The Political Breaks

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New mayor Philip Levine has restarted the convention center process, tossing OMA out.
Courtesy OMA

A newly elected mayor and city commission in Miami Beach has officially killed Rem Koolhaas’ $1 billion convention center district, which has been in the planning stages for the past two years. Mayor Philip Levine, as well as a stable of four new commissioners, included opposition to the convention center as a core issue of his campaign. With 50.49 percent of the popular vote, Levine has wasted no time in following through on that promise.

This leaves the development team—having already poured millions into the project and competed against former Koolhaas protégé Bjarke Ingels in a fierce, last-architect-standing-wins battle royale for the job—out in the cold. Known as South Beach-ACE, the team consisted of OMA, landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Raymond Jungles, New York developer Dan Tishman, and local Miami Beach developer Robert Wennett. Wennett is known for his internationally acclaimed 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.

 
 

Prior to officially receiving the axe at the January 15th commission meeting, Tishman said in a statement that he was “shocked and disappointed” in the Mayor’s stance on the project. He expressed doubt that any “reputable national development company would respond to [another Miami Beach Convention Center] RFP… after seeing how much time the city caused our team, and all the other bidders, to waste.” Then came a statement from the team’s lawyers, saying the city was “contractually obligated to proceed” with the plan, in a letter that conveyed the impression they were exploring their legal rights. The city canceled the project anyway.

While this seems to be the end of the road for a Koolhaas-designed convention center, it is not the end for the convention center itself. The Mayor and commission have restarted the entire process, and are proposing upgrades to the existing structure paid for with city funding, and possibly the addition of a large convention hotel nearby. In the South Beach-ACE plan, rental income from a ground lease of the convention center’s surface parking lots would have subsidized construction costs. It is widely agreed by practically everyone involved, including the mayor, that the convention center is in dire need of renewal. Many—not including Mr. Levine—also agree that a very large hotel in close proximity to, if not within the convention center complex, is also a necessity. The South Beach-ACE plan had included a rooftop hotel with a sweeping Fontainebleau-like curve.

   
 

A few major conventions are already known to have recently passed the city over in favor of other locations with newer convention digs or more convenient hotel options. The American Institute of Architects, which recently held its national convention there in 2010, has already announced that it will not be returning. “Miami Beach is not under consideration due to the substandard design aesthetic, the abhorrent condition of the convention center, antiquated technological infrastructure, insufficient air conditioned exhibition space, and lack of a convention center hotel,” wrote John R. Forbes, president of the Institute, in a letter to commissioners.

The new plans however, do clear one hurdle that had previously dogged the project, the necessity of a voter referendum to lease out the sea of city-owned parking lots that now surround the convention center. South Beach-ACE had planned on transforming them into a verdant park, retail, public plaza, and housing, all designed by OMA, Valkenburgh, and Jungles. With no more vote, the citizens of Miami Beach now have even less of a say over the scope of a project crucial to the future of their city.

City pols may be forgoing a world-class convention center district designed by one of the reigning monarchs of architecture today, but the residents of Miami Beach and all of South Florida will not be missing out completely. Greater Miami’s current architecture boom is showing no signs of abating, with upcoming buildings by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Sou Fujimoto, and others. Neither are Koolhaas or Ingels going anywhere either. Both have multiple other projects in the works nearby.

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