July 6, 2013


The Miami Beach Commission will choose one of two proposals for rebuilding the Miami Beach Convention Center on July 17. One proposal comes from the South Beach ACE (Arts, Culture, Entertainment District) project and is a collaboration between architect Rem Koolhaas's Dutch firm (OMA), Tishman Hotels & Reality (New York), developer UIA (Urban Investments Advisors, Miami), Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (Cambridge MA, landscapers), Miami Landscape Architect Raymond Jungles, and international firm TVS. 

Rem Koolhaas has been described as an architectural theorist and urbanist and is a Professor in the Practice of Architecture and Urban Design at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. In 2008 Time put Koolhaas in their top 100 of The World's Most Influential People.  Renowned Miami Cuban-American architect Andres Duany says of Koolhaas, “I am very much an advocate of Rem. If you are going to design a proper city, he is one of the people you need to know. He takes any combination of programs and assembles it, compacts it, and arranges it into a very exciting outcome. Any building he does would be continually interesting.”

The ACE plan would rotate the convention center to face the Jackie Gleason Theater, which will also be renovated to include a two-sided stage. A hotel sits atop the convention hall, curving like the Fontainebleau. A new park will cleverly disguise 44 truck-loading bays and 1,000 cars, covering the parking area with greenery and walking paths.

The second proposal is presented by the Danish firm BIG and its owner/architect Bjarke Ingels, a 38-year old architectural wunderkind, working in collaboration with Miami developers Portman-CMC, West 8 (Rotterdam, urban designers), Fentress Architects (Denver), John Portman Associates (Atlanta), Revuelta Architecture International (South Florida), Cirque du Soleil, and Bal Harbour Shops. 

Ingels founded BIG in 2006. The Wall Street Journal named him 2011 Innovator of the Year for architecture. Of his innovative design style with its homage to pop culture, The Architectural Review says, “[Ingels] has abandoned 20th-century Danish modernism to explore the more fertile world of bigness and baroque eccentricity.” The Miami Herald recently describe the boy-genius with references to his slick promotional capabilities: “All of the attention makes some wonder whether the secret behind BIG’s fame is just a well-oiled media machine.” In an interesting twist, Ingels’ studied under now-competitor Koolhaas as a younger man and considers him an important mentor.

The BIG proposal has been dubbed “Miami Beach Square” because it features an open space situated in the midst of the convention center, hotel, Jackie Gleason Theater, City Hall, the proposed (and separate) botanical ballroom, and a Latin American Museum also proposed by the MBSquare development team. Some of Ingle’s ideas for the complex, though innovative, seem rife for local jabs—a vitamin-c infused showerhead to neutralize chlorinated water? A sunrise-simulating alarm clock? Melatonin friendly LED nightlights?

Whichever team is chosen to revamp convention central in SoBe, the $1-billion/52-acre redevelopment project will replace the current building located north of Lincoln Road and built in 1957--as well as its surrounding parking and loading areas. The two competing development teams originally offered differed significantly different plans, but recent iterations of MBSquare have incorporated some of the ACE team's better ideas, prompting questions about the MBSquare's lack of a consistent vision for Miami Beach. Ingel has been described in the media as an architect who “crowdsources;” some critics feel he accepts suggestions to a fault, occasionally giving too-equal consideration to all constituents and ignoring circumstances where stakeholders have hidden or irrelevant agendas.

In spite of this, this past week the MBCC advisory board voted 4-3 in favor of recommending the MBSquare proposal to the city commission and the voters. Board chairman Stuart Blumberg (former president of the Greater Miami & The Beaches Hotel Association) told South Florida Business Journal that the board's 4-3 vote hinged on the phasing of the plans to overhaul the convention hall. Blumberg was concerned with visitor parking during construction. “The information I was receiving [from ACE] didn’t satisfy my concerns,” he explained. “The shows have to continue and the people have to keep coming in.”

The ACE team, however, found Blumberg’s comments puzzling: “At the direction of the city commissioners and the city staff, ACE’s focus has been to keep the Miami Beach Convention Center operational throughout construction," according to a statement from ACE. "This is reflected in our timeline and detailed phasing plans that we’ve reviewed in depth with the city. Tishman, the builder of the World Trade Center and other landmark buildings, has achieved this with similar projects, such as the Javits Convention Center, an equivalently sized facility that has remained open and has not lost one day of operations over the course of construction. The Portman [MBS] phasing plan does not provide a realistic timeline or the necessary exhibit and meeting space that would enable the convention center to remain open and functioning for critical shows and exhibits during construction.”

