The high-rise boom in downtown Miami has fired up again. And so has the race to the heavens.
Three big developers are scrambling to erect the first clutch of 1,000-foot towers downtown, and they’re all quietly jockeying for the mantle of tallest skyscraper around. But that could be just the start of something really big.
The newest to jump in: Swire Properties, developers of Brickell Key and the gargantuan, multi-block Brickell City Centre complex now under construction west of Brickell Avenue. Their plan for a new mixed-use tower on Brickell Avenue, to be reviewed Thursday by the Miami City Commission, calls for a 1,049-foot cloud-buster that would be tied in to the new complex.
If Swire wins final approval — no sure thing because the site sits directly below air lanes to Miami International Airport — its One Brickell City Centre tower would dwarf the current champ, the Four Seasons on Brickell, by a skyscraper’s height.
Never miss a local story.
But Swire has close competition: veteran Miami developer Tibor Hollo’s Florida East Coast Realty, which already has approval for a long-planned 1,010-foot tower on Biscayne Boulevard across from Bayfront Park, is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to allow them to up the building’s height. To 1,049 feet.
That’s the height Hollo wanted, but couldn’t get, when the One Bayfront Plaza project was first approved in 2007.
“Good luck to them,” the courtly Hollo said of Swire, with a chuckle. “But I don’t think the FAA will permit 1,049 feet on Brickell Avenue.”
Swire executives say they’re “pretty confident” they can get their tower approved by the FAA and Miami-Dade County’s aviation department, but stress they’re not deliberately going after the crown. They say it’s unlikely that any height record would stand for long in any case.
“We’re not trying to build the biggest or tallest of anything,” said Swire president Stephen Owens. “There’s no particular benefit to saying, ‘At one point, we had the tallest tower in Miami.’ If you look at Miami 20 years from now, there’s going to be lots of these tall buildings.”
Swire’s tower plan was instead the result of the purchase last year of a site directly fronting Brickell, Owens said. The firm had an approved plan for a 57-story tower at the back of the block, which it already owned, and could have gone for a second of equal height.
It opted instead for a single tall, slender tower — designed, like the rest of Brickell City Centre by Miami’s Arquitectonica — that would make for a dramatic, signature gateway to the complex. It also allows for lots of public plaza space at ground level, Owens said.
Both skyscrapers would trump developer Jeff Berkowitz’s recently approved plan for a 1,000-foot, open-sided observation and entertainment tower behind Bayside Marketplace. Berkowitz, whose project is on a faster track than the other two, had once hoped to promote his SkyRise Miami — also designed by Arquitectonica — as the tallest structure in the city. But he might have to settle for being the first to reach the symbolic 1,000-foot threshold and a short stint at the top.
Hollo, meanwhile, isn’t waiting around. He’s starting construction on an interim consolation prize, another super-tall tower on Brickell Bay Drive that, at a mere 849 feet, would wrest the crown from the nearby Four Seasons, which was completed in 2003 and lists at 789 feet.
The aptly named Panorama tower would face Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and consist of a 19-story podium with 2,000 parking spaces, multiple fitness and recreation areas, a film screening room and a kennel, topped by a 208-room hotel and 821 rental apartments.
“You can probably can see the Eiffel Tower from there,” Hollo joked. “Well, maybe not the Eiffel Tower, but for sure Bimini.”
Actually, close but not quite: From 849 feet up, the visible horizon is about 39 miles away, according to boatsafe.com. Bimini is about 14 miles farther than that from Miami, meaning you would have to go all the way up to 1,600 feet to see it.
Miami developers have been lusting to pierce 1,000 feet for years, but were stymied by FAA and MIA regulations designed to allow airplanes heading to and from the airport to clear buildings by a wide margin and prevent interference with radar and radio communications. Those rules long capped heights in the central business district at 950 feet, with lower limits along Brickell.
Aviation authorities raised the downtown caps to 1,010 feet after city officials and developers successfully argued the rules could be relaxed without affecting air safety or airport operations, but then the Great Recession put the kibbosh on a handful of projects that would have topped 1,000 feet.
One project, Empire World Towers, would have raised twin towers up to 1,022 feet at 330 Biscayne Boulevard. It fizzled when the developers went to prison for tax evasion, but another developer could now dust off the plans, tweak them and reuse them.
A new class of such mega-scrapers — not just the usual officer towers, but also super-tall luxury residential buildings — is popping up all over the world, from New York City to Shanghai. Miami’s proposed mega-towers don’t come close to the tallest in the world, the 2,700-foot Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
But they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. Swire’s and Hollo’s towers, if built as proposed, would be the tallest in the United States outside New York and Chicago, and would slot into the top 10, supplanting Atlanta’s Bank of America Plaza, listed at 1,023 feet from the ground level up on Emporis.com. (The 1,049-foot height Hollo and Swire are seeking is measured from mean sea level, a difference of some 6 to 10 feet.)
Hollo, who built the Omni complex, the Opera Tower and numerous other urban projects during a development career spanning 60 years, won approval for One Bayfront Plaza during the economic downturn, figuring it would take several years to develop and build it. He now says he’s likely two to three years away from the start of construction.
The wedge-shaped tower, designed by the prominent firm Kohn Pederson Fox — also responsible for the signature Espirito Santo Bank building on Brickell — would contain two levels of shops, an 800-room hotel, 130,000 square feet of exhibition space, offices and 640 condos.
One reason he’s going super-tall, Hollo said, is that it’s simpler to build one really tall tower than multiple, shorter buildings.
“I prefer to do one building at a time,” Hollo said. “I like to focus on the details. If you do three or four at a time, you lose it. This way I can be on top of everything.”
Like Hollo’s, Swire’s mega-tower wouldn’t be done until the end of the decade — tentatively 2019, Owens said. It would encompass four distinct uses: Retail at the base, offices, condos and a luxury hotel at the very top.
On two sides, the sleek glass tower would have giant square “notches” or cutouts, one 120 feet tall and another 350 feet. Not mere architectural flourishes, they serve to minimize wind loads on the building, reducing the need for structural reinforcement, Owens and Swire senior vice president Chris Gandolfo said. The tower would boast a first for Miami: all loading would take place two levels below ground
“It’s a balance between your financial goals and good planning and long-term ownership,” Owens said of the decision to go high. “More people want to live close to work and work close to home. As we try to create an urban environment in Miami, going vertical is the best way to do it.”