The First Pitch


Room 101A of the Miami Beach Convention Center was buzzing in late January. It buzzed partly because the spacious square was inundated with residents excited to share ideas, and partly because it always buzzes. A side effect of miking up an event at a venue that is past its prime.

That’s why the crowd was there, to move the aging building along, but the right way. The Miami Beach way, not the outsider-developer way. The people lined up to the microphones and told the row of nine heads of varying hair length how they should build in their neighborhood, and what would happen if they didn’t. The heads, leaders of the two teams vying to reinvent 52 acres of public land, just sat there and listened.

A month later it was their turn to speak, and show the residents pictures of how their neighborhood would look like.

In no particular order….

South Beach ACE

South Beach ACE sees a big obstruction in the middle of SoBe, namely the Miami Beach Convention Center acting like a concrete curtain separating the beach and urban living. They aim to open up that curtain.

“I always like to compare it to a WalMart sitting in an asphalt parking lot,” quipped Robert Wennett when he helped present his team’s vision. Wennet is the developer of 1111 Lincoln Road. His group is lead by Tishman Hotel & Realty, and their lead Architect is the much celebrated Rem Koolhaas.

Koolhaas contends that the MBCC district is “too big” and separates one half of the city from the other.

“If the architects wanted to design the project that does the most damage to its environment, they were very efficient,” he said.

In order to create a connectivity between the district and the outside world, SBA broke up district into three sections. After the group makes their changes, the hope is that a natural flow will develop and better facilitate pedestrians.

The eastern block contains the convention center and the patch of land to its north where the Fisher House is located. The western block includes the botanical garden, the Holocaust Memorial, and the empty parking lot surface. The southern block includes everything else from City Hall, The Jackie Gleason Theater, and the 17th street garage.

Each block is inundated with large amounts of green space to make the once asphalt-wasteland into a living space that may attract the traffic that otherwise might not have venture into that space.

The southern block represents SBA’s “cultural district” that is hoped will mesh with Soundscape. City Hall will anchor this area that boarders 17th street, to its right will be a new cultural center, and at the end of the block will be a revamped Jackie Gleason Theater. This new version of the theater will feature a double stage: one inside, and an amphitheater stage that will protrude from the theater’s now opened back. The 17th street garage will be modified so that the first floors become retail space. Couple the new retail space with the strategic placement of the cultural center in front of Pennsylvania Avenue, and SBA hopes that the new aesthetics will bring in people from Lincoln Road to the convention district.

The surface parking lot adjacent to Hall C of the MBCC will be turned into an underground parking lot, opening up a good chunk of land in the western block of SBA’s plans. This land will be broken up in half. The half that is just south of botanical garden and the Holocaust Museum will be converted into green space. The other half will house a variety of buildings for either retail or residential

As for the eastern block, the hotel will be built on the southwestern portion of the MBCC. The first designs has the hotel as a massive tower of horizontal edifice surrounded by what appears to be a regulation oval running track. Just to it’s right is the ballroom. The eastern facade of the MBCC will be redesigned to have an open look so that as Koolhaas explains it: even if your not inside “you don’t feel left out.

Portman CMC

 Portman CMC is trying to give Miami Beach that which it doesn’t have: a public square. And it’s doing it right in the middle of the district for optimized connectivity their plan goes.

“These squares are all about bringing the life of the city to an arena where the citizens can project their culture in the urban space,” said Lead Architect Bjarke Ingels.

Like their competitors, Portman CMC is an impressive collection of well known brands and reputations. Headed up by Portman Holdings, the group includes local Ugo Colombo, the Bal Harbour Shops, Cirque du Soleil, West 8, and Ingels.

The center piece of Portman CMC’s design is the public square. According to Ingels’ presentation, the group took the philosophy of creating the public spaces first, and then imagining the buildings around it. A people-first type of creed.

Relishing in notion that the presentation was only a very preliminary sketch of the final idea, Portman CMC took the liberty of bringing two designs of what their plan might eventually shape into. In both of them the square was at the center, just southwest of the convention center and north east of City Hall. It is surrounded by new buildings and the MBCC, but neither the square nor the buildings obstruct one another. The buildings have been designed with stretched corners that both open up the building’s facade and provide shade at the square. A canopy theme runs through out the district whether provided by the sides of buildings or the nearly 1000+ trees Portman CMC plans on planting around the district. Creating a lush landscape with a shade component that practically doesn’t exists currently.

One of the buildings giving shade will be a new theater. A 700 to 1000 seat performance space that will replace a torn down Jackie Gleason Theater.

“We heard a lot of skepticism on the heritage of the building,” said Ingels when explaining the decision to tear down the 2,700 seat theater. “It’s too big,” he said.

That happens in both sketches. In the place of the old theater would be the on site hotel.

