October 25, 2018 | Miami Herald
By Kyra Gurney
In the weeks leading up to the November election, Miami Beach residents have been flooded with mailers, text messages and TV ads for and against a proposed convention center hotel, which is on the ballot.
Mailers covered in images of traffic jams warn that the “mega-hotel” will back up traffic for miles. One ad includes a fake check and claims that taxpayers will be on the hook for millions if the project fails. Other mailers show pictures of smiling children and hotel workers and promise that the hotel will deliver hundreds of jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue that can be used for local schools, flood mitigation and public transportation.
It’s enough to confuse even the savviest of voters. Although the hotel would be privately funded, the city needs approval from 60 percent of voters in order to lease public land in the convention center district.
And there’s a lot at stake. Tourism experts say that Miami Beach needs a hotel connected to its newly renovated convention center in order to compete with other cities. Two previous proposals failed to win public support in part due to concerns over traffic and the size of the hotel.
The newest proposal, created by Turnberry’s Jackie Soffer, Terra Group’s David Martin, Miami Design District developer Craig Robins and architecture firm Arquitectonica, features a 185-foot tall, 800-room hotel connected to the Miami Beach convention center via a pedestrian bridge. The facade includes a 53-foot podium with two taller wings of hotel rooms stretching behind.
Both sides are spending a lot of money trying to convince voters. Friends of Our Miami Beach Convention Center Hotel, a political committee funded by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and companies linked to Jackie Soffer and David Martin, has so far spent more than $940,000, much of it on ads. Supporters created a second committee this week, which has not yet reported any contributions.
Opponents have also financed two political committees. The first, Preserve Miami Beach’s Future, abruptly closed down in September amid questions about its financial backers. It’s unclear who was funding the committee because it has yet to file its final financial report, which was due Oct. 5.
The second opposition committee, Floridians for Veterans Service, has spent more than $61,000 in recent weeks, more than half on ads. All of its recent donors are other political committees, whose donors are also mainly political committees. The treasurer and chairman, South Florida lawyer Jason Blank, did not respond to questions about the committee or the claims on its mailers.
J.C. Planas, an attorney representing Terra, filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission against Floridians for Veterans Service for failing to register in Miami Beach and for failing to state that it’s advocating against the hotel referendum in its election paperwork. Planas said he’s also referred the committee to the state attorney’s office for allegedly accepting a straw donation.
So what impact would the hotel actually have on Miami Beach? The Miami Herald fact-checked claims made by both sides and here’s what we found:
With numerous events held in Miami Beach and droves of tourists visiting every year, residents are sensitive to anything that could make the island’s traffic worse. Mailers warning of massive traffic jams in South Beach have likely scared more than a few voters.
Developers say that they have built in plenty of space for cars to queue on hotel property, however, rather than spilling into the street. Their plans include a three-lane pick-up and drop-off system similar to an airport, including one lane dedicated to ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. The parking garage would only be accessible from hotel grounds to keep cars from backing up on nearby streets as they wait to enter.
“We have prepared an excellent parking and traffic analysis with engineers to make sure we can contain all of that drop-off action inside the hotel and not spill into the streets of the city,” said Bernardo Fort-Brescia, co-founder of architecture firm Arquitectonica.
Construction, which will take an estimated two years, won’t require any daytime lane closures and construction workers will use a service road for cranes and equipment, Martin said.
As for the hotel’s long-term traffic impacts, Miami Beach staff believe it will ultimately reduce the amount of traffic generated by the convention center. Without a headquarter hotel, the convention center will attract consumer and trade shows whose attendees drive in from nearby areas, City Manager Jimmy Morales wrote in a memo to the City Commission, whereas with a hotel it would attract more conferences and conventions with out-of-town attendees who fly in and stay at the hotel, enabling them to walk to their meetings.
“This should reduce the traffic impact of the convention center by reducing the number of daily trips,” Morales wrote.
Mailers against the convention center hotel claim that it would take up limited parking in South Beach. The proposed site for the hotel is a parking lot adjacent to the convention center with 160 public parking spots.
