Quickly, but quietly, the City of Miami Beach is moving ahead on plans for redevelopment of the dilapidated Miami Beach Convention Center. But “quickly” does not reflect desperation, nor does “quietly” mean out of the view of a public that appears pleased with the scaled-down effort now years in the making.
“I heard they already have potential developers and that the whole thing will be fast and efficient,” said Miami Beach resident Paulo Courtes. “That already sounds better than how it was before.”
Although the City has, for years, been discussing and developing aborted plans for redevelopment of the convention center site, and also possibly that of the Jackie Gleason Theater, 17th Street garage, several public-owned parking lots and, most recently, even city hall (not all included in any one proposal), the most controversial plan was just last year, prior to the November election. Under the Mayor Matti Bower administration, the City concocted a plan for a massive redevelopment plan to include numerous “programs,” including an on-site convention center hotel, commercial and even residential components. Much of the public balked at the expensive and time-consuming plans and heated up when a politically-connected development team was awarded the bid over a less expensive and quicker proposal. Led by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, residents also revolted against plans for use of public property for the proposed plan without voter input.
November’s election ended those grand plans. Wolfson’s plan to ensure public involvement won huge support at the ballot box, as did Mayor Philip Levine, another opponent of the earlier, bloated process – and several fresh, new faces on the city commission. There’s a different atmosphere around city hall these days, activists claim, and arguably much of that arose because of the public’s exhaustion with City-supported mega-development projects.
Citing several recent news items on progress on some of Miami Beach’s greatest challenges – namely, over-development, road project timelines and drainage — another local resident said she is just “plain impressed.”
“I’m plain impressed for sure,” said Maria Fontanes of North Beach. “The last [administration] behaved as if no one in it ever left city hall and saw the problems the real people had. They wanted to raise money to cover the City’s [escalating] debt, act as developers with zero expertise and make friends in the beltway in time for re-election. I haven’t met the new mayor, but he sure doesn’t need the money, he’s living up to his promises and he isn’t wasting any time. If the convention center deal goes through the way he promised, this might finally be the government the city needs.”
Make no mistake about it, the convention center deal was a key to the November election. Besides Wolfson and his PAC’s convincing win, Levine made the bloated deal a center piece to his campaign – one also buoyed by the fact that the genial Levine is a local businessman who turned a small business into an international giant, a business accomplishment not matched by, well, any other elected city official in recent memory.
Levine promised a lower-density project without serious public involvement but which would also serve the needs of the convention center.
“During my campaign for Mayor, there was a lot of discussion and debate about the scale, design, and overall program of the mixed-use MBCC Project, yet there was never any dispute about the need to renovate the convention center itself, as well as the Center’s essential and significant role in the city’s – and Miami-Dade County’s – economy,” Levine wrote in a January 15 memo. “While realizing the imperative to renovate the Convention Center, I have always had significant concerns with tying that process into the larger private development of City owned land, as contemplated in the City’s RFQ for the development of the 52 acre Miami Beach Convention Center District. Additionally, recent legal events have created the possibility of a further delay to the renovation of the Convention Center (which has already been in the planning stages since 2007). For these reasons, I believe the City Commission needs to reconsider the current program in a way which prioritizes and expedites the renovation of the MBCC in keeping with the desires of the community.”
Levine’s instructions to the administration reflected his campaign commitment and had the support of his commission colleagues.
And progress is exactly what there has been.
According to information provided by the City of Miami Beach, the process is specific and open to public input:
“The contracting of a design criteria professional (DCP) is a requirement per the rules of CCNA (Consultants Competitive Negotiations Act) for design-build contracts. The design criteria professional is contracted by the owner, or agency, (in this case the City) to prepare a design criteria package. Per the rules of CCNA, the design criteria package is a package comprised of:
“Concise, performance-oriented drawings or specifications of the public construction project. The purpose of the design criteria package is to furnish sufficient information to permit design-build firms to prepare a bid or a response to an agency’s request for proposal, or to permit an agency to enter into a negotiated design-build contract. The design criteria package must specify performance-based criteria for the public construction project, including the legal description of the site, survey information concerning the site, interior space requirements, material quality standards, schematic layouts and conceptual design criteria of the project, cost or budget estimates, design and construction schedules, site development requirements, provisions for utilities, stormwater retention and disposal, and parking requirements applicable to the project.
