Billion Dollar Baby

One of the most significant urban developments in the country is underway right now in South Beach: the revamping of Miami Beach's convention center district.

Billion Dollar Baby

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.

The ACE team describes
their plan

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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.

A Portman team
promotional film

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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.

comparing the plans

Two teams vying to remake Miami Beach's 52-acre convention center district have produced broadly similar conceptual plans, but a look at six key elements reveals some clear differences.

See different plans

  • Present site
  • ACE Plan
  • Portman Plan

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  • Parks
  • Residential
  • Retail
  • Other
  • Public
  • Hotel
  • Convention Center
  • Parking

The convention center

Both plans expand and reconfigure the existing convention center and open it up with glass walls. ACE's has a smaller convention center footprint with more open park space to the north and south.

ACE plan: Moves the main entrance to the southwest corner, orienting the convention center toward a new public plaza, and beyond that to Lincoln Road Mall. Ballrooms with outdoor terraces are incorporated into the convention center on upper floors.

Portman plan: Keeps the main convention center entrances on the west side and adds a hotel entrance at Washington Avenue. The main ballroom is in a detached building that includes outdoor meeting space fronting a garden, with two minor ballrooms incorporated into the convention center.


ACE first proposed attaching the required 800-room hotel to the top of the convention center. Portman later adopted a similar idea, after nixing plans to demolish the nearby Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater to make room for its hotel.

ACE plan: The hotel, shown here from 17th Street, wraps around the convention center's southwest corner, rising gradually to a top height of 194 feet at the point. An expansive pool deck offers views of the Beach shoreline.

Portman plan: The hotel, seen here from Washington Avenue, wraps around the south end of the convention center, reaching a height of 124 feet at the eastern corner, lower than ACE's plan. The pool deck sits inside the square "U" frame of the hotel.

Park Space

Each plan features a series of interconnected gardens and greenways, and a park at the north end.

ACE plan: The 5-acre park gradually rises 80 feet to meet the convention center roofline, concealing an underground parking garage and truck loading bays. Green space said to total 29 acres.

Portman plan: A 4.5-acre park at ground level is bisected by an extension of 20th Street, which leads vehicles into parking and loading bays within the convention center. Green space said to total 26 acres, including rooftops.

Central Space

Both plans delineate a central outdoor space with restaurant and retail components meant to bring activity and connectivity to the site.

ACE plan: Places an open plaza at the convention center and hotel's main entrance, flanked by a half-moon-shaped food and beverage building, a 60-foot-tall cultural and exhibition building, and a revamped Gleason theater.

Portman plan: Creates a rectangular "Miami Beach Square" defined by the ballroom building, a 61,000-square-foot Latin American cultural museum and retail building, City Hall and the convention center. The square would be shaded by overhanging building corners and umbrella-like structures.


Both plans incorporate rental apartments in different locations along the edges of the district.

ACE plan: On Meridian Avenue, the plan puts 260 apartments in two 60-foot buildings and two 120-foot buildings. The taller buildings are pushed away from Meridian. Eighty more units on top of the 17th Street garage would be built later.

Portman plan: Along Washington Avenue, 200 units are built into the convention center's facade. On Meridian, the plan puts 100 apartments in four lower-scale buildings, each four stories. The buildings recede from the street towards the Holocaust Memorial.


Both plans downplay retail to avoid competition with Lincoln Road merchants.

ACE plan: Puts the bulk of its 60,000 square feet of retail on the ground floor of the 17th Street Garage. Another 40,000 square feet of restaurant space would go into the half-moon building.

Portman plan: Retail pavilions in the central square have planted green roofs that slope down to meet the ground. Additional retail goes into the 17th Street Garage, Gleason theater and cultural building. Portman says retail space totals 125,000 square feet.


In the sharpest contrast between the plans, ACE integrates ballrooms into the convention center, while Portman features a freestanding building.

ACE plan: A 60,000-square-foot ballroom adjacent to meeting rooms tops the northwest end of the convention center. Above it, a separate 40,000-square-foot ballroom can be divided into smaller spaces. Both have outdoor terraces.

Portman plan: A 60,000-square-foot ballroom occupies a separate two-story building that fronts the public square and convention center. Minor ballrooms are located in the main convention center building.

Jackie Gleason Theatre

Both plans strip away a 1980s facade to return the theater to its original Art Deco exterior.

ACE plan: Opens up the back of the theater to create an outdoor performance space. The adjacent cultural building provides covered seating in an amphitheater arrangement.

Portman plan: The back of the theater is converted to glass to provide views of back-of-the-house activity. Blank side walls are also opened up to provide entry and retail spaces. Cirque du Soleil will provide some programming.

Cultural Center

Both plans feature angular "cultural" buildings between City Hall and the Gleason theater, though precise uses are yet to be specified.

ACE plan: Included a cultural building from the start, but a new design calls for a two-level, 18,000-square-foot exhibition gallery.

Portman plan: A 38,100-square-foot museum space is dedicated to Latin American culture. The building includes additional ground-floor retail, city office space and recording studios, for a total of 61,000-square feet.