City of Miami Beach Commission Supports Levine’s Convention Center Plan.
Just days after announcing a scaled-down vision for the future renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center – a plan that mirrored his campaign promises – new Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine engendered the support of the largely new Miami Beach City Commission.
In a unanimous vote by the commission, they passed an ordinance that accomplished many of the goals that Levine and several other new commissioners and candidates for office advocated.
The commission voted to scrap the current convention center district redevelopment, throw out the existing plan and start from scratch with a scaled back version very different from the uber-development envisioned by South Beach ACE, the development consortium that the previous commission had selected as master developer. That plan called for a massive mixed-use development including a hotel, retail and residential components. The commission voted to cut those negotiations off and also to examine other potential sites for a possible convention center hotel. South Beach ACE had proposed a hotel atop their proposed development.
According to City Attorney Jose Smith, South Beach ACE, which would seem to be the one party aggrieved by the decision, has little recourse with no contract and with negotiations never having progressed in light of the major city commission turnover.
“The City has no contract with South Beach ACE,” Smith told SunPost. “It does not even have a signed letter of intent. Based on the facts as outlined by the mayor, the City has the right to seek a new solicitation. I am not concerned about potential legal challenges.”
Levine said a second vote is not necessary. “Not at the moment,” he told SunPost this week. “The City Administration will issue a new solicitation for design and/or construction services and bring the matter to the city commission for a final vote.
A motion by populist Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who had often been the lone voice in opposition to the conflict-laden selection process for the massive development many felt was too grand for the site, was supported by the entire commission. A new Request For Proposals (RFP) is to be prepared by the administration. In previous discussions, Levine has said that a potential hotel component would have to be determined by the market. He has also floated the idea that Miami Beach City Hall could be torn down and replaced and its existing location could be used for a potential hotel.
The commission decision echoed the rallying call of many activists in the community as well as some residents of neighboring properties, who were worried about numerous aspects of the process and of the proposed development. A city hall official was arrested on charges of public corruption during the process; a controversial city manager was relieved of his duties; and many worried that a prominent local activist and former commissioner with ties to South Beach ACE could have influenced the eventual decision. South Beach ACE’s proposal was neither the quickest or least expensive plan proposed by finalists; and it was consistently rated number two by independent evaluators. Additional concerns included the lack of a stormwater runoff plan, concerns over a massive berm included in South Beach ACE’s plan and traffic flow in an already-congested site.
That plan went out the door last week, just as Levine and other new commissioners had frequently promised. An after After Action memo provided SunPost by the city attorney’s office summed up the focus of the change:
“Mayor Levine believes that the Convention Center needs to be ‘decoupled’ from the private components of the project contemplated under the current RFQ, and proposed by the Master Developer,” the memo read.
“Since this process began, there was a referendum that now requires 60 percent voter approval of the leases for the private components of the project on City land (i.e. the hotel and retail components). This has changed the picture quite a bit. The City has the money to build a state of the art Convention Center on its own. In order to move quickly on the renovation of the Convention Center, decoupling the Convention Center from the proposed private components (i.e. the hotel and retail) is the most expedient way to do it,” the memo concluded.
Levine appreciated the support from the city commission
“The unanimous support I received meant that the elected officials are listening to the will of the people,” he said. “The community has overwhelmingly said they want a scaled down boutique convention center with more meeting space, the addition of a ballroom, and state-of-the-art technology.”
The support the measure garnered was impressive considering the volatile election and the acrimony that Wolfson, the lone veteran commissioner who opposed the initial bloated project proposal, often brought out in his former colleagues. That certainly was not the case with the current commission, where support seemed to come from all corners.
“I believe the mayor showed true leadership by following through with our promises from the campaign(s),” said freshman Commissioner Michael Grieco. “I am proud of my colleagues for unanimously supporting a necessary action. I deem it necessary because we now have multiple changes in circumstance that make the previous RFQ process untenable. As a stickler for due process (a product of my law practice), I wanted to make sure that this decision was not made arbitrarily or capriciously by any on the commission. This is not about politics, this is about the reality of now and the will of the residents.”
Levine said the multi-part resolution meant a number of things. “This means a number of things: (1) the City of Miami Beach will use available funds ($500 million) to renovate the convention center and will not have to borrow funds to finance the project; (2) bifurcating the program by decoupling the public from the private uses would expedite the renovation of the convention center itself, since neither a lease nor a referendum would be required if the project were to remain a stand-alone building wholly controlled by the City; (3) an independent traffic study will be conducted to determine the traffic impact; (4) when designing the convention center, the architect will be required to incorporate a 25-year, 3-day level of stormwater service that takes into account the height of sea level rise based upon current projections.
Fellow freshmen members of the commission, Joy Malakoff and Micky Steinberg agreed.
“I am in complete agreement with the mayor’s proposal and commission action,” Malakoff told SunPost. “When I spoke with residents throughout the Beach, there was great trepidation about the size, scope and impact of the proposal then on the table. The hospitality industry is extremely important to the city, and to the health of the county’s economy. We want to deliver a modernized, enlarged MBCC as expeditiously as possible.”