To honor the legacy, they propose to name the ballroom after Jackie Gleason. The location of the ballroom does differ by the map. In one mock up, the ball room is on the north end of convention center. In the other sketch the ballroom is taking up the majority of surface parking lot to the west of MBCC, while a large portion of parking takes it’s place on the north end of the center.

The actual parking is scattered throughout both renderings. As are the residential zones. The 17th street garage has been totally transformed into retail space on both. The maps also have new three new retail buildings sprouting west of City Hall.

Whatever design they finally go with, it will but flush with green. According to the presentation 30% or 16.5 acres will be open space. Which will no doubt be filled up with the 1000+ trees they have promised to plant to create a natural canopy.

Quality of life improvement

The teams came out with two distinctly unique solutions for the 52 acres that would almost certainly improve the underutilized district. One envisioned a kind of city square where the community could gather for events and the like, while the other created a ‘cultural district’ to anchor its enhancements.
Both made it a priority to inject tons of inviting green space to lure foot traffic to the mainly deserted area. To get that traffic there the teams envisioned ways to connect the convention center with neighboring areas of interest like Lincoln Road.

To prevent noise pollution and some traffic along Washington Avenue, both teams realigned where trucks will unload their cargo. The trucks’ new locations are also concealed.

 The two also made it a point to acknowledge how much of the public’s input they integrated into their designs, which is smart seeing how their master plan will eventually go to a referendum vote.

However, the more important integrations are those the city asked for in its’ Request For Qualifications.

The reason for building

The primary objective stated in the RFQ was to make the convention center competitive in order to attract “high impact conventions, meetings, and trade shows.”

Built in 1957 the MBCC has seen a handful of renovations, however the last major one came about 24 years ago. Since then it has slipped from the higher echelon of venues into what is generally considered a “C grade” facility.

To become “grade A” it’s thought that the center needs an on-site headquarter hotel with a minimum of 800 rooms. That need also includes a large ballroom, as well as additional meeting space.

In 2011 the City sponsored an economic impact report involving a couple scenarios surrounding the expansion of the MBCC. One expansion with the hotel built, and one expansion without the hotel. The analysis was conducted by the firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, who used numbers from a five-year sample, between the years 2006 and 2010, and yielded some surprising numbers when a hotel was factored in. CSL found that when it came to non-local attendees and taxes, the numbers significantly rose when a hotel was added to the mix. In some cases they nearly doubled.

When it came non-local attendees, the CSL report concluded this:

The MBCC has attracted an average of 235,320 non-local attendee days over the calendar year 2006-2010 period. These totals are significantly higher for 2010 due to several large national conventions. Under a full MBCC expansion and headquarter hotel scenario, total non-local attendee level at MBCC events are estimated at approximately 533,000. Without the headquarter hotel, only a modest increase from the two-year average is estimated, reaching just over 369,000 in total non-local.”

When it came to tax revenues, the CSL report concluded this:

The MBCC has generated an estimated average of $1.7 million in county tax revenues, $1.1 million in Miami Beach tax revenues, and $5.8 million in sales taxes over the 2006-2010 period. With full expansion and headquarter hotel, tax collections are estimated to increase to $4.6 million for the county, $2.9 million for Miami Beach, and $15.0 million in various sales taxes. Without the headquarter hotel, the expanded MBCC is estimated to generate a total of $3.0 million in county taxes $1.9 million in Miami Beach taxes, and $9.8 million in sales taxes. It should be noted that to the extent attendees at MBCC events travel to the center from other locations within the state, this would generally represent a displacement of spending within the state.”

The City also asked for the area to be commercially developed by including restaurants, entertainment , retail, and even residential space. The logic was two-folds: one would be to attract private money to the project by offering some juicy and scare South Beach real estate, and the other would be to create a more palatable surrounding when convention goers exited the center. The latter is seen as an important reason an event planner books a certain venue.


To accomplish a better ends, nearly ever bit of the 52-acre district, except the historically protected Fisher House, was put up for possible destruction. The teams differed on how they used this liberty, but it came with the caveat that when destroyed the structure’s use had to be replicated somewhere in the district.

Aside from the utility, these structures bring in revenue. According to city documents, in 2011 the 17th Street Garage generated a profit of about $2.5 million. The surface lots generated $1.3 million in 2010.

At this early stage there are no concrete numbers attached to these drawings. How much will the whole thing cost?

The number of residential units have a range rather than a number. It is unclear if they will be for sale or rentals.

Studies have yet to conducted.

Both teams promised by next meeting a traffic study would be made available. Will that traffic study take into account a mass transit function some on the commission have suggested?

And will a movie studio be included at the next meeting? That suggestion was tossed out there by Commissioner Jerry Libbin during the commission presentations.

At the end of February those questions can go unanswered, since it’s only the first pitch.

About Frank Maradiaga

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