Miami Beach

Miami Beach commission: Put third convention hotel plan on November ballot

Miami Beach City Hall.
Miami Beach City Hall. Miami Herald File

For the magnet of controversy that is the Miami Beach Convention Center hotel, maybe third time’s the charm.

Beach commissioners certainly hope so after voters Tuesday rejected a proposed ground lease of land across the street from City Hall for an 800-room, 288-foot-high hotel that would’ve been privately financed by developer Portman Holdings.

At Wednesday’s commission meeting, elected officials said they hoped to have a new — third — hotel plan on the ballot in November.

The commission unanimously voted to instruct city administrators to come back in April with alternatives for a headquarter hotel — options that could include designing a shorter hotel that would be integrated with a planned park in a parking lot across from the convention center and possibly spending taxpayer dollars to help subsidize it.

Tuesday’s vote was the second defeat of a convention-related proposal since 2013, when a larger 52-acre redevelopment plan was successfully contested by opposition, removed from the ballot and later completely scrapped by a new commission. Voters in that election also approved making it harder to pass a public land lease in the convention center neighborhood, raising the threshold to 60 percent.

With only 54 percent voting in favor Tuesday, Beach commissioners were left with a convention center in the midst of a $600 million renovation and no sure plan for a hotel, which tourism officials insist is necessary to attract large lucrative industry meetings.

46 percent of voters said no to the proposed land lease for a convention center hotel, enough to vote it down

With the convention halls scheduled to be ready for use by Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2017, most commissioners want to move quickly. City Manager Jimmy Morales said he has to identify and weigh alternatives that will have a good chance of passing in November during the high-turnout presidential election.

“It sounds like [the commission] wants to figure out a way to get over 60 percent support,” Morales said. “If you look at the issues that came up during the campaign, height was one of them, design might be another one, and the number of rooms. Traffic is traffic. The rooms helps us a little bit with that issue.”

He said the process might include reaching out to hotel industry professionals to gauge interest — if there’s any left — in working with the city to develop the building. Developers did not exactly flock to Miami Beach last year when the city solicited a second round of hotel proposals. Portman was the only firm to submit a proper bid.

“We put developers through the ringer twice now,” Commissioner Ricky Arriola said in an interview after the meeting. “I’m concerned about getting bidders on this again.”

Officials could explore altering the plan for a 5.8-acre park across from the convention center, which is currently a parking lot being used by contractors working on the renovation. Some suggested finding a way to have a hotel and a smaller park.

Possible site for a headquarter hotel for the Miami Beach Convention Center

Commissioner Joy Malakoff suggested the city consider the rejected hotel site, at the corner of 17th Street and Convention Center Drive, as an option for a field that could serve as a staging area for convention center events.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, the only one the dais to oppose the hotel, said she was glad to hear her colleagues say they want to have community input from both sides before taking another crack at it. She believes there’s still a shot at striking a deal that would require no public subsidy, but she worried November may be too soon to hash it out.

“Rushing it for November means that we won’t get a good deal,” she said.

Despite her reservations, the vote was still unanimous for city staff to develop alternate plans.

I think that the park and the hotel can coexist. It’s just a question of ingress and egress and putting it in right part of the park.

Commissioner Joy Malakoff

While 54 percent favored the proposed land lease, 60 percent is required to lease public land in the convention center district. That need for a supermajority was established by voters during the political shift that put Mayor Philip Levine and commissioners Michael Grieco and Malakoff into office.

“We were big supporters of it. It was something that was on the same ballot in which we got elected,” Grieco said at Wednesday’s meeting. “And it’s something that, I can speak for myself, that I embrace.”

That charge was led by then-Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who came out against this most recent hotel concept when he sent mailers raising concerns about traffic impact. With the hotel referendum’s defeat, Wolfson essentially scored a political victory three months after leaving office due to term limits.

Wolfson told the Miami Herald he was disappointed to see Levine vouch for the hotel and angered by the mayor’s emphasis that a majority of voters wanted the hotel.

“I was there when Levine made a campaign promise to oppose the hotel and supported 60 percent voter approval to give away city land,” he said. “But now he pushes it, and when it only gets 54 percent he said a simple majority should be enough — that’s hypocrisy and breaking campaign promises.”

Levine complimented Wolfson for remaining consistent on the hotel issue but disagreed with his former colleague’s assessment. The mayor said he opposed the first version of the hotel, not the hotel itself.

“I was against the previous deal, giving away 52 acres away to a third party developer and putting in $500 million. That’s what I was against,” he said, adding that he has no problem with the tough hurdle required to get a lease passed. “The deal is that it’s 60 percent. I’m not against 60 percent. That’s in the charter. It is what it is.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech