Miami Beach

City Hall watchdog? Convention hotel? Miami Beach voters will decide in November

Rendering of the new proposed Miami Beach convention center hotel looking east down 17th Street.
Rendering of the new proposed Miami Beach convention center hotel looking east down 17th Street.

The future of Miami Beach’s convention center hotel is once again in voters’ hands.

On Wednesday, the City Commission approved a development and lease agreement with the developers behind the newest plan for a Miami Beach Convention Center headquarter hotel and voted to put the proposal on the November ballot. This is the city’s third attempt in recent years to find a design residents will support.

The newest proposal features a 185-foot tall, 800-room hotel with two wings stretching behind a 53-foot podium containing parking, meeting spaces and ballrooms. The hotel would be connected to the convention center via a pedestrian bridge.

The hotel isn’t the only issue on the November ballot that could alter Miami Beach’s urban landscape. The city is also asking residents to authorize $439 million in general obligation bonds to finance public safety, infrastructure and parks projects. Voters will also be asked to create an inspector general’s office to perform investigations, audits and reviews at City Hall.

The group behind the new convention center hotel plan — Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica — hopes the latest iteration will address residents’ concerns about size and traffic, which have derailed previous attempts to build a headquarter hotel. Their proposal is 100 feet shorter than the previous plan and creates approximately six times more space for cars to queue on the property without spilling onto the street.

A rendering of the pedestrian view along 17th Street in front of the proposed Miami Beach convention center hotel. Miami Beach Connect

If voters approve the project, developers anticipate that the hotel would open in September 2022, according to information from the city manager’s office. City officials and tourism groups say Miami Beach needs a convention center hotel in order to compete with other convention destinations. The Miami Beach Convention Center is currently undergoing a $620 million renovation, but has lost $130 million in bookings since 2015 because it lacks a headquarter hotel, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

According to the terms of the lease agreement approved by the City Commission, the hotel will pay the city either fixed rent totaling $16.6 million over the first 10 years or a percentage of hotel revenue, whichever is greater. The city plans to ask voters whether the guaranteed rent payments should be earmarked for traffic reduction, stormwater or education initiatives. Miami Beach estimates that the city will collect $96 million in taxes from the hotel over 30 years. The city is providing the land but won’t provide any public funding for the project.

City commissioners largely praised the project, but commissioners Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and Michael Góngora cautioned that some residents are frustrated with the amount of tourism-related development on the island, which they say brings traffic headaches. While both officials voted in support of the project, they said the city needs to take a look at the overall amount of construction and tourism-related development in Miami Beach.

“That’s really the number one concern that residents have and that I have is do we really need another large hotel? Is this going to pile on a lot of cars back in this area?” said Góngora. “I am concerned for the residents in the neighborhood that have suffered through a lot of construction,” he added.

The proposal has the support of the hotel workers union Unite Here Local 355, which recently signed a labor agreement with the developers.

The project will need approval from 60 percent of voters in order to move forward. On the ballot, voters will be asked to authorize the lease of city land — a parking lot adjacent to the convention center — and the construction of an 800-room hotel with a maximum height of 185 feet. The specifics of the hotel design will be evaluated by the city’s Design Review Board at a later date.

Beach walks, an aquatic center and new fire stations

Miami Beach is moving forward with an ambitious plan to revamp the city through hundreds of million of dollars in public projects to prepare for sea level rise, repair aging infrastructure and improve public safety.

After weeks of discussion and public meetings, commissioners whittled the wish list down from $1.1 billion to $439 million with the help of an advisory panel made up of Miami Beach residents. The projects, which will be funded through general obligation bonds, will be grouped into three separate items on the November ballot: $72 million for public safety improvements, $169 million for parks and beaches and $198 million for infrastructure.

Among the projects that made the final cut: two replacement fire stations, street lighting, sidewalk repairs, pedestrian paths, protected bicycle lanes and millions of dollars for stormwater projects and flooding mitigation.

The debt, paid back over 30 years, would increase property taxes. Property owners would pay approximately $82 more a year per $100,000 in taxable value, according to an estimate from the city’s finance department.

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A new Miami Beach Fire Station No. 1 is among the projects the city wants to fund through a general obligation bond. JOHN VANBEEKUM Miami Herald archive

Some residents and officials questioned whether Miami Beach is moving too quickly and suggested the city should wait for a future election to give officials more time to vet potential projects.

“What you’re asking to do now is add $500 million more to our debt without really spending more than a few weeks or a few months determining where we want to go and doing it piecemeal,” said resident Wayne Roberts.

But Mayor Dan Gelber said officials had carefully considered the city’s needs.

“I feel like we did everything we could to be both transparent and to bring the community in every way possible,” he said. “At the end of the day I feel like there’s a lot of meat and potatoes and vegetables in this thing and not a lot of dessert and I think that’s what it should be.”

Much of the debate over the final project list centered on a new $53.8 million complex in North Beach that would include an aquatic center, park and library. Some commissioners said the complex was taking up too large a chunk of the proposed parks funding.

Residents and business owners also pushed for the inclusion of a $20 million upgrade for Ocean Drive.

“This is not just about Ocean Drive. This is about all of Miami Beach,” said David Wallack, the owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe. “Ocean Drive is the main stage that is portrayed to the entire world in so much video, in movies, in advertising.”

Funding for West Lots — eight lots along Collins Avenue in North Beach, most of which are parking lots or vacant areas — also made the cut. The commission voted to include $5 million for parks and other public amenities on the lots.

A new watchdog for City Hall

Miami Beach is also asking voters to create an inspector general in an effort to make the city government more efficient and prevent abuse.

The new office would operate independently and scrutinize city spending and programs, including possibly projects financed by the general obligation bonds. The inspector general would have the ability to perform investigations and subpoena witnesses.

Miami Beach is asking voters to create an inspector general to scrutinize the city’s spending and programs. Miami Herald archives

An inspector general could help prevent embarrassments like the 2016 theft of $3.5 million from a Miami Beach bank account, which the finance department didn’t notice for weeks after the money first started disappearing. The city was able to recover all of the stolen funds last year through settlement agreements.

The new office could cost the city as much as $1.1 million a year, depending on the number of staff, according to the city’s finance department. Miami Beach may add a surcharge to city contracts to help cover the costs.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said he believes the office will “more than pay for itself” by making the city more efficient.

“I think that every good organization is always looking for ways to improve,” he said. “What an inspector general will do will allow us to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness at City Hall as well as the trust that all stakeholders and residents have in government.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated with a new property tax estimate from the city’s finance department. Miami Beach property owners would pay approximately $82 more a year per $100,000 in taxable value, not $88.