Miami Beach

The story behind Miami Beach’s latest bid to redo its convention center

The Progressive Miami International Boat Show at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2014.
The Progressive Miami International Boat Show at the Miami Beach Convention Center in 2014. Miami Herald File

A $500 million construction job has been advertised in Miami Beach, but only one firm is bidding for the project.

It’s an odd hiccup in the process to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center — an endeavor that has endured a long and winding saga through the years. The Beach has considered upgrading its aging convention center for about a decade to attract bigger events to the city, as the facility is competing with newer centers and hotel sites in Orlando and Las Vegas, among other places.

The current bid, which started with four firms in the fall and is down to one after three others dropped out, is a far cry from what happened two years ago, when prominent developers and star architects proposed a transformative redevelopment of the center and its surrounding 52 acres of public land. That version called for an overhaul of the convention center district, including adding retail, residential and a convention center hotel, along with revamped convention space.

The current situation reflects a shift in philosophy on what the project is supposed to look like, a shift resulting from a new mayor and several new city commissioners. Now, the project is more modest in scope: a makeover of the center with a park across the street. The desired convention-center hotel is no longer tied directly to the project, as the city wants to lease land behind the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater to a developer through a separate solicitation that would need approval from 60 percent of the Beach’s voters.

Stuart Blumberg, retired head of a county hotel trade group and the former chairman of Miami Beach’s convention center advisory panel, has watched talks of redoing the center go on for years. He said his concern has always been more for the convention center itself, and that even with one bidder left to propose a price at this point, the project is still farther along than in previous attempts.

“This is the closest the project has ever come,” he said. “[Before] the city was holding the convention center hostage trying to get an urban plan, but you have this building in the middle of it.”

He said he’s always favored separating the center from the hotel, noting the hotel plan still has a long way to go to clear the 60 percent voter approval hurdle.

Scrapping the plan and starting over

The last round of bidding in 2013 was a competition for who would develop a grand vision for the entire 52-acre convention center district, whose boundaries are Washington Avenue, 17th Street, Meridian Avenue and Dade Boulevard, the heart of the Beach’s Lincoln Road neighborhood. The project attracted prominent developers, landscape designers and two world-famous architects: the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.

The city chose to negotiate the $1.1 billion project with South Beach ACE, the master development team that won the bid in summer 2013. The plan, designed by Koolhaas, featured a hotel suspended over a renovated convention center, with a park and residential/retail incorporated across Convention Center Drive and at the nearby 17th Street Garage.

The direction of the project proved a hotly debated campaign issue during the November 2013 election. Aside from mayoral and commission races that saw new faces win seats on the dais, Commissioner Jonah Wolfson led a campaign against the size and price of the ACE project. That effort, partly funded by the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, led to a court case that eventually got the plan kicked off the ballot.

Those favoring the more modest approach prevailed. Negotiations with ACE were called off in January 2014, when freshly elected Mayor Philip Levine led a new commission to scrap the plans and start over.

In a memo to commissioners dated Jan. 15, 2014, Levine proposed removing the retail and residential aspects and decoupling the convention center from the hotel. He also noted that the new approach would not require a voter referendum to approve leases that had yet to be negotiated with ACE.

So it was back to square one for what is seen as the largest land development deal in Miami Beach’s history.

In April 2014, the city chose Denver-based Fentress Architects, part of the runner-up team in the last bid, to design partial plans for what is called a design-criteria package. Last year, the city paid $11 million to Fentress to design 30 percent of the project; the firm worked with Miami-based Arquitectonica and the Dutch landscape design firm of West 8, which designed the critically acclaimed SoundScape Park in front of the New World Symphony’s hall.

Their work, called a design-criteria package, was then delivered to the four firms that bid on the job. The four firms were: Clark Construction Group, Hunt Construction Group, Hensel Phelps Construction and Tutor Perini Building Corp. A six-person committee made up of local business people and city staffers 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.

After the rankings, all the firms dropped out, except for Clark.

Last week, commissioners asked Clark to give the city its best price to finish the design and build the center. If Clark can’t meet the city’s budget of $509.5 million, then the commission will turn to another strategy that puts the city more at risk for cost overruns. The city will use money from a special district, bonds that it will issue and a new hotel tax to fund the project.

Commissioners have praised Fentress’ designs, which include adding about 70,000 square feet of ballroom and meeting room space, creating a 5.8-acre park across Convention Center Drive and having nearly 900 parking spaces on site.

Maria Hernandez, the city’s project director of the convention center district, said that at one time the Beach sought a developer to implement a grand vision for a convention center, hotel and surrounding neighborhood, but that now the city is seeking a firm to finish a design it has already worked on and to begin construction.

Hernandez said now the city is acting like a developer for its own center.

“This process is totally different from the last process,” she said. “What the city needed before was a developer who would be able to develop 52 acres of land.”

Hernandez said builders might not fight to the end of the bidding process for a $500-million deal now that the climate has improved for the construction industry.

“The industry is picking up,” she said. “They have options now.”

This week, Levine said he remained confident that city would meet its ambitious timetable, in which construction would begin after Art Basel in December. The projected finish: 2017.

“We have the money and we have the land,” he said. “All we need is a contractor.”

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