The trees, about $200,000 worth of them, were planted weeks ago along the towering mouth of the PortMiami Tunnel, lining the gray concrete with dashes of tropical green. Royal palms, gumbo limbos, even a royal poinciana.
Their placement on the MacArthur Causeway followed a careful landscaping plan, drawn by the tunnel’s renowned architects as a natural element to soften the imposing slabs of the $1 billion public-private project.
Then, last week, workers began taking some of the trees down. A pile of royal palms lay on their side last Friday, uprooted. On Tuesday morning, crews strapped sabal palms one at a time onto flatbed trucks and hauled them away.
Sixty-two trees had been sentenced to relocation — all to protect the sight lines of an LED billboard that, under Miami-Dade County law, is technically illegal.
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The owner of the electronic sign, Worldwide Amherst Media, protested that the trees blocked drivers’ view of the billboard, located on the eastern facade of the Miami Children’s Museum on Watson Island. The Florida Department of Transportation, which oversees state highways, agreed — upsetting tunnel operators, landscape architects and anti-billboard activists, who were caught by surprise.
“Every time I think they’ve gone as far as they can go, they manage to go a step further,” lamented Nathan Kurland, a board member of the anti-billboard Scenic Miami group.
A Florida law safeguards “previously permitted” signs by establishing “view zones” along highways. On roads with speed limits greater than 35 miles per hour, like the MacArthur, billboards must be visible from 500 feet away.
When the billboard company applied to modify the tunnel landscaping plan, FDOT quickly signed off. The sign company says it’s paying about $50,000 to move the offending trees elsewhere. It will also be responsible for their upkeep.
“It should be fixed to everybody’s satisfaction,” said Barry Rush, one of the company’s principals.
He blamed the back-and-forth on “confusion” over how much consideration the law requires be given to signs. The trees made the LED billboard “unreadable from the road,” he said — a contention supporters of the original landscaping plan dispute.
Critics also counter that state protections should apply only to signs properly permitted at the local level. Miami-Dade rules restrict electronic signs, requiring among other things that they advertise only businesses, products and services available on site. The museum sign mentions museum events — but also advertises for entities and products unavailable inside the building, such as the Miami Marlins and Cover Girl makeup.
“They’re claiming the rights under that law without having gone through the approval process to be a legal billboard,” said Peter Ehrlich, a Scenic Miami co-founder. The sign does have a permit number, known as a tag, from FDOT.
While the museum signs appear to violate Miami-Dade’s rules — so does the digital mesh outside the county-owned AmericanAirlines Arena, for example — neither county commissioners nor Mayor Carlos Gimenez have pushed to enforce the law.
The city of Miami has justified signs within its boundaries, including on Watson Island, by saying it “opted out” of county regulations. But County Attorney Robert Cuevas has opined that the opt-out applied only to certain billboard-spacing provisions along highways.
Two years ago, Miami permitted signs at the museum, the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts and the James L. Knight Center. Between annual permitting fees and required revenue sharing — the museum, for one, must fork over 20 percent of what it makes from its billboards to the city — Miami expected to make about $430,000 a year.
City commissioners approved two signs at the Children’s Museum, one on the eastern facade, one on the western. The museum has more recently hung a third LED billboard on its northern facade, supposedly for “self-identification” — as opposed to advertising — purposes. The museum also houses a charter school.
The cash from the first two signs allowed in 2012 was welcome not only for the city but also for the museum, which in 2009 needed $400,000 from Miami to stay afloat.
“We need those funds desperately to redo the exhibits,” developer Jeff Berkowitz, chairman of the Children’s Museum board, said of the billboard money in 2012.
Berkowitz did not return a Miami Herald reporter’s call last week asking about the tree relocation. He sent the request to the museum’s public-relations consultant, Woody Graber, who said Miami Children’s had no part in the discussions over the landscaping — even though the museum stood to lose money if a blocked sign resulted in less interest from advertisers.
“The museum is not involved in this,” Graber said.
Yet Berkowitz had expressed interest to the billboard company earlier this year in having the museum represented in the tree discussions, the Herald has learned.
The billboard company questioned the tunnel landscaping months ago, according to FDOT, though no changes were allowed until after work on the delayed tunnel was completed. This week, a local FDOT staffer referred to the modifications as “run of the mill.”
But it appeared to surprise the people who planted the trees in the first place: the consortium of companies that built the tunnel and will operate it, MAT Concessionaire, and their architects, Coconut Grove-based firm Arquitectonica.
Emails obtained by the Herald show a flurry of concern last week when contractors arrived on the causeway to start digging up trees. The emails are public record.
“How did it get this far without any notification,” asked a Nov. 19 email from Chris Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire, to Jacqueline Sequeira, FDOT’s tunnel program manager.
“This was a surprise for me and the CEI Team also,” Sequeira wrote back, referring to construction, engineering and inspection personnel. The emails show Sequeira was emailed the landscaping modifications on Nov. 14, three days before contractors began relocating trees on Nov. 17.
The billboard company’s expedited landscaping permit was approved Nov. 21, four days after the work began. An FDOT spokeswoman said in an email that the agency had previously authorized the work but later required the permit “to memorialize the contractor’s responsibility for the proper maintenance, survival and condition of all landscaping.”
“Given the health sensitivities of the landscape, the permit was expedited to ensure no landscaping was damaged,” spokeswoman Maribel Lena said.
The permit had been in the works for months. A landscape architect in the Miami FDOT office sent tree relocation plans as far back as September, though neither Sequeira nor Hodgkins were copied on that email. Problems with jet exhaust fans delayed the tunnel’s opening, planned for May, until August. Post-opening work was finalized Nov. 7, according to FDOT.
Some of the trees will be moved closer to the tunnel entrance and exit, in the middle of the eastbound and westbound lanes on the MacArthur. But others will be relocated farther southeast, defeating the purpose of the landscaping: to make the tunnel easier on the eyes.
Among the trees being displaced are 24 sabal palms and 12 royal palms, some of which can grow up to 24 feet, and a royal poinciana, which can grow up to 20 feet. Smaller trees, such as two gumbo limbos (up to 12 feet) and five thatch palms (up to eight feet) are also being moved.
There will be an increase in total greenery, the billboard company says, because it will plant 225 small grasses and shrubs in the spaces where the trees used to be — including 75 dwarf yaupon hollies with the memorable botanical name Ilex vomitoria.
“The trees are going to be relocated all within 100 feet of where they came from,” Rush said.
Tunnel architects had met at one point with the billboard company and revised the landscaping plan to maintain the sight lines to the LED sign.
But that apparently wasn’t enough. The billboard company wanted to meet again later but architects had already turned over the plans to FDOT. So the company turned to the agency instead, which agreed to the tree relocation.
Last year, a committee of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization approved the landscaping plans with some reservations — including a request that the architects add more trees.