“The City plans to take this design to approximately 30 percent completion, in other words from Conceptual design to Design Development, and then – after Commission approves the design, the City will issue and RFP for Design-Build services and the design criteria package will be part of that,” Miami Beach’s Communications office concluded. “The Design Build (DB) firms (consisting of a contractor who has their own architect) will bid on that package through an RFP process and the selected firm will continue the design to construction documents.”
“I want to see the convention center renovated and it’s needed. I want it to move fast,” Levine told SunPost when announcing his goals for the convention center. “I want to start from scratch with a fresh Request For Proposals. We have a situation here for a state of the art facility with our own money. As far as a hotel component, there may be a couple of possible sites. But the market will decide. We do want to create a lot of green space and a ballroom.”
Pride In Progress
Already, there has been progress. Processes such as a major redevelopment plan take time, legally mandated procedures and prudence. So far, Miami Beach is showing commitment to all of those.
On March 11, a memo from respected City Manager Jimmy Morales to the mayor and commission cited numerous impressive names for an advisory committee. Morales suggested Merrett Stierheim, former Miami-Dade County manager, Howard Herring, president & CEO, New World Symphony, Michael Spring, director, MDC Cultural Affairs, Brian Shriner, Dean, FIU School of Architecture, Peter McStravick, COO Hotel, Houston First Corporation, Bruce Orosz, CEO, ACT Productions, Inc., and resident and Michele Burger, resident. Each appears to offer expertise and awareness of Miami Beach needs. Alternate suggestions from the highly-praised new city manager are equally impressive.
Proponents of the previous administration’s grand plans for the site asserted that a smaller plan would be less attractive to developers. But the City of Miami Beach already has a cadre of developers who have responded in the hope of landing any potential scaled-back deal, crushing those earlier criticisms.
Responding so far to the City of Miami Beach’s RFQ for developers of the improved convention center site include: Woods Bagot, Rafael Vinoly Architects, Gensler, HKS Architects, Inc., RM Plus LLC Planning and Design, LMN Architects, Bermello Ajamil & partners, Inc. and Fentress Architects.
So, apparently, finding a development team interested in the scaled-back plan is less problematic than some assumed.
There’s certainly more work and negotiations ahead, but relative to most municipal processes, Miami Beach is moving at a remarkable speed – and with transparency.
Frank Del Vecchio, one of Miami Beach’s most respected activists and an opponent to the uber-development of the convention center site, sees progress after years of entropy and controversy.
“It has been nearly 10 years since Miami-Dade County authorized $55 million in bonds for an upgrade to the Miami Beach Convention Center. [Project No. 233 of the 'Building Better Communities' County bond authorization.]
Under the previous city manager, three tries were made to get the ball rolling,” Del Vecchio continued. “The first, in 2004, revolving around a partnership with Cirque du Soleil and George Perez, was aborted. The second, in 2009, where several hundred thousand dollars in the bond account were used to obtain a convention center plan prepared by Arquitectonica, was rejected by the city commission as too massive. The third strike was an ill-fated open-ended invitation to developers to redevelop the entire 52-acre Convention Center District, that got mired in controversy. The 2013 Miami Beach election is widely considered a mandate to get back to basics and finally modernize the convention center without entangling it in a complicating public private partnership.
The newly elected mayor and commission cancelled all the prior measures, and proceeded on a two-step program, designed to stay within the public funds available and upgrade the convention center without a complicating private entity entanglement,” he concluded. “Step one is to obtain the services of an architectural firm who that will finalize the design and then be available to oversee the builder, which is step two in the process. So far, so good: Eight qualified firms responded. Next will be evaluation by a select committee, followed by the city manager’s recommendation and a decision by the city commission. From all signs so far, this city commission can be expected to move the process quickly and, at long last, deliver the upgrade the tourist industry has waited for awaited so long.”