Ingels' separate ballroom provides a separate entry from the hall
but a bigger real estate footprint.
According to Blumberg, members of the board also favored the MBSquare plan for accessibility that would be obtained in creating a stand-alone ballroom. Blumberg sees this as an advantage to local users, whereas the ACE plan would require traveling several flights to reach the ballroom. (Apparently a broader property footprint wins here over tedious elevator rides.)

Despite the MBSquare planners’ continued efforts to incorporate their competitor’s concepts into their own, the ACE proposal still maintains a number of advantages in the areas of urban design, according to writers at MetroCitizen. Those advantages include preserving the Jackie Gleason Theater, reconfiguring 17th street, and locating their hotel atop the convention center to make better use of space. “A close inspection reveals that ACE has the upper hand where it counts most, including the all-important gauge of creation of public spaces, financing, mobility, functionality and efficiency." Leaders of the ACE group have also suggested, “Our compact, efficient plan provides connectivity and maximizes active, flexible open spaces. 

Some Plan Comparisons:
ACE proposes a fully-integrated convention center and hotel with respective ballrooms and meeting rooms in a one building, appealing to event planners and guests who welcome the convenience of grouping all functions under a single roof. Regarding concerns over keeping buildings to a low profile in this historic neighborhood, the group states, “We are sensitive to our surroundings by keeping building heights low at the site's edges.” 
The MBSquare plan creates a separate ballroom building (with a footprint totaling 100,000 square feet) that will be disconnected from the hotel and convention center, requiring duplicative functions, additional loading docks, and more kitchens. However, some proponents feel a shorter hotel will blend in nicely with the low profile of the existing Miami Beach cityscape 
ACE proposes a private financing structure that includes a balanced debt to equity ratio of 50.9%:49.1% with MetLife tentatively committed to joining the team as a partner.

MBSquare proposes a package that requires a higher ratio of debt, 61%:39% equity. The MBS team says their plan would rely less on public funding and generate $80 million more revenue for the city, reports the Miami Herald, but the group has yet to announce an equity partner.
The ACE plan comes with more green space for South Beach--28.6 acres of new "park" areas accessible from street-level and amounting to a 770 percent increase over the site’s current condition.
The MBS plan increases the site’s overall building footprint by 15% with smaller areas of green walkways.
ACE plans approximately 60,000 square feet of retail development on the ground floor of the 17th Street garage and 40,000 square feet of standalone food and beverage space as part of its hotel program. 
MBS, who is partnering with Bal Harbour shops developers, first proposed up to 350,000 square feet for retail and commercial space but has since revised that number to 185,000 square feet according to bank letters submitted as part of the team’s letter of intent, plus an unknown amount of square footage distributed across retail kiosks.

ACE proposes reducing the convention center’s length by nearly half and creating greater east-west pedestrian access through and around the site. The main entrance for the convention center and hotel will face south, encouraging connectivity with Lincoln Road. Vehicle access will be segregated by use, removing congestion from City streets. Furthermore, the parking area will be landscaped over and tucked “invisibly” into the surroundings. 
MBS proposes no such plan. 
ACE plans to construct temporary buildings on the property to keep the convention center operational as it reconfigures the facility to accommodate new ballrooms, meeting spaces and a hotel as part of the existing convention center. 
MBS, which plans a stand-alone ballroom, will keep the convention center operational without the cost of temporary structures while reconfiguring usable space inside the center. 
The ACE team has earned high-profile endorsements from convention center users including the Miami International Boat Show, as well as the chairman of the City’s planning board, the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, and several Lincoln Road property owners. The group’s coalition of support also includes an endorsement from the Palm View Historic District Association. This group represents the residents of Miami Beach’s Palm View neighborhood, located directly west of the convention center site. Palm View will be among the neighborhoods most impacted by the project’s construction.  
The MBCC advisory board recommends the MBSquare plan to the City by a close 4-3 vote. And while Miami Beach resident Ira D. Giller, President of Miami Beach’s oldest architectural firm and a civic activist supports the MBS project, the group has not announced many other significant endorsements and seems more intent on schmoozing politicians than winning local citizen support. In announcing Giller’s endorsement, BIG said, “Ira highlights the fact that the clever use of cantilevered buildings provides open space and shade at the same time. Mr. Giller also noted that the Portman CMC plan does not squander millions of dollars on temporary facilities and an extended construction schedule like South Beach ACE’s plan [supposedly] does.

Thoughts from a Resident

For many South Beach residents and for annual visitors who come here disconnected from convention center business, the ACE plan has a clear advantage. It is a plan that envisions a network of green spaces connecting surrounding neighborhoods. It also respects the historical value of a renovated Jackie Gleason Theater, a thriving cultural center, multifamily apartments, and recreational areas incorporating green roofs.

