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Up next for convention center: Negotiations with developer and city vote

Miami Beach’s long, convoluted quest to overhaul its convention center district didn’t end at 11 p.m. Wednesday when commissioners picked a development team for the billion-dollar project.

From the design of the project to the ultimate cost, most everything is now up to negotiations, deliberations and, ultimately, a public vote on whether the city should lease its land for the project.

“The work is beginning,” said Commissioner Jerry Libbin.

Commissioners will meet Friday morning to draft ballot questions that will ultimately shape the scope of the project, which could include a half-billion-dollar renovation of the Beach’s aging convention center, a new 800-room hotel, shops, restaurants and possibly apartments.

Also Friday, commissioners will decide whether to seek a court order confirming the city attorney’s opinion that a proposed city charter change, which would make the project more difficult to pass in a public referendum, would not apply.

Beach commissioners on Wednesday chose South Beach ACE, a team that includes New York-based Tishman Hotel and Realty and Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas, to remake the 52 acres of public land in the heart of South Beach.

Commissioners voted 5-2 in favor of ACE, whose competitor was Portman-CMC, led by the developers of Peachtree Center in Atlanta. Commissioners Jonah Wolfson and Ed Tobin cast the two dissenting votes.

Reached Thursday, Commissioner Deede Weithorn said she had planned to vote for Portman because of the lower public costs and quicker build time the team had proposed. The Portman bid was $52 million less than ACE’s, according to a city analysis of the public’s cost.

In the end, however, she voted for ACE, saying on Thursday she felt that was the direction of the commission.

“I feel strongly that the convention center needs to move forward and I want to make it the least controversial as possible,” she said. “We had a choice between gold and platnium, and that’s a good place to be.”

Commissioner Michael Góngora told the Miami Herald that his decision was based on ACE’s “iconic” design. The team’s plan calls for an undulating hotel atop the convention center. The hotel rises in the southwest corner to a peak of 194 feet, granting ocean views.

Góngora called it “something fantastic that would be a draw for tourists for many years to comeI felt like this was a once-in a lifetime opportunity to create an architectural gem.”

Libbin also told the Herald ACE’s design was a deciding factor. Libbin said the team’s plans for the convention center itself are more functional and that ACE has been open to changes he had proposed.

“When I talked to Portman, I didn’t get into the same level of detail with them about what they would or wouldn’t do,” Libbin said.

Before ACE can begin working, the public has to vote.

The city’s charter — the document that lays out Miami Beach’s rules — calls for voters to approve the sale or lease of much of the publicly owned convention center land. When commissioners meet to craft the ballot questions they want to pose, they’ll decide how much and which land to put out to vote.

Though there has been consensus among city officials for leasing land to build a hotel and retail space, commissioners have been non-committal about allowing apartments on the site. City Manager Jimmy Morales has suggested eliminating that part of the project and commissioners on Wednesday seemed to agree with him.

Nearby residents and urban planners, meanwhile, say that having year-round residents on site is critical to bringing life to what’s now a dead-zone: an asphalt parking lot wrapped around a massive convention center building that’s empty when there’s no event in town.

If the commission on Friday sides with Morales, that doesn’t mean there can’t be apartments on the convention center campus. It just means that, if the city changes its mind, another public referendum would be necessary.

As it stands, the city’s charter requires only a simple majority to approve the convention center leases. That won’t be the case if Commissioner Jonah Wolfson gets his way.

Wolfson has led a petition drive to change the city’s charter so that 60 percent of voters must approve leases for any land within the convention center site. He gathered enough signatures — more than 5,000 — to force the city to put the charter amendment on November’s regular election ballot.

In a lengthy legal brief, City Attorney Jose Smith wrote that applying the new rules to the current project is probably not legal “because it would impact vested rights and impose new duties and conditions” for ACE.

Commissioners on Friday will decide whether to allow Smith to seek a court order to confirm his position since, he wrote, “there is no case directly on point.”

Once all the ballot questions are settled, expect fierce campaigning for and against the project — which will be on a busy ballot along with an open mayoral race.

“Everything impacts the mayor’s race,” said Góngora, who’s running for the position against Libbin and businessman Philip Levine. “Every item will bring out a different type of voter.”

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