Five years ago, in the depths of a nationwide recession, Miami’s elected officials embraced a developer’s proposal to build two towering billboards near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in exchange for millions in annual payments to the city.
Mark Siffin, however, never built his towers. And now that Miami’s financial books are in order — and a second developer is pushing a similar project — city leaders are signaling they may have made a mistake.
On Thursday, the Miami city commission will consider a proposal sponsored by Commissioner Marc Sarnoff to repeal legislation the commission approved several years ago allowing “media towers” in the Omni redevelopment district. The vote is scheduled just a few weeks after commissioners repealed a similar, but older law allowing billboard towers in the Overtown redevelopment district, where developer Michael Simkins is fighting to build a 633-foot observation tower equipped with digital displays.
Simkins is trying to force city administrators to process an application for his project, and it’s unclear if his Miami Innovation Tower will be built. But if Sarnoff’s proposal is approved, it would certainly close the door on any other media towers from being erected in Miami’s future without yet another change in law.
“I don’t think it's a good idea to have a media tower,” said Sarnoff.
Critics say digital billboards such as the one Siffin has proposed represent a visual blight on the city, which is trying to transform the neighborhood around the Arsht Center as a cultural hub. And, Sarnoff now says, the light emitted from the digital billboards would present an issue for nearby condo residents.
If that seems like a 180-degree turn, it is.
In 2010, when Siffin’s attorneys crafted special legislation to allow billboard towers in the Omni, Sarnoff was among four commissioners who voted in favor of the proposal. Among current sitting commissioners, Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Francis Suarez also voted in favor of the project. Frank Carollo cast the lone dissenting vote.
But like Mayor Tomás Regalado — who shepherded Siffin’s project to city approval only to oppose Simkins five years later — Sarnoff says his decision in 2010 was weighted by the city’s dire financial situation. With city coffers now overflowing and downtown exploding in population, Sarnoff said he’s rethought his position.
“In 2009 and 2010 it seemed like the world was coming to an end with the economy,” said Sarnoff. “Is it a flip-flop? You can call it that. I'd call it an evolution of thought.”
The city’s financial position has changed dramatically since 2010, a year in which commissioners slashed employees’ pay and benefits. On Thursday, commissioners are set to pass the first of two motions approving Regalado’s $615- million general fund budget, which boosts spending by almost 10 percent from 2015 and includes a lower overall tax rate thanks to the city’s decreased debt.
In 2010, commissioners talked about how much to cut from employees. This year, Regalado has proposed boosting employees’ compensation and adding another 40 officers to the police force. If recent years are any indication, Thursday’s budget hearing will hinge on how many police officers the city will hire.