“Miami Beach is known as walkable community,” explains Jennifer LeClaire a writer at the Miami New Times. “It has to be. Driving can be a frustrating experience at times.”  The question of how the redeveloped Miami Beach Convention Center District will add to the walkability of this popular beach resort is a question she suggests is on residents' minds. Many constituents question whether either plan offers enough solutions for parking and traffic congestion, though a comparison of the two plans leads one to believe that the ACE plan has a slight advantage. Certainly that group has suggested in their language that they are aware of the concern and determined to resolve it. Koolhaas has been coming to Miami for 40 years and seems to know the culture and the needs of this water-locked area well. 

MBSquare seems more focused on giving service to cultural concerns that treat the city not as a living, breathing organism, but as an object of wonder to outsiders. The Portman-CMC website for the project quotes leader and orator, Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots,” The team members of Portman-CMC claim to “understand how important culture is to the fabric of Miami Beach” with our blending of Latin and American cultures that makes the city so unique.

“The Latin culture is alive in Miami Beach and it’s time to celebrate that!” says the Portman Website…” As a result, the MBSquare plan includes a 38,000-square foot Museum of Latin American Culture. “This museum will commemorate the role of Latin Americans to South Florida and their influence in America.” While I honor the use of City space for such worthy causes, is it an architect’s job to suggest how we spend our money in the arts and humanities? Shouldn’t the decision to spend money on a museum of ethnic culture have come from the City and its citizens and not from a group of Danish architects and real estate and retail developers trying to sell us a convention center package deal? Obviously, this is not meant to be a museum for the residents of Miami Beach—we live this culture every day. It is not an object of fetishistic fascination for us as it may be to convention goers. I for one would like to learn something new when I visit a museum. The plan and its rhetoric suggest a museum that gives convention goers the false belief that they have experienced Miami culture without leaving the convention complex  Personally, I’d prefer to see conventioneers experience the culture on Lincoln Road, Ocean Drive, Collins, or even North Miami Beach while they’re here.

Note to Portman CMC: Jackie Gleason was Jewish.
The Portman-CMC/ team describes their Miami Beach Square with references to Latin culture as a “celebration,” and I find myself wondering if the language is in reference to the seriousness of the somber Holocaust Memorial at the opposite end, which the city wants incorporated into the convention center corridor. This plan for a cultural "celebration" fails to cite the large Jewish, Gay communities who make up the character of Miami Beach—important communities that set the the Beach apart from the rest of the Miami Metro area. All of these groups play a strong part in the history of the area. Although MBSquare's misguided original plan rebuilt the historic Jackie Gleason Theater into the convention hotel, after public outcry, the team revised their plan to keep the original structure and open it up at the street level. It should never have been an afterthought to anyone who understands Miami Beach history.

The Koolhaas/ACE group recognized from the start that the Jackie
Gleason theater should be separate from the convention center and hotel.
Shallow comprehension of SoBe culture is suggested in several of the team’s marketing choices. For instance, does anyone else not find it scary that Portman-CMC would quote Marcus Garvey at the top of one page on their website--a political leader whose initiatives included the Back-to-Africa movement,  an effort that celebrated the return of the African diaspora to Liberia? 

W.E.B. Dubois said of Garvey, "Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor."  Garvey threw back his own rejoinder calling Du Bois "purely and simply a white man's nigger" and "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro ... a mulatto ... a monstrosity." Like the president of our United States, I guess. Garvey also regarded the Klu Klux Klan as better friends to African-Americans than all other groups of “hypocritical whites put together” because of their honesty. He was publicly accused by a witness in the famous mail fraud case of his Black Star ship line of being a member of the KKK. Garvey lost this case, by the way, and was sentenced to five years in prison. He then proceeded to blame Jewish jurors and a Jewish federal judge, Julian Mack, for his conviction.

I see little in the MBS promotional material to show proof of what they are trying to tell me when they say: “We understand that the roots of Miami Beach are an important story to share and 
The MBSquare proposal offers artists with a big canvas to decorate
the sky for people zooming in on Google Earth. Is it art,
or wasted space if no one makes the climb up to the unshaded roof?
our dedication to celebrating this history is clearly shown in our plan.” 

Too heavy-handed a focus on Latino culture in the language of convention hall promotions may risk alienating other vital ethnic groups of Miami Beach. While the reference to anti-communist Marcus Garvey gives a nod to Jamaica and the many Rastafarians who wander the streets of South Beach on holiday, and may also indirectly please some Cuban-Americans who learn Garvey was avidly anti-communist, the reference leaves me to expect no suggestion of, say, a Haitian cultural wing to the Latin-American Museum complex. 

