and tinkered with grandiose master plans to transform Miami Beach’s Convention Center District into an urban center of iconic design, with improved connectivity to abutting neighborhoods, Lincoln Road mall and cultural facilities.

Considered one of the most significant urban projects in the country, the opportunity attracted world-renowned developers and prize-winning architects.

Portman-CMC is led by the developers of Peachtree Center in Atlanta and Miami condo developer Ugo Colombo, along with Danish star architect Bjarke Ingels.

South Beach ACE is led by Tishman Hotel and Realty, whose related companies count the One World Trade Center in Manhattan among their projects, Robert Wennett of 1111 Lincoln Road fame, and Prinzker-Prize winning architect Rem Koolhaas.

The grand vision comes with a steep price – about $600 million, comparable to the amount taken on by the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County to build the controversial Marlins ballpark. On the Beach, public money is expected to come from a county bond, an increase in the local hotel tax and — hopefully — an extension of the city’s special taxing district in South Beach, which currently is set to expire in 2022.

City officials said last week that an extension is important to fund the project, and it’s up to the county to approve that extension. In preliminary discussions with county officials, “They keep saying, when you have a project and you have a team, come see us,” Morales said last week.

With a team now selected for the deal, Miami Beach can begin in earnest their negotiations. But with the county facing yet another budget crunch, an extension may be a hard sell because the taxing district means that money that would otherwise go to the county, instead goes to the city. County voters have also been less willing to accept expensive deals with private developers.

But whereas the Marlins deal spurred, in part, an historic recall of local pols, Miami Beach residents have lauded city leaders for their vision to see the project through controversy after controversy.

At times it seemed Miami Beach would not get this far in its quest for an improved convention center district.

The project has lurched on, despite the ouster the former city manager who envisioned it. It was temporarily delayed by the sudden resignation, and then the arrest on public corruption charges, of the lead city administrator handling the convention center bids. More recently the project has been up against the concentrated efforts by one commissioner to kill the whole thing, and complaints about the city’s selection process.

Commissioner Jonah Wolfson has led a petition to change the city’s charter to make the convention center deal more difficult to pass voter approval. Miami Beach’s current laws require a simple majority to approve the lease of certain land within the convention center site. Wolfson wants to change the approval rate to require a super-majority, and for a referendum to apply to the entire district.

It took another turn Wednesday night, as Tobin lectured the commission about his impressions about ACE team members from listening to the negotiation tapes. He described the team as litigious and aggressive.

“There’s this aggressiveness, that, I’m warning you now, is going to be a handful,” Tobin said.

He also questioned the amount of fees that ACE proposes to charge – though Morales on Wednesday said that both teams had agreed to similar terms.

“I think that Portman would make a much better partner,” Tobin said.

Tobin wrapped up his presentation to extended applause by residents and developers who packed the commission chamber.

This story has been corrected with regards to Tishman’s affiliation with One World Trade Center.

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