Screwing up the Center

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

Then-executive editor Doug Clifton took the unusual step of writing a signed column defending the coverage. "We are honorable people. Integrity, credibility, and veracity mean more to us than profit.... Our record for telling you the truth is long and distinguished," he wrote. "It would be a horrible breach of ethics to do anything less than report the story fully -- all sides, all points of view."

In June 1991 Sears, Roebuck and Company offered to donate an abandoned department store on 3.57 acres across from the Knight Ridder land. More than a year later, in October 1992, commissioners approved the entire 5.5-acre site for the center. Seth Gordon, a well-known publicist who quit the trust around this time, says there was strong peer pressure to approve the Biscayne site, though it clearly was imperfect. "Why is land free? Either it's useless or it gives someone an unfair advantage," he comments.

Indeed at least one expert familiar with the project assails the location. Steve Davies is vice president of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit New York City group that consults on construction of large, taxpayer-backed facilities. "It's not very central; it's up away from downtown," Davies says of the Biscayne site. "You want to use a performing arts center for night-time activity. There is no neighborhood in that location to support that type of activity."

Michael Spring
Michael Spring
High-level bureaucrats like Michael Spring and Bill Johnson (pictured) did little to expedite the project
High-level bureaucrats like Michael Spring and Bill Johnson (pictured) did little to expedite the project

The decision to build on both sides of a busy street also puzzles him. "I don't know how you can build a public building with six lanes of highway in the middle," Davies says.

Thomson says he did not care where the center was built. "Everyone else concerned themselves with the site. Not me. I always concerned myself with the money [raising more than $40 million in private funds] and we found the money," he says. "This is not a one-person show. If this were [a project] where a bunch of people hadn't committed themselves, it wouldn't be done."

Maurice Ferre, who served on the Miami-Dade commission from 1992 to 1996, blames Thomson for some of the delays and bickering about details. "Thomson happens to be a very cold, elitist kind of a guy," says Ferre, who adds that he likes the attorney. "A lot of people resent his elitist approach and feel it represents a viewpoint not shared by the majority of the people in Miami.... He is not a consensus builder and he is not a guy who can enthuse people with his vision very well."

With the Knight Ridder and Sears properties in hand by 1991, however, county leaders moved the project forward. In 1993 commissioners ratified a $172 million blueprint, about $132 million of which would pay for construction. Private contributors pledged another $40 million. Administrators announced a grand-opening date of July 1998.

Peer through the window of the dingy green storefront of the Manhattan Café and Market on NE Fourteenth Street, and you'll see a New York City-style deli. A spacious refrigerator showcases slabs of meat. Bucket-size cans of pickles and tomatoes fill shelves on the walls. The door swings open to reveal the aroma of cured meat. But the place lacks the frenetic energy of the Big Apple. Around noon on a Wednesday in December, owner Paulo Knobel is preparing to dispatch drivers to deliver the sandwiches and salads to nearby offices. Not a single customer sits at any of the ten bistro-style tables.

Knobel opened the eatery in 1995, banking on an economic boom created by the performing arts center, planned across the street. For several years during construction, workers in hard hats would devour sandwiches, he thought. Then arts patrons would sip French wine and gourmet coffee before entering the majestic hall to watch Luciano Pavarotti perform La Bohème.

But these days the neighborhood is quiet during the day and a ghost town at night. "Everyone goes away," Knobel says with a slight accent from his native Brazil. "If I was driving and see it dark and no one around, I wouldn't eat here."

Knobel works a second job, as a waiter at the South Beach restaurant Joia, to feed his wife Rosaly and five-year-old daughter Heather. The Manhattan breaks even, he says, but he can only stay open one more year if construction doesn't begin soon. "My dream is for me to be sitting here one evening and have my daughter come out of the arts center with her boyfriend and have a sandwich and a coffee," Knobel comments between sips of cappuccino, his elbows resting on a table. "I've been in the restaurant business for 23 years and my peers tell me I'm crazy.

"Every year it's the same old story. They say they are going to start in January but never do," he continues. "They put up the money and then postpone it. Of course it's going to get more expensive."

One reason Knobel is lacking in patrons: Commissioners wouldn't agree to pay for the center unless they could deliver turkeys to their constituents in the thirteen districts they represent. In two votes, one in 1993 and another in 1997, the Miami-Dade commission agreed to use a total of $34 million from a tax on hotel beds to renovate thirteen neighborhood facilities including Milander Auditorium in Hialeah and the Lyric Theater in Overtown. The biggest expenditure, a brand new $18 million cultural center, is set for Commissioner Katy Sorenson's South Miami-Dade district.

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