The developer planning a 633-foot observation tower equipped with electronic murals is moving his plans forward even as the mayor of Miami talks of slowing him down.
Michael Simkins’ Innovate Development Group applied this week to Miami’s building department for a permit to erect five large electronic signs embedded within the skin of the tower’s twisting facade and mounted along its pedestal. The signs, which would flash advertisements as well as public art and messages, are as large as 30,000 square feet and would be visible from Interstates 395 and 95.
The high-tech tower is envisioned as the centerpiece of a 10-acre technology district around 10th Street and Northwest First Avenue. Simkins expects to go before the city’s Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency on June 29 to finalize a crucial community benefits agreement that, when last made public, included $5 million in upfront payments to the redevelopment agency and at least $1 million every year after it opens.
“The CRA board has to accept the benefits [for the project to move forward], but we submitted our permit because we are looking at a bigger picture,” said Simkins. “We’re looking at an innovation district as a whole, with 7.4 million square feet and 13,000 high-paying jobs to downtown Miami. And we’re hoping to start phase one in June” of 2016.
Simkins stressed that he’s followed the “letter of the law,” in part because critics have accused him and the Overtown CRA of quietly negotiating his project for months without involving the public.
When city commissioners considered his project in April in their capacity as CRA board members, they decided that they didn’t need to vote on the tower’s signage and then deferred a vote on the community benefits agreement. Audience members weren’t allowed to speak, and left the meeting wondering if they’d lost their only chance to comment on the project before it was approved.
That would seem a moot point now, with Simkins going back to the CRA board for another hearing. County ethics commissioners began poking around after receiving complaints but decided they had no reason to pursue the issue further.
Still, Mayor Tomás Regalado says he doesn’t believe the CRA should be given the power to approve a billboard tower. Previously, a similar project in the Omni area went before the Miami City Commission. But under Miami law, the executive director of the Overtown redevelopment agency is tasked with reviewing and approving a “media tower” in the redevelopment area, and its correlating public benefits.
This week, at Regalado’s behest, Miami’s legal staff released two pieces of legislation that would repeal the laws that place the authority with the redevelopment agency, and replace it with a new zoning code that requires city commission approval.
“I think it’s unfair for the residents, that they won’t be able to participate in public hearings,” said Regalado, who was accused of fast-tracking the proposed billboard tower in the Omni several years ago.
At first glance, though, activists who hailed Regalado in April for his position on the Innovation Tower are cringing at the legislation. Peter Ehrlich, a member of anti-billboard group Scenic Miami, said Wednesday after reading Regalado’s legislation that he worries it would actually allow for more billboard towers with less scrutiny.
“This legislation is horrible,” he said.
Simkins’ attorneys don’t believe the proposed legislation would even apply to the project should it be approved, since Simkins has submitted his plans to the city and the CRA.
City Attorney Victoria Méndez couldn’t say Wednesday whether she agrees. But in late April, her office issued a legal opinion stating that Simkins must still receive administrative approvals for his project, including the approval of a warrant, which can be appealed.