“By decoupling the project, we are able to fast track the convention center portion,” Steinberg said. “This will allow us to expeditiously secure a smart and efficient 21st century convention center that maximizes our city’s potential to bring new opportunities and revenue for Miami Beach. At the same time, we will proceed to secure a convention center hotel in close proximity with an affordable room block.”
There were many criticisms of the proposed South Beach ACE hotel program, including its high rate structure, which both local activists and industry insiders was too high to attract some of the conventions that Miami Beach might otherwise vie for.
Commission supporters feel the new process has many advantages.
“I believe we will save at least one year and possibly two by renovating the MBCC ourselves on city owned property, and decoupling the hotel from the center. It will address the needs of convention planners,” said Malakoff.
“During the campaign, I heard from many residents that believed we needed to address the needs of our MBCC, but that the proposal was not acceptable,” Steinberg added. “As a result, there was a great risk that even if the new mayor and commission were supportive of the project, the voters would not have approved it – and certainly not by 60 percent. So, the City may have spent months negotiating and then put the item on the ballot later this year only to have it rejected by the voters, leaving us back at square one. Thus, I believe the decoupling will allow for a faster timeline of delivering a smart and efficient 21st century convention center.”
“I think the time table will not be materially affected,” confirmed veteran Commissioner Deede Weithorn, generally considered a fiscal hawk.
Still, the question of a convention center hotel remains up in the air. There remain questions over placement, who should be financially responsible for such a hotel and even whether or not it’s necessary. Previous city commissions convinced voters to go along with a public component to both the development of the Loews Miami Beach and the Royal Palm – promising each time that the public investment would result in enhanced convention business. Neither had had any measurable effect, with supporters of those projects asserting that both are too far from the convention center to be effective. That factor apparently wasn’t considered when taxpayer money poured into those developments.
But a hotel component may yet be eventually included in the project in one configuration or another.
“The convention center will be a public investment,” Weithorn said. “The hotel should be private money. Once we see the RFP results, we will better understand this piece.”
“In meeting with planners and representatives, it is apparent that one or two headquarter hotels are a necessary part of the conversation,” he said. “The issue now is how do we get there. Instead of having the center renovation project include the hotel component, possibly slowing down upgrades, I embrace the de-coupling of the RFP/RFQ. The City should not be in the business of subsidizing hotels, but the idea of a public-private partnership dictated by market forces is possible, and again, possible without a referendum.”
“The convention hotel should be built by the private sector,” Malakoff added. “It could be on City-owned land such as above a new 17th street garage, or on the site of the current city hall. I believe it would be feasible to build a connector between the convention center and new hotel, and include public art as part of this connecting bridge.”
Levine is steadfastly opposed to public investment in a hotel. “No. We are not in the business of running and operating hotels,” he said.
Although not included in last week’s commission action, the idea of a new convention hotel built on the current site of city hall – with a new city hall being constructed elsewhere, was floated by Levine in last week’s SunPost. Fellow commissioners don’t see the idea as being impossible, but there are other possible sites as well.
“At this time I prefer the 17th street garage site,” Malakoff said. “It is old and could certainly provide a wonderful location connecting conventioneers with both the convention center and our wonderful businesses on beautiful pedestrian Lincoln Road. Miami Beach should be a walkable city, and we want to welcome our visitors to our beaches, restaurants, shops – and not just remain within the convention center.”
“I am open to the mayor’s idea, but until we know our options and cost/benefit of each, I am unable to say at this time,” said Steinberg.
Levine said he could not discuss the city hall proposal. “The Sunshine Law precludes me from discussing matters that could forseeably come up for a vote in front of the full commission.”
One thing is certain in the aftermath of last week’s unanimous city commission decision: this is a very different body than the one that approved the massive South Beach ACE project over the cries of activists and neighbors, as determined by both massive victories by newcomers to the commission and the decision to reconfigure plans in light of public outcry.
“We are in a different place than we were a year ago,” Grieco said. “The charter now requires 60 percent passage for a public land transfer on the convention Center property, arguably an insurmountable number considering the charter requirement was placed there by an overwhelming majority of the electorate. It is not in the city’s interest to continue down a path that we know will end in failure. We as a commission have a duty to get this project done, and the only way to do so is without a transfer of land. It is no longer about which approach is faster, but simply about which approach will actually end with a completed world-class facility.”
Neither Commissioner Jonah Wolfson nor Commissioner Ed Tobin responded to repeat requests for comment.
A new RFP for the convention center site is expected to be completed in the spring.
Meanwhile, Levine is wasting no time pursuing other issues he championed in his insurgent campaign.
“I have formed a Blue Ribbon Panel on Flooding Mitigation and Sea Level Rise that meets every week and is focused on tackling the flooding epidemic. The members of the Panel are some of the foremost professionals in their respective fields and I am confident they will provide the city commission with solutions to combat the flooding. In addition, we are working on initiatives to revitalize North Beach, a trolley service that would service [on] lower Alton Road and West Avenue to provide relief for businesses that are impacted by the construction, introducing a newly designed ‘Report It App’ for mobile phones, and exploring options so that the parking pay by phone application may be used on Miami Beach.”