The morning after Miami Beach voters approved a plan to build a convention center hotel, the head of the Miami tourism bureau was up at 6 a.m. calling meeting planners around the world to share the news.
“We were making calls to meeting planners saying listen, it has passed 64 percent, so this is going to happen,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Talbert had waited a long time to make those calls. Two previous efforts to get a hotel project off the ground failed. One, in 2016, sank due to voter concerns over the size of the hotel and potential traffic congestion. The other, in 2013, was bogged down in a court case that eventually booted the proposal off the ballot. In the meantime, Miami Beach struggled to compete with other cities for conventions. The tourism bureau estimates that the convention center lost at least $130 million in bookings since 2015 because it lacked a headquarter hotel.
But in a city where construction already causes traffic headaches and residents are wary of new development, a 185-foot-tall, 800-room hotel in a congested area of South Beach was a tough sell. The proposed site for the hotel is a city-owned parking lot adjacent to the convention center, near bustling Lincoln Road and other tourist attractions. Miami Beach also had to secure approval from 60 percent of voters — as opposed to the 50 percent required to pass other ballot measures — in order to lease public land in the convention center district.
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So what pushed this hotel proposal over the finish line?
Local activist Frank Del Vecchio said that one major factor was the developers’ efforts to limit traffic impacts. Del Vecchio, who shares his views on local issues with a mailing list of roughly 3,500 island residents, said he didn’t get many questions about traffic this time around. The proposed hotel includes roughly six times more space for cars to queue on hotel property than previous proposals in an effort to keep vehicles from spilling onto the street.
“In past years there was a torrent of questions about traffic impacts,” Del Vecchio said. “I think the hotel founders addressed and answered that question.”
Talbert said that strong voter outreach efforts and a unified campaign also helped push the proposal over the 60 percent threshold. The tourism bureau worked with the local hotel workers union, the hotel developer, Miami Beach officials, and the chamber of commerce to knock on doors and raise support for the proposal.
“It’s a rare moment when people like Bill Talbert, the developers and the workers are all working hand-in-hand to make a project succeed,” said Wendi Walsh, secretary-treasurer of the local hotel workers union, UNITE HERE Local 355. “This demonstrates how successful you can be when you make a decision to work together from the beginning.”
Support from elected officials was an important part of the campaign, said Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales. In 2016, one commissioner publicly opposed the hotel proposal and those who did endorse it weren’t as vocal about their support, Morales said. This time around, all of the commissioners supported the proposal and several, including the mayor, stumped for the project.
“I think when your elected leadership steps up, the community follows,” Morales said.
The city manager said he thought voters were also reassured by the success of the recent $620 million convention center renovation and by the fact that the team behind the hotel proposal — Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica — is local.
“People knew who they were dealing with and how they would deliver,” Morales said.
The 2016 proposal from Atlanta-based Portman Holdings, which envisioned an 800-room, 288-foot hotel, was approved by 54 percent of voters but fell short of the 60 percent mark.
After the election, then-mayor Philip Levine convened a committee of business and community leaders to figure out what went wrong. They commissioned a voter survey, which showed that residents were concerned about a number of factors including the potential traffic impacts, design and height of the hotel. The committee, which was chaired by Commissioner Ricky Arriola, recommended that any future projects lower the height to 185 feet and include plenty of room for cars to queue on the property.
The team behind the current proposal took that feedback into consideration, Martin said. “We listened to a lot of the past concerns and we tried to tailor our proposal” to the committee’s recommendations, he said. “The result was a project the community embraced.”
At a South Beach polling place on Tuesday afternoon, voters also cited economic factors in explaining why they voted yes.
According to the terms of the lease agreement, the hotel will have to pay Miami Beach either fixed rent totaling $16.6 million over the first 10 years or a percentage of hotel revenue, whichever is greater. Miami Beach estimates that the city will also collect $96 million in taxes from the hotel over 30 years.
Retiree María Elena Alvarez said she supported the project because of the revenue it would bring to the city. “We could use some of that money,” she said.
Business manager Maria Portilla, 31, said she thought the hotel would boost the local economy. “I think it’s going to bring more jobs over here,” she said.
Although the convention center hotel cleared its biggest hurdle on Tuesday, the proposal still has to go through a number of steps before developers can break ground. Voters authorized the lease of city land and the construction of an 800-room hotel, which allows Miami Beach to execute a previously negotiated ground lease already approved by the City Commission.
The developer still has to get approval from the city’s Design Review Board, which will evaluate the specifics of the hotel design, and meet other city requirements including applying for building permits. Morales said he expects that process will likely take at least a year.
The developers also need to pick a management company to oversee hotel operations. Martin said the group is in negotiations with Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott and will be making a decision soon. That process will happen before developers submit a design to the city for review because some of the design elements will depend on the management company.
Stuart Blumberg, the founder and former president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said that picking the right management company is crucial in determining the hotel’s success. “The devil is in the details,” he said. “You can always pick one of them and say this is the best fit, but then you have to negotiate the management agreement, the terms and everything else.”