November 6, 2018 | Miami Herald
BY KYRA GURNEY
Miami Beach residents will see major changes to the island’s urban landscape following Tuesday’s election. Voters approved a plan to build an 800-room convention center hotel and authorized $439 million in general obligation bonds to finance public safety, infrastructure and parks projects.
Residents also voted to create an inspector general’s office, which will act as an independent watchdog for city hall.
“I am very grateful to the voters in trusting us and we don’t intend to let them down,” said Mayor Dan Gelber. “These are all important projects for the future of our city and I’m glad our voters have made the investment.”
This was Miami Beach’s third attempt in recent years to get a headquarter hotel project off the ground — something city officials and tourism experts have long argued that the city needs in order to compete with other convention destinations. Residents rejected previous proposals due to concerns over the size of the building and potential traffic congestion.
Although the $362 million hotel will be privately funded, the city needed approval from 60 percent of voters in order to lease public land in the convention center district. The project secured nearly 64 percent of the vote. The hotel will be built on a city-owned parking lot adjacent to the newly renovated convention center.
South Beach resident Andres Montejo, 43, said that the convention center hotel was one of the issues that drove him to the polls. Montejo, a businessman who travels frequently for work, said that the other cities he visits already have hotels connected to their convention centers.
“A convention center is great, but without a hotel it’s just another convention center,” he said after casting his ballot at Miami Beach Senior High School. “Anybody that travels ... you know that’s how the game works. It’s like that all over the world.”
Mid-Beach resident Michelle Erez, 42, said she voted in favor of the hotel because she wanted to support the island’s tourism industry.
“Tourism is really important to Miami Beach so we have to keep promoting that,” she said after casting her ballot at Nautilus Middle School.
Other residents said they voted against the hotel because they thought it would make traffic worse in South Beach or because they thought it would put smaller hotels out of business.
“People will end up without jobs,” said Mid-Beach resident Aura Vega, 90, who voted at Nautilus Middle School.
David Harleston, a consultant who lives on Washington Avenue in South Beach, said that after dealing with the traffic and noise caused by renovations to the convention center, he decided to vote against the hotel. Harleston and other residents formed a group called Residents First to oppose the project.
“We have been disappointed throughout the term of the construction with the city’s demonstrable indifference to issues that we have raised relating to the impact of the construction on our lives,” he said. “Based on that indifference, we are unable to place our faith in the representations that the city has made with respect to the construction of the convention center hotel.”
The hotel will connect to the convention center via a pedestrian bridge and include a 53-foot podium containing parking, meeting spaces and ballrooms as well as two 185-foot-tall wings of hotel rooms. Voters authorized the lease of city land and the construction of an 800-room hotel with a maximum height of 185 feet, but specifics of the hotel design will be evaluated by the city’s Design Review Board at a later date.
The hotel ballot question sparked an ugly political fight in Miami Beach. Supporters and opponents spent more than $1.3 million total on mailers, TV ads and text messages, funneling the money through political committees. The opposition committees generated controversy for their lack of transparency and for the false and misleading statements they printed on mailers. One mailer, for example, depicted the parking lot where the hotel would be built as a lush garden and warned voters not to “let our beautiful open spaces turn into ... another Alton Road.”
Opponents also stoked fear about the hotel’s potential traffic and parking impacts and claimed that it would “reduce ground filtration, intensifying floods.” (City officials say that this claim is untrue because the site is currently an asphalt parking lot where there is little, if any, ground filtration, whereas the hotel would collect rainwater on the roof and store it for use in irrigation, toilets and other parts of the building.)
Meanwhile, the group behind the latest proposal — Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica — emphasized that the hotel would be roughly 100 feet shorter than the previous proposal and include six times more space for cars to queue on the property so that they don’t spill onto the street.
Political committees funded by the developers also promoted the hotel as a financial windfall for Miami Beach. The hotel will have to pay the city either fixed rent totaling $16.6 million over the first 10 years or a percentage of hotel revenue, whichever is greater, according to the terms of the lease agreement. Miami Beach estimates that the city will collect $96 million in taxes from the hotel over 30 years.
“This is the right project for our city at the right time, and Jackie, Craig and I look forward to working with the community to deliver a hotel that will make Miami Beach proud,” developer David Martin said in a statement.
On a related ballot item, residents voted to earmark the guaranteed hotel rent payments for traffic reduction measures, stormwater projects and education initiatives, rather than sending the money to the city’s general fund where it could be used for a broader range of expenses.
Voters also authorized Miami Beach to issue general obligation bonds to fund three categories of public projects: $169 million for parks and beaches, $198 million for infrastructure and $72 million for public safety improvements.
The bonds, which voters approved by a wide margin, will be used to finance a range of projects including a $53.8 million park, library and aquatic center in North Beach, stormwater and flooding mitigation, sidewalk repairs, replacements for two fire stations and a new public safety radio system. A complete list of projects can be found at www.gomb2018.com.
María Elena Alvarez, a Republican retiree, said she voted for the bond program “because we need it.”
Alvarez said she thought Miami Beach was doing a good job dealing with flooding and wanted to see the city continue those efforts through new mitigation projects funded by the bonds.
Other voters said they had approved some of the bond ballot measures while rejecting others.
South Beach resident Montejo said he voted in favor of the parks and infrastructure bonds, but against the public safety bonds. He said he thought the city should invest in public safety as the need arises, rather than through a bond program.
“I feel that if there’s a real urgency for that, that will be addressed at that point,” he said.
Montejo said that Miami Beach needs to invest in infrastructure and parks to remain attractive to tourists and to draw new residents to the island.
Maria Portilla, 31, a South Beach resident and business manager, had the opposite view. Portilla said she voted to approve the public safety and parks bonds, but not the infrastructure bonds because she didn’t see the need for those.
“I think we’re good with infrastructure,” she said.
Miami Beach will pay back the bond debt over 30 years through the money it collects from property taxes, which means that residents will see a tax hike. City officials have said that they plan to issue the bonds over 10 years, which would make the tax increase more gradual. After all of the bonds have been issued, residents can expect to pay an extra $82 per $100,000 in taxable property value.
Miami Beach plans to create a resident oversight committee to monitor the bond program’s progress.
The new inspector general’s office, which voters overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday, will also help oversee the bond program.
The office will have the ability to perform investigations and subpoena witnesses and will be tasked with scrutinizing city spending in order to make the government more efficient.
The new office could cost as much as $1.1 million a year, depending on the number of staff, but Miami Beach may add a surcharge to city contracts to help cover the costs.