One gets the feeling that the folks on the MBSquare team are relying too much on readily available stereotypes of Miami to sell their package, and that some influential decision makers may be drinking the koolaid. Their reliance on a controversial figure like Marcus Garvey to promote their ideas, coupled with a prevalence of spelling errors in their web copy leaves me wondering how savvy they really are at authentic marketing The website, from the standpoint of someone who knows advertising copy, frequently sounds like a lot of smoke and mirrors. There seems to be a particularly creepy push in their promotional campaign that suggests their primary interest is in how the convention center looks to the outside world versus how it integrates into the community. In addition to the town square that supposedly makes City Hall a more prominent entity (an easy sell to the influencers), they tout the aerial view of the convention center as one of its most important features: “Most interestingly, however, is that this proposal includes a giant canvas on top of the convention center that will rotate with new artwork to be seen by hotel guests above, airplanes, and Google Earth.”

I guess I’ll have to buy a personal jet so I can see it.

Walkable Green Spaces & Respect for Existing Retailers/Restauranteers on Lincoln Road/Ocean Drive

While both plans connect the convention center to surrounding attractions like the Holocaust Museum, Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, Soundscape Park, and Lincoln Road, the ACE website is more convincing in demonstrating a deeper affinity for Miami Beach culture and specifically South Beach citizens. They show us extensive plans for turning parking lots into green spaces and walkable parks. The ACE project boasts more public space, attractive throughways and a less-dominating structural footprint. Plus it recognizes that there is plenty for conventioneers to do within walking distance of the convention complex. That will help support local merchants. 

The MBSquare seems likely to keep conference attendees trapped in a mini-shopping mall-like environment that remains isolated from the existing surroundings. The architectural renderings of the "village square" seem to suggest a marriage of City Hall and the Convention Center but, like a honeymooning couple,not much of an invitation for residents to enjoy the huge geographic space on a daily basis. Instead, the Square offers an alternative place to hang out and go shopping without wandering into the community. The museum and the surrounding enclosure with their limited green areas won't entice people who live outside the complex to use it except during city-or big-business sponsored public events or to shop. The same limitations will keep conventioneers from experiencing the real Miami Beach while visiting a museum that suggests Miami Beach is more a relic than a living, breathing entity.

Tishman, who is head of Tishman Hotels & Realty, and part of the South Beach ACE team, told GlobeSt.com that in creating the ACE master plan, the developers used data collected during the Miami International Boat Show. To encourage pedestrian flow, the plan would shrink the convention center's north-south length approximately in half, allowing east-west connectivity through and around the site. They say, “After listening extensively to the community and Miami Beach stakeholders, our concept…was for…increased site connectivity, the preservation of key elements of the site that are important to the community and more open space and recreation facilities.”

I hear more language directed there at the people who live on the Beach in these kinds of comments. With the ACE plan, the orientation of the convention center and hotel entrances to the south, along with the activated public space and reimagined 17th Street corridor, would draw guests to the historic Lincoln Road retail and entertainment area. Outside the convention center would be a network of shaded, winding green spaces imagined by the team’s landscape design firms, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) and Raymond Jungles. "The public spaces would create a continuous but varied park-like environment capable of hosting community events throughout the year," OMA explains.

Koolhaas' permanent awning provides conventioneers with welcome
shade from the Meami sun.
“We concentrate the density at the center of the site and make the revamped convention center and its meeting and ballroom space contiguous with the hotel – a feature that meeting planners love," says Tishman. We reimagine the area's existing assets: the Jackie Gleason Theater, the Carl Fisher Clubhouse, City Hall, the 17th Street Garage and 17th Street itself are all maintained and transformed to better engage their surroundings while keeping the character of Miami Beach….In short, our plan upgrades the convention center into a best-in-class facility and weaves the entire convention cent site into the fabric of Miami Beach. It will feel both new and like it was always there.”

“Our plan creates a new green buffer around the south, west and east sides of the MBCC and a green promenade along Washington. This restores an important open space in Miami Beach that is simultaneously a great resource for the Convention Center. The site is transformed from an area dominated by asphalt into an oasis within Miami Beach.”

