Screwing up the Center

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

Had the total $34 million been budgeted for the performing arts center, the facility would likely be built today, Maurice Ferre notes. He now questions the decision to spread the money around. "Dennis Moss and Katy Sorenson approached it from a populist point of view," he recalls. "They said that people who live in my district aren't going to travel downtown for opera. What are you going to do for culture in my neighborhood?

"The question is how do you balance these things?" he continues. "You can't ignore the Mosses of the world. So a compromise was reached."

Parker Thomson defends sprinkling the funds across the county. "If you had tunnel vision, then you could take the money and invest it all in the center ... [but] people shouldn't be going [only to] downtown to participate in the cultural life of this community," he argues. "Taking what you got and making sure it's good is just as important as building the new halls." Adds Sorenson: "We need neighborhood facilities. Some people in South Miami-Dade will never get to downtown for a show."

Another delay came in choosing the architect. The process of inviting firms from around the world to apply, and selecting Cesar Pelli, who has worked on performing arts centers in Charlotte and Cincinnati, lasted more than a year. Then it took six months to negotiate a contract. The two sides argued over compensation, when Pelli would be paid, and who had final control over the design. Recognizing they were behind schedule when a deal was finally cracked in 1995, county officials announced a new target for opening: 1999.

Then there was the bickering. In February 1995 the trust announced a design charette at the Omni Hotel and invited representatives of three architectural firms: a Dutch company called the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), Arquitectonica of Miami Beach, and Cesar Pelli and Associates. During the gathering Woody Weiser, a businessman and leader in the private fundraising campaign, told designers not to incorporate the 1929 Sears complex, the Miami Heraldreported. All three architects complained the instructions contradicted the plans they had been sent. They returned home confused. (A few weeks later preservationists convinced the trust to include the Sears tower.) Referring to the absurd behavior of some PACT members at the charette, architect Rem Koolhaas of OMA described the process as "Kafkaesque," according to the Herald. At that point the PACT should have taken a bow and exited stage left, Seth Gordon adds. "As soon as they decided what was going to be built and where, [the PACT] should have gotten out of it," he comments. "There shouldn't be a committee to select the carpet."

But that's exactly what happened. A source close to the process, who declined to be named, recalls one four-hour discussion by trust members over lighting fixtures in the bathrooms. They couldn't decide whether to use brass, glass, or metal. Nor could they agree on cost, placement, or where to buy. Other lengthy debates involved capacity and style of seat for the theaters, the source adds. The arguments contributed to the one-year delay in preparing the construction drawings, which were promised in 1998, but not delivered until 1999. "Because [planning] was done by a part-time board made up of 32 members, it inevitably slowed down the process," Gordon complains. "No politician wants to poke into it. The arts community is savvy in politics. They have learned to help out the incumbents."

Another delay came in 1998, when Church & Tower, a well-connected firm associated with now-deceased Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, won a hotly contested battle to become the center's construction manager. Then-County Manager Armando Vidal chose Church & Tower even though an advisory committee ranked it last of three bidders. (In March 1998 County Mayor Alex Penelas fired Vidal, citing the numerous scandals that had shaken the county. Church & Tower was involved in at least one of those disputes, which involved a $58 million paving contract.)

Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson says he discovered a forged signature in Church & Tower's submission. He concluded the company could not be trusted. "[Church & Tower] should have confirmed the accuracy of all information in its proposal," Johnson wrote in a June 1998 memorandum that ended the eight-month process of firing the company. The dispute pushed back the grand- opening date by another year. "It hurt," Thomson comments. "We didn't have a construction manager when we needed one. I was frustrated as hell back then."

Finally in 1999, nearly four years after he was hired, Pelli finished the drawings, which were sent to the three companies that had expressed interest in bidding on the project. Odebrecht Contractors of Miami bowed out. Yet another nasty surprise was lurking around the corner when the sealed bids were opened in September 1999. The lowest-cost proposal, from Clark Construction of Hollywood, came in at $214 million, 28 percent above the projected price. Morse Diesel International of Fort Lauderdale estimated the cost at $234 million.

Stanley Arkin, chairman of the PACT's construction committee, says consultant Stuart Donnell of the Tampa firm Donnell and Associates erred on a 1997 cost estimate. The estimator failed to consider the effect of the booming economy, which created high demand for contractors. (Donnell did not return phone calls seeking comment.) "We had the construction consultant, who said it could be built for that price," recalls Arkin, a former Miami Beach commissioner and contractor. "I warned [PACT] at the time that you could not know what the price was until it went into the street. Time passed, the market changed, and the cost escalated."

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