The 800-room hotel would include 320 on-site parking spaces, which Martin said is in keeping with the standard room-to-parking spot ratio in the hospitality industry. These spots would be open to the public as well as hotel guests.
Miami Beach has seen a 25 percent decrease in demand for public parking in recent years, a phenomenon the city attributes to a number of factors including the popularity of ride-sharing services.
Some mailers claim that the hotel would “reduce ground filtration, intensifying floods,” but the site is currently an asphalt parking lot where there is little, if any, ground filtration, according to city staff. The hotel would include water retention components, as well as other eco-friendly features such as solar panels, according to Walter Meyer, an urban designer who developed the hotel’s resiliency features.
The hotel’s roof would hold rainwater for up to 24 hours and cisterns would store the water for longer periods for use in irrigation, toilets and other parts of the hotel, said Meyer, the co-founder of Local Office Landscape Architecture. The hotel landscaping was also designed to absorb water, and planting areas would be set lower than nearby surfaces so that the plants could absorb water from the street.
“We’re going to reduce groundwater flooding because ... what we’re doing is increasing porosity,” Meyer said.
Joyce Coffee, the president of Climate Resilience Consulting, said that although she wasn’t familiar with the details of the project, cisterns are a “proven means to manage stormwater.”
“And if the cistern is designed to water landscaping, the infiltration opportunities still exist,” she said in an e-mail. “For a variety of reasons, that is a preferable means to increase water infiltration than runoff from an asphalt parking lot. Asphalt is not known to improve water quality.”
Coffee and Meyer both served on a nine-member panel convened by the Urban Land Institute that has advised Miami Beach on resiliency issues.
Opponents of the proposed hotel claim that it risks taxpayer money because the public would “foot the bill if the project fails,” while supporters say the hotel would generate millions for the city.
The $362 million hotel would be entirely privately funded with no taxpayer subsidies. According to the terms of the lease agreement, the hotel would 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. If the project fails and the mortgage lender fails to take responsibility for the hotel, the lease stipulates that the property would be returned to the city. Taxpayers wouldn’t assume any of the risk for the project.
Financial projections from Miami Economic Associates, which were commissioned by the developer, show that the hotel could generate up to $225 million in today’s dollars in lease payments and taxes for Miami Beach over the course of the 99-year lease. The hotel would also generate tax revenue for the county, the state, the school board and The Children’s Trust. These financial projections are consistent with Miami Beach’s analysis of the project.
Voters will get to decide how the money is used. One item on the ballot asks voters whether the guaranteed hotel rent payments should be earmarked in equal portions for traffic reduction measures, stormwater projects and education initiatives. Otherwise, the money would go into the city’s general fund where it could be used for a broader range of expenses.
The mailers against the project also claim that it would “consume public space that is key to economic development and environmental sustainability.” The parking lot where the hotel would be located currently generates just $104,000 a year in revenue, according to city figures. In addition to rent payments and taxes, Miami Beach estimates that the hotel will generate more than 700 full-time jobs and that construction will generate approximately 1,900 jobs.
Both city staff and the visitors bureau argue that the convention center needs a headquarter hotel in order to compete with other cities for conventions. The convention center, which just underwent a $620 million renovation, has lost at least $130 million in bookings since 2015 because it lacks a headquarter hotel, according to the visitors bureau. “The headquarter hotel will now ensure the investment in the Miami Beach Convention Center will produce a higher return on investment,” said William D. Talbert III, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, in an e-mail. “A headquarter hotel will certainly help retain and attract high-profile meetings and conventions to the destination.”
Mailers opposing the hotel claim that it would block views for nearly 200 feet. The hotel’s neighbors would include City Hall, the convention center and the New World Center as well as some apartments. A city spokeswoman said that “a very limited number of buildings and apartment units on Washington Avenue, one block away from the Hotel, would be partially impacted in terms of views.”
The hotel would be roughly 100 feet shorter than the previous proposal, however. Fort-Brescia said that the hotel’s design pushes the taller wings as far back from the street as possible in order to keep the front of the building consistent with the height of neighboring structures.