Miami-Dade County

Developer plans twisting, 633-foot LED billboard tower in Miami

A rendering of the proposed Miami Innovation District, with the Miami Innovation Tower in the center.
A rendering of the proposed Miami Innovation District, with the Miami Innovation Tower in the center. Courtesy

A Miami Beach developer has struck a multi-million-dollar deal with a Miami redevelopment agency to build a skyscraper equipped with enormous, Las Vegas-style LED billboards.

Michael Simkins wants to build a 633-foot, three-sided tower that twists upward from a pedestal to heights taller than the Space Needle. Each wall will bear a sign as large as 30,000 square feet that flashes static and animated advertisements at up to one per every six seconds, shining 24-7 over I-95, I-395 and the Dolphin Expressway.

Combined, the five billboards included in the project — including two on the pedestal over a pedestrian promenade — stretch about two acres. They can be seen from north, south, east and west.

“The iconic tower will elevate the city’s brand on a global level, enhance the city skyline, and complement and enhance the surrounding community,” Simkins wrote in a statement issued Thursday.

Dubbed the Miami Innovation Tower, the building at 1031 NW First Ave. is part of a larger plan. It is proposed as beacon of capitalism in the heart of a four-block, nine-tower “Miami Innovation District” on the edge of downtown and Overtown, one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. Simkins’ architect, SHoP Architects, submitted plans to the city Monday for the district, comprised mostly of land owned by companies registered to the developer.

Simkins has been quietly pushing his project for more than a year, according to documents released late Wednesday by the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency. Miami’s zoning administrator gave his Miami Innovation Tower plans a nod in March 2014, and in December the developer signed a covenant with the executive director of the redevelopment agency, which has to sign off on his sign application because it lies within the agency’s boundaries.

As part of that deal, Simkins’ Miami Big Block LLC and affiliates will pay the CRA $5 million before building the tower. Afterward, Simkins has agreed to pay the tax-funded agency at least $1 million a year, or 3 percent of his gross sales.

Miami commissioners, sitting as board members of the Overtown CRA, will vote on whether to ratify the agreement Monday.

Simkins declined repeated requests for an interview, but said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman Thursday that the structure will include restaurants, lounges, observation decks, plazas and gardens. He said the site in Miami’s Park West neighborhood was selected because of its proximity to a series of massive projects coming online soon, including the 27-acre Miami Worldcenter, and because Miami’s zoning code considered the property as the location for a future “media tower.”

“Designed by a world-class architecture firm, this iconic tower will comply with the required regulations and will be consistent with the many illuminated structures that currently define Miami’s skyline and reflect the city’s vibrancy and growth,” Simkins stated.

But it’s likely to be polarizing anyway, given the friction caused by Miami’s expansion of LED signs and murals. His project is similar to two controversial billboard towers planned years ago near the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts by developer Mark Siffin. (They were never built.)

After The Herald revealed Thursday that a developer appeared to be resurrecting Siffin’s concept, Scenic Miami, a non-profit dedicated to Miami’s aesthetics, ripped the plans as illegal under the county’s sign regulations and called the tower the “most visually ugly structure in the State of Florida.”

“We’re appalled, truly appalled,” said Scenic Miami board member Nathan Kurland.

Others criticized how quietly the city and redevelopment agency have handled talks with Simkins. In his dealings with the city and CRA, the developer has drafted a high-powered team, including lobbyist and campaign consultants Steve Marin, and Barbara Hardemon, the aunt of Overtown CRA Chairman Keon Hardemon. Simkins’ companies have also contributed $5,000 to the campaign coffers of Teresa Sarnoff, the wife of downtown-area Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.

The developer has already drawn some unwanted attention in the neighborhood even before anyone knew his broader plans. Earlier this year, someone set fire to a backhoe used in the demolition of an old Overtown building being razed by Simkins. Some activists said the act of arson was the result of anger over Overtown’s gentrification, although police suspected a serial arsonist.

Simkins, however, said his family is devoted to Miami and Overtown. As part of his agreement with the CRA, which Woods said required public benefits, Simkins agreed to hire 20 percent of his subcontractors and 40 percent of his unskilled construction workforce from a local pool, with penalties of $10,000 and up for every tenth of a percentage he falls short. He agreed to pay living wages, based on the county’s wage scale.

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