Screwing up the Center

Years behind schedule and way over budget, the performing arts center is another Miami miracle

A thin man with a round, weathered face and a pair of gold, oval, wire-rimmed glasses resting precariously on the tip of his nose prepares to speak before the Miami-Dade County Commission. Because he is more than six feet tall, he towers above the microphone, and his words come across only faintly. The early afternoon proceedings pause for a moment as county workers raise the lectern several inches, then his voice booms in a thick Argentine accent.

The man is Cesar Pelli, architect of the Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami, which is planned for the Omni area. Although commissioners had approved $132 million in tax dollars for the project four years before, Pelli asks the board to add another $54 million.

The dark, wood-paneled commission chamber in the Stephen P. Clark Government Center is unusually crowded. Dozens of well-dressed citizens listen to the renowned building designer explain that added funding will pay for myriad improvements, from replacing the planned stucco façade with a more durable stone finish to raising the building's height by 30 feet to provide patrons with a view of Biscayne Bay.

After two decades the county has just this to show for its work: A model of the buildings and project director Gail Thompson
After two decades the county has just this to show for its work: A model of the buildings and project director Gail Thompson

"We have come to a point which is critical today, where you can have a good, workable center. Or you can have, if you pass this amendment, a noble, durable, magnificent center, a center that can be compared with any of the great opera houses in the world, any of the great concert halls in the world," explains Pelli, designer of the twin Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings on the planet, completed in 1997 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "It is the center Miami needs. It is the center Miami deserves."

Reinforcing Pelli's appeal that November 1997 afternoon were representatives of the wealthy class who had supported the project for two decades, as well as influence peddlers hoping to score points with the arts backers. Among those in the gallery were lobbyist and Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, county hall insider Chris Korge, and Parker Thomson, the lawyer who has spent decades leading the private effort to get the center built.

With so many campaign contributors and power brokers on hand, a vote against the additional money for the center would have been akin to political suicide. So one by one, the commissioners began lauding Pelli's vision.

"World-class communities have world-class facilities," commented Dennis Moss.

"It will be a signature building. It will be a monument," proclaimed Katy Sorenson, who just months before had opposed spending public dollars on the AmericanAirlines Arena.

Javier Souto took some time to share a popular Cuban colloquialism: "El que compra barato, compra caro." (He who buys cheap, really buys expensive.)

Only Natacha Millan expressed skepticism from the dais. She asked Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson for a detailed inventory of what the added millions would bring. The list, ranging from a two-million-dollar pipe organ to a lobby surrounded by glass walls, failed to impress her. "It might be a signature building, but it might be a signature we don't want to see," she said. "It has gotten completely out of hand. I'm against the process that is being used."

After two hours of debate, twelve of thirteen commissioners supported the funding increase. Millan's was the lone dissenting vote. With the promise of new money in hand, county officials set groundbreaking for 1998; the first performance was scheduled for 2001.

These days Miami-Dade taxpayers have only an empty lot and a crumbling abandoned department store to compare with the great opera houses of the world. Not one cement block has been laid. Not one steel girder erected. Not one trench dug. The problem is -- you guessed it -- not enough money. When the county finally solicited construction bids last year, seventeen years after the first public vote on the project, only two contractors entered the competition. The lowest proposal came in nearly 30 percent over county estimates. Administrators vowed to cut costs and rebid the project, then changed the opening date to fall 2003; it was the fifth delay in six years.

In an attempt to speed up the second most significant public-building blunder in recent local history (the prematurely obsolescent Miami Arena being number one), County Manager Merrett Stierheim last May hired a $135,000 per-year specialist, Gail Thompson. Then the Miami-Dade commission took unprecedented steps to accelerate the job by waiving construction rules, including some designed to limit fraud and mismanagement. Despite these efforts even the most optimistic observers acknowledge more compromises will be needed. Either the halls will be scaled back from world class to cut-rate or commissioners will have to dig deeper into public coffers.

What brought us to this unenviable point? Political pandering, squabbling among private backers, and mismanagement. First came the protracted debate over locating the center on a spot owned by Knight Ridder, parent corporation of the Miami Herald, which editorialized in favor of the location. Then commissioners scattered $34 million -- almost enough to make up the difference between recent bids and the approved total -- to renovate thirteen theaters throughout the county and build a new facility in Cutler Ridge. Finally, as construction estimates became obsolete and costs soared, the Performing Arts Center Trust (PACT), the private volunteer group that has overseen the project, delayed the process for months discussing light fixtures, wall color, naming of an architect, and hundreds of other details.

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