Miami-Dade County

Miami Dade College cultural-center project becomes three-way competition

Rendering of the Gregg Covin/Oppenheim Architecture project
Rendering of the Gregg Covin/Oppenheim Architecture project

Miami Dade College’s board of trustees on Tuesday gave the green light to administrators to negotiate with private developers who propose to build a massive cultural center and commercial project near its downtown Miami campus.

But in an unexpected twist, the board unanimously instructed school officials to open negotiations with three development teams instead of just the two recommended by an evaluation committee.

That sets up a three-way competition among developer Jorge Pérez’s Related Group, a team led by Miami art dealer Gary Nader and another led by developer Gregg Covin and architect Chad Oppenheim. Those three groups, in that order, got the highest scores from the evaluators out of four original applicants.

All three want the right to build some mix of major commercial development on a 2.6-acre parking lot owned by the college in exchange for providing the school with a wish list of cultural facilities on the site, including museum or gallery space, a conference center and a theater, in addition to parking. Alone among the proposers, Nader is also offering to donate a collection of Latin American art he says is worth $60 million to stock the museum.

The committee had recommended that MDC pursue negotiations only with Related and the Nader + Museum group, but several trustees said that adding a third would put the school in a stronger position to secure the best possible deal — a sentiment endorsed during Tuesday’s meeting by college president Eduardo Padrón.

“In the end, I think that would be to the maximum benefit of the college,” Padrón said.

In the end, I think that would be to the maximum benefit of the college.

MDC President Eduardo Padrón

One trustee, Daniel Diaz Leyva, said there are elements unique to Covin’s proposal that he likes, although he did not specify those. Covin’s plan is the only one of the three that doesn’t include condos, something the developer has said he considers “inappropriate” for a project at a public college.

Trustees also expressed frustration over the selection process, which has been shrouded in secrecy because of state contracting rules meant to restrict lobbying. That has meant that trustees have not been briefed on the complex proposals or the selection process and cannot ask questions of administrators outside of public meetings. Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the trustees met to consider the committee recommendations.

“I find this process a little frustrating,” said trustee Marili Cancio, who complained that she has had to rely on articles in the Miami Herald to find out details of the proposals. “We as decision-makers are kept on the side.”

Added trustee Armando Olivera, addressing college officials: “It’s unusual. There are lots of questions I have and that I expect my peers have. We need a really thorough discussion. Please don’t wait until the end to ask us to vote on this.”

Those questions, Olivera said, include whether the college would get “fair value” for its land, a faculty parking lot that occupies a full city block on Biscayne Boulevard, and whether its wish list is realistic.

Olivera said he is particularly concerned over whether the school can afford to take on management and maintenance of new facilities — mainly museum, conference and theater spaces — when it already struggles to keep up with maintenance at its sprawling network of campuses.

MDC povost Rolando Montoya, who is leading the project evaluation, said negotiations with the developers must take place in private and remain confidential. But he promised to set up public workshops and explore other ways of keeping trustees and the public informed as negotiations proceed. College officials have not publicly set a deadline for the decision, although they have said they intend to move quickly.

Cancio said she would also seek assurances that any approved project could be completed even if there’s a downturn in the real-estate market and that taxpayers would not be left footing the bill for unfinished buildings. She pointed to the Frost Museum of Science, which required a bailout from county taxpayers to finish construction after private fundraising fell well short of promised goals.

“I would hate to see what happened with the Frost Museum happen here,” she said.

I would hate to see what happened with the Frost Museum happen here.

MDC board member Marili Cancio

After the vote Tuesday, Nader and his team said through a spokeswoman they would not comment.

When the evaluation committee ranked Related’s proposal slightly above his in February, the art dealer issued a scorching broadside against Pérez, contending that the developer — once a client and close friend — had submitted a plan to MDC only to thwart Nader’s proposed museum. Nader called Pérez “the worst thing” that has happened to culture in Miami in decades. Nader criticized what he said was the developer’s relatively small donation of $40 million in art and cash in exchange for having the new bay-front home for the former Miami Art Museum named after him, which he says caused donors to walk away from the institution.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “I’m happy to participate and see if we can build it.”

Covin had originally submitted his proposal to the college in the mid-2000s during the previous real-estate boom, but the college shelved the idea in 2008. Nader’s unsolicited proposal last year prompted the college to seek competitive bids, and Covin then resubmitted his, altering it to incorporate the school’s wished-for cultural center.

Covin speculated that Nader’s public sniping at Pérez may have helped revive his proposal’s fortunes by leaving trustees looking for a broader range of options.

Covin said he intends to push what he sees as his plan’s advantage over his rivals’, especially as the once-sizzling local condo market slows down markedly — it doesn’t rely on condo pre-sales to make it a go, but on sales of its commercial spaces.

“I think both of the other proposals have problems,” he said.

Lissette Calderon, Related’s president for international and strategic projects, said she remains confident the firm’s proposal will win out, noting that it includes a guarantee that the project will be completed.

“Whether the College negotiates with another bidder, we are confident the merits of our proposal allow Related to maintain top ranking by the College,” Calderon said in a statement, adding: “We are the only ones who capitalize the Cultural Center (not including the Private Improvements) with $65 million of sponsor cash and appropriate levels of financing, all backstopped by a completion guarantee. Our proposal is further set apart as we have no pre-sale, pre-leasing, or financing contingencies.”

The college’s purchasing office set certain requirements, telling developers they wanted projects to include a 3,000-seat conference center, a 1,600-seat performing arts theater and a museum about 100,000 square feet in size.

Covin, the developer behind the 10 Museum Park and 1000 Museum luxury condos a couple of blocks up Biscayne Boulevard, proposes two 57-story towers joined at the top and at the base, which would encapsulate the cultural elements sought by the college. The towers would include rental apartments and a 300-room hotel. The project also includes offices.

Related called the college’s cultural wish list “impossible” to match and urged a rethinking. It proposes a 45,000-square-foot museum space topped by a 36,000-square-foot sculpture garden on the roof, a 3,020-seat hall and a 33,750-square-foot multifunctional performance space that can shrink and grow through the use of sliding walls and curtains.

The Related plan includes two towers — a 75-story high-rise with 350 condos and a 39-story office tower — and a 100-key boutique hotel.

Nader has offered to build a seven-level museum with some 238,000 square feet of exhibition space, including an elevated sculpture garden, as well as the conference center and theater as outlined by MDC. The cultural center would be topped by two 50-story, high-luxury condo towers.

A previous version of this story misattributed a quote about the Frost museum to MDC trustee Helen Aguirre Ferre. The story has been corrected to show the comment was made by trustee Marili Cancio.