Screwing up the Center

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

In October 1999 commissioners rejected both construction bids. Then they sought a hero, who they hoped would rescue the floundering project. They found her in Newark, New Jersey.

Although most passersby see a dilapidated building with boarded windows and a black asphalt parking lot at the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NE Fourteenth Street, Gail Thompson envisions much more. She walks slowly along a narrow, cracked sidewalk and arrives at an imaginary loading dock. Here truckers will unload sets for elaborate opera productions, she says. Nearby a small common area lined with colorful tiles and benches, and displays of public art will lead to offices and classrooms. Just to the north patrons will park Mercedes and BMWs in a multilevel garage, courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

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

County Manager Merrett Stierheim hired Gail Thompson last May to believe in the vision and convert it into reality. "I feel like the closer in a baseball game," she proclaims. Born in Brooklyn and raised in middle-class Red Bank, New Jersey, she is the oldest of three children. Her father is an attorney and her mother is a retired guidance counselor, who now serves on the Red Bank city council. Her qualifications for performing arts center hero are a B.A. in architecture from New York's Pratt Institute, an M.A. in finance and real estate from Rutgers, and nine years as project director on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. The 2750 seat, multipurpose hall on twelve acres debuted in October 1997. Officials there credit Thompson with completing the building efficiently, just six months after the planned opening and within a few percentage points of the $180 million budget. "My experience over the last six months has an eerie familiarity to what we went through in New Jersey," she says. "That is why I feel really optimistic about this project's future."

Thompson does not shy away from formidable tasks. Experience has taught her to expect unforeseen problems. One indication of what's ahead: When Knight Ridder built its new parking garage one block east of the proposed center last year, workers discovered concrete foundations below the old asphalt and dirt. That meant more money, time, and work than had been expected. "The more challenging, the more interesting," she remarks.

To help her, and to reduce the price, the county commission has approved some extreme measures recently. Based on Thompson's recommendation, the board last December cut a one-million-dollar contract with the accounting firm KPMG to serve as an independent inspector general on the project. (It is common to appoint an impartial firm to watchdog such big projects.) But a source with knowledge of the center who declines to be named contends the move invites graft and corruption. "When you start building and get the general contractor and the subcontractors involved is when the problems start through change orders and sweetheart contracts," the source says. "They got rid of the inspector to save a couple of bucks when the point of an inspector is to save money." Thompson argues the county's own inspector general can do the job.

This past January commissioners also waived a requirement that local contractors receive preferential consideration in the bidding. And they agreed to allow County Manager Merrett Stierheim to approve change orders up to $500,000. (The commission usually reviews such requests.)

To further limit costs, Thompson plans to make 175 changes to the arts center plan. Among them: swapping steel girders for cement walls, covering the lobby with drywall instead of stucco, and thinning concrete walls by several inches. The project director hopes the alterations will reduce cost estimates by $23 million. They will be imperceptible to most patrons, she adds.

But in the long term, experts fear the changes will lead to maintenance problems and costly repairs. "That sounds like we are going to get a lesser quality building," says a real estate expert who serves on the trust and declined to give his name. "These cuts will impact aesthetics and in a building of this magnitude, cosmetic is more important than structural." Deli owner Paulo Knobel has been waiting and waiting

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