The MBSquare's website at Portman-CMC, also suggests that their plan combines urban planning and landscape design to create a neighborhood that architect Bjarke Ingels describes as “characterized by human scale, pedestrian connections, shaded spaces with public oriented programs lining the streets and squares. A neighborhood that, depending on the season, the weekday, or even the time of day can be perceived as a lively downtown neighborhood or an inviting public park.”  But I am left wondering, has anyone told Bjarke that: 1. All buildings designed for pedestrians are designed on a human scale, except perhaps for wildlife refuges. That's because, we are not pedestrians, we are people. 2. Miami is a subtropical region and as such doesn’t really have seasons?  3. We already have a downtown. It’s called Lincoln Road. 4. "Public oriented programs" sounds kinda scary, like corporate communism. Programs on Ocean Drive are also public-oriented, but I guess it's a different public.

Get Involved 

Meanwhile, proposals for a new, stunning Pérez Art Museum and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science are being launched by internationally recognized Grimshaw Architects along the MacArthur Causeway, and construction on the tunnel into the port continues as well. All of these projects are reshaping the landscape surrounding South Beach. If you care about the future of the city you walk and live in, try to make it to the community meetings wherein the MBCC is being discussed. The Miami Beach City Commission is expected to cast its vote no later than July 17.

Voters will then get to approve the winning plan in November and decide whether they want a base plan alone or to include external commercial development that would include the retail and residential aspects. But at that point, it will be too late to cast your vote for the developer you'd prefer to see carry forth the plan.

A reasoned decision for the future MBCC corridor may come down to whether the city commission decides to favor a plan that can benefit the local community with an aesthetically beautiful and modern framework favoring the Lloyd Wright philosophy of blending functional structures into our green/deco/ocean landscape (Koolhaas’s) or a plan that makes its primary concern how conventioneers perceive the city by pushing clichéd interpretations of South Beach and pop culture gimmickry like roof art photos passed about  on social media (Ingels’). Said University of Miami architecture professor Jean-Francois LeJeune, “He’s a big-idea person. He doesn’t care about selling whatever. But he’s very committed.” Ingels, though handsome and young, sometimes appears to be relying on television shows and Wikipedia articles for his knowledge of our city. 

Meanwhile, many residents of Miami Beach are questioning the need for such a mega-convention complex to begin with and the $1billion expenditure estimated to work with either plan. Several groups are calling for a scale-back and a voters referendum (the petition for which, spearheaded by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, has reached 5000 signatures). Other citizens suggest the project, with a 99-year contract to work with developers to grow the plan, smells of corporate welfare and places too large burden of debt on the City and its taxpayers. Certainly many are worried about the effect that a mini-mall within the complex will have on the many vital businesses already in convenient walking distance. Even the Miami Herald has suggested that "To ask private developers to create a plan that will transform a critical swathe of the city, of public land, is in many ways an abrogation of governmental responsibility and one of the better examples of car-before-the-horse urban planning in our recent history." 

For more information on these citizen concerns, I suggest readers visit http://www.conventioncenterfirst.org.

Your input can be addressed to the City Government on the Miami Beach Convention Center (MBCC) Master Plan.

Public meetings: 

Monday, July 8, 5:00 p.m.
Land Use & Development Committee 
City Hall, Commission Chambers, third floor

Friday, July 12, 1:00 p.m. 
Miami Beach City Commission 
City Hall, Commission Chambers, third floor

Wednesday, July 17, 6:00 p.m.
Miami Beach City Commission
City Hall, Commission Chambers, third floor

Talk to your Mayor & Commisioners:

Mayor Matti Bower: 305.673.7035

Jerry Libbin 305.673.7106
Jorge Exposito 305.673.7104
Michael Gongora 305.673.7103
Ed Tobin 305.673.7107
Deede Weithorn 305.673.7105
Jonah Wolfson 305.673.7102

Video Presentations by Each Team:

BIG Square Project: Bavarian Mushrooms? Really? The psychoactive Bavarian mushroom known as Fly Agaric is, of course, the common toadstool of fairy tales.Just because Cirque du Soleil is one of the partners in the MBSquare collaboration does the Convention Center HAVE to look like a carnival?
“All great cities have a great square--this will be Miami Beach Square,” says the Portman-CMC site.  With the big smiley face as its most prominent feature?  Ingels’ comic book obsession is serving him here. 
One of BIG's renderings of the MBCC exterior. Note the giant clothespin. Homage to Miami's hotel
housekeeping and domestic workers? I guess red represents debt and pay scale...?


MASTER PLAN & DETAILS /PROPOSAL BOOKS FROM MIAMI BEACH GOV. at http://web.miamibeachfl.gov/news/scroll.aspx?id=58484


South Beach ACE (Tishman) Book 
Miami Beach Square (Portman-CMC) Book 




Big/MBSQUARE (Ingels) HOME SITE http://www.big.dk/#projects



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