Screwing up the Center

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.

"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.

A quarter-century after a group was formed to study the idea of a center for the arts, even some of its creators are angry. After all Broward County planned, constructed, and opened a magnificent $58 million hall on the New River in only a decade. And Palm Beach County finished its $55 million building in less than fifteen years. "I just want to see the damn thing built," comments Alvah Chapman, who this past January announced his retirement from the board of Knight Ridder. "I don't know what is taking so long."

When the idea for a performing arts center was born in the 1970s, Parker Thomson assisted in the delivery. Back then his hair was brown, not gray; he was slimmer; and his shoulders were a little broader and straighter. But one thing has remained constant: his passionate dedication to getting the structure built. Thomson conservatively estimates that he has volunteered ten hours per week as an advocate for the center during the last decade, which equals about two and a half years of full-time work.

Thomson was born in Troy, New York, in 1932. He attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and began practicing law in Boston in the 1950s. Retreating from the cutthroat competition of the Northeast, he arrived in Miami in 1961. Ironically the attorney does not consider himself an arts devotee. He attends some cultural events but has grander reasons for supporting the center. He contends Miami will not be taken seriously until it is built. "There is no great city in the world that is not a dynamic city culturally," the six-foot-tall lawyer argues in a soft, deliberate voice. "The center will help us get there."

In 1976 he became the first chairman of the Council of Arts and Sciences, an appointed citizens board created to advise the county commission on arts-related issues. In 1978 the group began to champion the idea of a single location to host operas and symphony concerts, Thomson recalls.

In 1982 the rhetoric turned to action, when county leaders approved a referendum for a penny sales tax that included about $30 million for a performing arts center. But in a strategic error that would prove a harbinger, politics became an obstacle to the project's progress. The measure was paired on the ballot with an unpopular scheme to build a new stadium for the Miami Dolphins. Voters killed it by a 3-1 margin. A month later City of Miami residents quashed a similar proposal pushed by Mayor Maurice Ferre. (Although Broward voters rejected a similar measure that year, the county regrouped two years later, formed a committee to plan the project, and opened the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in 1991.)

Thomson left the arts council in 1982, but the group didn't surrender. In November 1983 its members evaluated three proposed sites for a performing arts center: the government center complex on NW First Street; a tract north of Bayside, where the new AmericanAirlines Arena now stands; and Watson Island, where Parrot Jungle and additional cruise terminals may soon be built. The council had no concept of the problems they would face. "This may take six or even ten years," the group's executive director Kenneth Kahn told the Miami Herald in 1983.

Next came the studies. The county, the City of Miami, and arts backers commissioned five of them between 1983 and 1988 at an estimated cost of $500,000 to taxpayers. Why so many? Competing interests. The arts patrons sought a scenic waterfront locale. Watson Island, Bicentennial Park, and the Miami River were their preferred sites. On the other side of the debate was the business community, which considered the building a potential catalyst for development. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and prominent real estate attorney Phillip Yaffa suggested areas like Overtown, the west side of Biscayne Boulevard near Bayside, and the Omni neighborhood.

In 1988 Metro-Dade Mayor Steve Clark and Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez appointed a committee to settle the question. Its seven members included luminaries such as CenTrust Bank chairman (and later convicted felon) David Paul, Knight Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman, and Parker Thomson. The group quickly settled on Bicentennial Park. They intended to lobby commissioners for the site, and Chapman suggested the Herald's editorial board favored the move.

Then on April 28, 1988, the weekly Miami Today published a story that questioned the committee's tactics. The panel had not advertised its meetings, an apparent violation of the state's Sunshine Law. The committee disbanded shortly after publication of the article, which the Miami Herald parroted ten days later. (Chapman does not recall details of the meetings and there is no record of law-enforcement authorities studying the matter.) The embarrassing episode led the county commission to create a new 25-member citizens' group to oversee site selection. Thomson became chairman.

In 1989 the citizens group selected six sites, including the Knight Ridder property on Biscayne Boulevard and NE Thirteenth Street. A year later members unanimously approved the Knight Ridder tract. The choice ignited a firestorm of criticism, especially on Spanish-language radio. Angry critics argued the newspaper stood to earn millions on its adjoining real estate if the site were confirmed. They termed the Herald "the monster on the Bay" and questioned its objectivity.

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."

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.

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 Herald reported. 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."

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.

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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