Like a fortress in an asphalt desert, the dated and underused Miami Beach Convention Center defines a dead zone at the heart of one of America’s most vibrant urban places.
As Miami Beach embarks on an ambitious push to overhaul the convention center and develop the surrounding sea of parking lots, it’s become one of the biggest opportunities for urban renewal in the country — a 52-acre blank slate bordering some of the hottest real estate and tourism anywhere.
As outlined by Beach officials, the brief is a challenging one: Not just to recharge a sagging yet vital convention business, but to create a lush and lively district with a new hotel, apartments, public gardens and plazas, shops and restaurants, all carefully woven into the contiguous, and historic, city fabric.
“This is the biggest deal for Miami Beach in a hundred years, since the city was incorporated,” planning board member Henry Stolar said at a recent hearing.
So enticing is the opportunity that two of the country’s most prominent developers, Portman Holdings and Tishman Hotel and Realty, are vying for the project. Each is bolstered by teams of convention-center planners, financial advisers, park designers and two of the world’s leading architects: Bjarke Ingels Group for the Portman-CMC group, and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas, for Tishman’s South Beach ACE group.
The city selected the finalists during an unusual, months-long public competition focused on design, finances and overall concept. Both plans are expected to cost more than $1.1 billion, roughly split between public and private sources.
The city wants to attract not only bigger meetings and shows, but also non-conventioneers — all without sucking commerce from adjacent Lincoln Road Mall, choking the area with traffic, or creating yet another depopulated island cut off from the surrounding street life.
Each team started with sharply distinct visions about how to accomplish that.
South Beach ACE proposed slinging a curving 800-room hotel and ballroom space over the top of an undulating, rebuilt convention center, and renovating the Jackie Gleason Theater. A new “cultural building” would provide exhibition space. Mid-rise residential buildings would flank the site’s western end.
The 17th Street Garage would be remade to include retail on the first floor, and two additional stories of parking would be topped with a strip of apartments. A revamped 17th Street would have an island-like median, making the hard-to-cross street more pedestrian-friendly.
Originally, Portman-CMC, with Bal Harbour Shops owners, pitched lots of high-end retail and demolition of the Jackie Gleason Theater to erect a freestanding hotel in its place, as well as a makeover of the 17th Street Garage. Four low-scale apartment buildings would line Meridian Avenue, with more units along the convention center’s Washington Avenue facade.
The plan’s most distinct elements: a freestanding ballroom building that architects say would “activate” the area; it would flank a “Miami Beach Square” dotted with shops and restaurants.
Both plans incorporate significant open areas, shade trees, rich landscaping and gardens. Each also calls for a park at the north end, between the convention center and Collins Canal. Truck loading and parking, which neighbors have long complained about, would be concealed.
ACE would bury loading and a garage under its park at the north end. Portman would bring trucks and cars into the convention center building, with loading and parking behind the Washington Avenue apartments.
But an outcry over losing the Gleason and city concerns over competition for Lincoln Road merchants forced Portman back to the drawing board to slash its retail and preserve the theater. As a result, the team moved its hotel to the top of the convention center — much like ACE’s. Portman added a Latin American culture museum to the mix, as well as a median on 17th Street.
ACE cried foul, setting off a flurry of competing press releases and biting Twitter exchanges. ACE accused its competitors of hijacking its best ideas, labeling it “copy-tition.” Portman parried, saying its willingness to alter its plans demonstrated responsiveness to community concerns.
The public spat has focused on some critical and technical details, including which convention center reconfiguration works best, whose truck loading and traffic-management schemes is most effective, who provides the most usable open space, and which is a better financial deal for the city.
An analysis by a city consultant concluded Portman’s would require $73.4 million less in public money, but ACE says the difference is mainly due to the larger amount of retail in Portman’s plan, which increases lease payments to the city.
The construction time required for each project has also become a sticking point. Portman says it would finish the project by the summer of 2017 — 13 months ahead of ACE’s timeline. But ACE, whose leadership is building the new One World Trade Center at Ground Zero in New York, has questioned whether Portman’s timeline is really feasible.
Each scheme has drawn support from convention center users. The organizers of the boat show, one of the largest convention center users, has endorsed ACE’s plan, while some prominent convention planners support Portman’s.
Dazzling renderings and dueling assertions aside, the plans are merely conceptual — and subject to significant change. Everything would be determined by negotiation after a winning team is selected by the city commission. Beach voters will sign off on the scheme in a public referendum.
Already, some commissioners have questioned the need for apartments on site and worry out loud about traffic, and the bulk of the combined convention center and hotel.
At a recent hearing, some planning board members questioned whether the plans’ generous greenery could generate the kind of urban activity the city wants, or whether denser building and more tightly defined public spaces are needed. Jean-Francois LeJeune, an architecture professor at the University of Miami, chided both proposals as too suburban for South Beach.
“They both seem afraid of creating real urban spaces,” he said. “I’m afraid a lot of those green spaces will be empty” when there’s no convention in town.
Assistant City Manager Jorge Gomez agreed that retail development would be key, and stressed those details could well change. He urged board members, who will provide their own comments on the plan, to focus on the big picture.
“That’s what you’re buying — you’re buying the vision,” he said.
City administrators, meanwhile, said they are still analyzing the developers’ formal proposals as compared to the city’s advertised goals. The commission is scheduled to make its selection at a special meeting July 17.
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