The much-delayed renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center, once a $1 billion project coveted by leading developers and legendary architects, now has only one firm bidding on the venture in the heart of Miami Beach.
It’s a disappointing development for the City Commission and staff, who have touted the progress of this latest effort to modernize the center, a process that began five years ago and culminated in an ambitious 52-acre renewal project that fizzled after voters decided they wanted a greater say in how the city renovates the center and its surrounding public lands.
On Tuesday, commissioners decided to allow Clark Construction Group, the remaining firm, to give the city its best price to finish the design and construction of the center. Three other firms have dropped out of the bidding in the last few months.
If Clark, based out of Bethesda, Maryland, can’t meet the city’s budget of $509.5 million, then commissioners want to take another approach they insist will not delay the project. The city’s timetable calls for construction to begin in December, just after Art Basel.
City Manager Jimmy Morales opened Tuesday’s discussion at City Hall by expressing his surprise that second-ranked firm Hunt Construction Group, headquartered in Indianapolis, dropped out last week.
“In 20 years of public service, I haven’t seen something like that,” he said. “Especially from a company ranked second and very much still in the hunt.”
He echoed comments made by Mayor Philip Levine on Monday about the disadvantage of having one firm bid for the large-scale project.
“It’s understandable no one likes the situation where we have a competition of one,” Morales said.
Commissioner Michael Grieco encouraged city staff to walk away if they felt the deal was not in the best interest of the city.
“In a perfect world, we stay on schedule, we come to terms with the remaining bidder, and we understand that they come with clean hands,” he said. “But I will tell you right now … if you feel that you’re not being dealt with fairly, then close the book and leave the table.”
Six of seven city commissioners supported the strategy for moving forward. Commissioner Jonah Wolfson was absent.
It’s not clear why Hunt withdrew from the solicitation. When a shortlist of three was proposed in November, third-ranked Hensel Phelps Construction Co. withdrew, and fourth-ranked Tutor Perini Building Corp. declined an offer from the city to continue with the bid.
On Monday, an executive from the Tutor Perini told the Miami Herald that the firm felt the differences in scoring were too large to overcome, and it wasn’t worth continuing to spend money on the bid.
“As far we were concerned, we couldn’t overcome the scoring gap, and we felt that Clark would ultimately prevail,” said Danny Hoisman, senior vice president for operations at Tutor Perini. “Unless you feel like you have a reasonable chance for success, it’s more prudent to back out.”
The firms were scored by a six-person committee made up of local business people and city staffers, who judged the firms on seven categories, including organization plan, experience and qualifications, and financial capability. Clark scored an average of 95. Hunt scored 83, Hensel Phelps, 76, and Tutor Perini, 69.
Miami Beach has been on track with a design-build approach to get the renovation done by 2017. Last year, the city paid $11 million to Denver-based Fentress Architects to prepare 30 percent of the design; the firm worked with Miami-based Arquitectonica and New York-based West 8 on the design. That work, called a design-criteria package, was then delivered to the four firms recently bidding on the job.
Now, only Clark remains. Should the company’s bid come in over the city’s budget, the city wants to shift its process to what’s called construction manager at risk. Under this approach, Fentress and its team would finish the rest of the design, and the city would put a construction management contract out to bid. A firm would be selected, fees and costs would be negotiated and locked-in, and the construction manager would hire a subcontractor.
It’s not the preferred approach, as the design-build method affords the city more control over the project’s design. The construction manager at risk method puts Miami Beach more at risk for cost overruns because design changes, if necessary, are costly once construction has begun.
“The city’s only at risk if a contractor points at the city’s architect and says, ‘You didn’t draw this right, therefore the bid came in wrong,’” said Jeff Sachs, the convention center consultant hired by the city.
Despite this recent setback, commissioner and project leaders insist the renovation will not be delayed.
“Somebody has to still finish the plans,” said Maria Hernandez, project director of the convention center district. “It could be our architect. It could be their architect. The plans still have to go. So no matter who does them, that’s still part of the timing.”
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