Miami-Dade County

Miami art patron ‘crying uncle’ on unconventional gallery building plan, blames city

Zoning challenge: The proposed Fairholme building would include offices but would showcase two massive artworks.
Zoning challenge: The proposed Fairholme building would include offices but would showcase two massive artworks. ARQUITECTONICA

It was an uncommon proposal — an anvil-shaped building of translucent concrete rising on a platform on Biscayne Boulevard and designed around a pair of monumental artworks for public display — and it seemed to flummox Miami city planners.

Now the building’s proponent, celebrated Miami hedge-fund manager Bruce Berkowitz, says he’s pulling the plug on the project because the city can’t seem to decide whether he can build it or not.

Berkowitz told the Miami Herald he made the decision after months of trying and failing to get a clear-cut response from the city as to whether he could proceed and what exactly he would be allowed to build — even after, he said, numerous design revisions by his architects in response to planners’ comments. On Wednesday, he said, he reluctantly instructed his staff to sell the vacant block where he planned to erect the building at Biscayne Boulevard and 26th Street, in the Edgewater neighborhood.

His consultants on the project claim the city has stopped responding to their queries, Berkowitz said.

“We keep asking, asking, asking. We keep modifying and so on,” a frustrated-sounding Berkowitz said. “We got nothing. We can’t get a response. I had a meeting with my people. I said, ‘We’re not getting anywhere, so let’s be done with it.’ We’re going to move on. I’m crying uncle.”

City planning director Francisco Garcia, buttonholed by a reporter during a break at a city commission meeting Thursday, seemed taken aback at Berkowitz’s assertions. Assistant planning director Luciana Gonzalez later said in an email that the building plans have been under a review that’s scheduled to wrap up Friday, and that Berkowitz’s attorneys had been advised of that.

Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes Edgewater, said he was surprised to hear from a reporter that Berkowitz wants to cancel the project. Sarnoff said he had not heard from Berkowitz since meeting with him a year ago to discuss the idea, which he said he fully supports.

“It’s very disappointing,” Sarnoff said. “I hope it’s reconcilable.”

Sarnoff said the project’s cancellation would constitute a big loss for Miami. The building, roughly the equivalent of 10 stories, would house the offices of Berkowitz’ Fairholme Capital Management as well as his foundation, but most of it would be dedicated to the display of two massive sculptural works by art stars Richard Serra and James Turrell that the investment manager purchased.

The light sculpture by Turrell, named Aten Reign, consists of glowing, color-shifting concentric circles that were tailored to fit inside the conical rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and made for a blockbuster exhibit when shown there in 2013. Its shape determined the rising-wedge contours of Berkowitz’s proposed building. Serra’s undulating, 200-foot-long steel sculpture, meanwhile, would be exhibited outside and required the raised platform both for protection and to be properly displayed.

The issue appears to revolve around the city’s Miami 21 zoning code, which tightly regulates the form buildings take. To create walkable urban streets, the code requires that buildings in areas like Biscayne Boulevard come directly up to the sidewalk and have uniform frontages, ground-level windows and front entrances — none of which the first design for Berkowitz’s building had.

City reviewers were initially stumped when Berkowitz’s architect, Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Miami’s Arquitectonica, presented them with the blueprint last year. But Garcia said at the time there might be a way to tweak the design to make it compatible with the code without, as he put it, “a complete subversion of Miami 21.”

But repeated changes didn’t seem to satisfy city planners, who said the plans still had “too much open space” around the building, Berkowitz said. He said he was willing to be flexible, but city officials stopped communicating, Berkowitz claimed.

“I’m just trying to understand what they want us to do. I’m not arguing,” Berkowitz said. “We’re trying to do something different. We’re trying to adapt everything to Miami 21. We’re not trying to open 7-Elevens. We want to create a community-oriented city block.”

Berkowitz said he’s open to changing his mind if he can get a green light from the city. Otherwise, he said, the sculptures will go somewhere else. Other cities have been calling with requests for them, he said. The 600,000-pound Serra sculpture is in storage in Jacksonville after Berkowitz shipped it from the Middle East. The Turrell is in a warehouse in New Jersey.

“If we can’t figure out how to create a space for them here, what can we do? Having them where no one can see them is no good,” he said. “If the city just wants another 36-story high-rise condo there, I want someone to tell me.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.