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Corruption Inquiries Curb Miami Projects

Two architecturally ambitious developments have stalled following accusations of municipal malfeasance.

By Fred A. Bernstein
September 27, 2012
Miami Beach Convention Center
Photo via Wikipedia
Following a corruption investigation, bidding has stalled on a $1-billion project to redevelop the Miami Beach Convention Center site.

Architects, no matter how successful, are dependent on clients; even the indomitable Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas can see their best efforts dashed when clients get in trouble. That’s the situation in Florida, where the two starchitects were in the running to design a billion-dollar development on the site of the Miami Beach Convention Center. Now the project has been set back by charges of municipal corruption, and no one can say who, if anyone, will get the coveted commission.

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Last year, the city solicited proposals for a mixed-use development of up to 6 million square feet on the convention center site, in a neighborhood that already boasts buildings by Herzog & de Meuron and Frank Gehry, and will soon have a swoopy garage by Hadid. In June, seven teams made proposals to the city’s selection committee. Hadid appeared personally on behalf of the developer Jeffrey Soffer. She stressed her ties to South Beach (including ownership of a condo in the W South Beach), and promised her design would not be "OTT" (which she then translated as "over the top").

But the committee ranked two other proposals higher: One of the “winning” teams, assembled by Robert Wennett, the developer of the much-publicized Herzog & de Meuron parking garage at 1111 Lincoln Road, had Koolhaas as its marquee name and Shohei Shigematsu, the partner in charge of OMA’s New York office, as its lead designer. (OMA is already working on a smaller Miami Beach project, an extension to the Saxony Hotel.) The other “winner,” a team called Portman-CMC, included the developer Ugo Colombo, the Atlanta-based Portman Holdings (founded by the pioneering Atlanta architect John Portman), and Denver-based Fentress Architects. But then Colombo’s company was charged with making a $25,000 payment to Walter Garcia, an associate of the city’s purchasing director, Gus Lopez. That led Miami Beach’s longtime city manager, Jorge Gonzalez, to put the project on hold pending investigation of bid-tampering and bribery. But then Gonzalez was forced to resign, in the wake of an unrelated bribery scandal.

At the same time, Lincoln Lane North, another architecturally ambitious project has been dogged by charges of municipal malfeasance. That mixed-use project, on two city-owned parking lots just south of the convention center site, was designed by Snøhetta, in a swoopy style suggestive of the Jetsons, for Wennett. But a competing developer charged that the selection committee violated Florida’s Sunshine Law by holding a meeting about the project in private. City lawyers say they are investigating whether the meeting should have been open to the public, and the Miami City Commission has postponed voting on the $59 million project.

As for the far larger convention center development: Miami Beach police have cleared Colombo but continue to investigate Lopez and Garcia, who have denied any wrongdoing (“No comments while the investigation continues,” wrote city attorney Jose Smith in an e-mail). Gonzalez’s replacement, acting city manager Katherine Brooks, said she will wait until the investigation is completed before making a recommendation to the City Commission. In an e-mail, Brooks suggested that she will permit one or more development teams to move forward. “All relevant agencies understand the importance of the project,” she wrote.

But two well-known Miami Beach developers, speaking independently, said that the scandals have left so much ill will that the convention center project will likely be scrapped altogether. If that happens, architects, who didn’t make the payoffs, will have paid the price.

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