Miami Beach

New convention hotel question probably won’t make November ballot

One major concern became clear when residents voted down a lease for an 800-room hotel next to the Miami Beach Convention Center: They are sick of traffic in South Beach, and they don’t want anything that would make it even slightly worse.

This fear of increased congestion, along with the 288-foot height of the proposed 800-room hotel, dissuaded enough voters that the March 15 referendum captured only about 54 percent in support, which fell short of the necessary 60 percent needed to lease public land in the neighborhood surrounding the convention center. Convention boosters have long said the $600 million renovation of the convention center will succeed in attracting lucrative industry meetings only if a headquarter hotel is built next to it.

A committee with two commissioners and five residents has been tasked with figuring out what kind of hotel proposal would appease enough voters to pass. During a meeting Monday evening, it became clear that a hotel question will probably not be ready for the ballot during November’s presidential election. The group wants to survey residents to learn what changes could make the hotel more acceptable, and they want to see a new traffic study that better explains how a hotel would impact the area.

Some residents don’t want a hotel at all. Many would accept a shorter one with a different design.

Leslie Tobin, a committee member, said her friends and neighbors expressed concerns with traffic flow to and from the hotel. “We’re in the trenches every day, driving around, trying to get our kids where they need to be,” she said, adding that she didn’t know anyone who voted against the hotel on the basis of height.

The developer who proposed to privately finance the hotel, Portman Holdings, had representatives at the meeting to listen to the committee’s discussion. Jack Portman told the committee he was willing to tweak the existing lease with a shorter hotel that has fewer rooms. Amending the current lease could happen fast enough to get hotel question back on the ballot in November.

The majority of the committee would rather take the time to survey residents on why the hotel failed to pass and what changes would make the project more appealing.

“I just think that the process has value, and grappling with the issues rather than having someone present a solution that’s out of the box won’t show us going through the process,” said Saul Gross, committee member and former Miami Beach commissioner.

Portman said he would “sit tight” as the committee does its work. Hotel proponents wanted to send the lease to the voters in November because they believe a high turnout for the presidential election would benefit them.

The city has tapped experts from Florida International University to develop a questionnaire that would help the committee recommend a hotel proposal that would have a higher chance of passing. The plan is to conduct a phone survey with 600 respondents. A draft of survey questions will be considered by the committee this summer.

Among the preliminary ideas is to knock down the Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater and rebuild a shorter hotel that could incorporate a concert hall and memorial to TV star Gleason.

It’s not a new approach. The city considered demolition of the theater in 2013 during a previous round of bidding to redo the entire convention center district — a process that included a Portman-led team that had originally proposed demolition of the theater. Public outcry over the potential loss of the Gleason led Portman to rethink the proposal and preserve the theater.

Neither bidder in that larger scale project proceeded when a new commission, led by a freshly elected Mayor Philip Levine, completely scrapped existing plans in 2014 and decided to separate the convention center renovation from the hotel.

Now, as construction crews work to finish the renovation and expansion of the convention facility before Art Basel 2017, the hotel will take a slower route.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech