Miami hedge-fund manager Bruce Berkowitz is happy to have survived the white-knuckle roller-coaster ride — and we don’t mean the wild stock-market swings of the past few days.
After months of scrutiny and delay, Berkowitz said, Miami zoning officials on Friday cleared the way for him to build a starkly imposing private Biscayne Boulevard museum designed around a pair of monumental artworks, thus securing the newest keystone in the city’s expanding cultural grid.
“The last thing was to make sure we have the parking space dimensions correct, and that went well, so we should be done very soon,” a Berkowitz said by phone. “Once that gets done, we finalize the building plans. And we get going.”
The preliminary zoning OK, which necessitated multiple design revisions, comes two months after Berkowitz, manager of Fairholme Fund, said he was pulling the plug on his proposal because city officials had been sitting on his plans for months, apparently unable to reconcile the unconventional building with the Miami 21 zoning code.
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Berkowitz said he was persuaded to give it one more try by Miami art collectors including auto magnate Norman Braman and developer Martin Margulies, who called him with encouragement and publicly expressed concern that the city would blow a chance to become the permanent home to two major, and well-known, works of art at no public expense.
Once his team resubmitted revised plans about three weeks ago, Berkowitz said, things at the city suddenly began moving quickly. After several more design changes, zoning officials on Friday sent his project manager, Kevin Schwarte, an email approving the last revision they had requested. That means the Berkowitz team expects final zoning approval next week, and then can move to apply for building permits without further review by the city planning and zoning department, Schwarte said.
“I was done. I was finished,” Berkowitz recalled. “I was one day away from hiring the person to make a big for-sale sign on the property. Then a few of my friends called me. I’m new to this. But they said, ‘We think you can get this done. What you’re going through is not unique. We think the city really wants this to happen.’
“I don’t know what changed, but it seems to me things are going a lot smoother and the communication is a lot better. We’ve gone from not having any responses to my guys having an efficient and collaborative working relationship with the city.”
A spokeswoman for the planning and zoning department did not respond to an emailed request for confirmation.
In the end, Berkowitz’s architects and zoning officials reached an accommodation on a design that’s close to his original conception — a single, anvil-shaped building of precast concrete, windowless except for a band of clear glass wrapped around on two sides near the top, and rising from a slightly elevated platform. One of Berkowitz’s two showpieces, a 220-foot-long undulating steel scultpture by Richard Serra, would occupy the platform along the building’s south flank.
The main difference, Schwarte said: The platform was brought down nearly to sidewalk level, alleviating city concerns that it would create a pedestrian-unfriendly environment, by eliminating a proposed below-ground parking garage. Parking instead will go on a surface lot behind the building, which will sit on the west side of Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 26th Street and Northeast 27th Terrace in the booming Edgewater neighborhood.
City officials, Schwarte said, dropped their insistence that the building incorporate entrances and retail-style windows on Biscayne Boulevard to meet Miami 21’s requirements for pedestrian-friendly features, something Berkowitz and his consultants said was unsuitable for a museum building. The requirements were satisfied instead by defining the platform as a plaza and improving pedestrian accessibility by tweaking designs for a reflective water pool that is to run at ground level around three sides of the building, he said.
“That allows us to develop the pedestrian interaction that Miami 21 is looking for,” Schwarte said.
The building’s main entrance will remain on the side, tucked behind the Serra, providing secure monitoring of visitors and the sculpture. But Berkowitz had to drop one of the original design’s most intriguing elements — a skin of translucent concrete lit up with embedded LED pinpoints — when testing raised questions about the newly developed material’s strength, Schwarte said.
The building, the equivalent of five stories, would house offices for Berkowitz’s Fairholme Capital Management and Fairholme Foundation. Most of its space, inside and out, would be dedicated to the public exhibition of his family art collection, which includes works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince and other blue-chippers.
On the inside, the planned piece-de-resistance will be James Turrell’s Aten Reign, a conical light sculpture consisting of rings of glowing, shifting color. The work, created to fit within Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed spiral interior at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, drew a record number of visitors when it was exhibited in 2013.
Its installation at Berkowitz’s Fairholme building will allow gallery-goers to view the light cone not just from below, as they did at the Guggenheim, but also from above, an additional vantage point unavailable in New York.
Berkowitz purchased Aten Reign and Serra’s Passage of Time, which was exhibited in Qatar, with plans to bring them to Miami, and hired Miami-based Arquitectonica to design a building specifically tailored to display them to the public. The immensely successful investment manager will fully fund the building’s construction and operation.
Miami zoning officials initially balked, saying the building did not comply with the city’s Miami 21 code, which tightly regulates the form of buildings to foster a pedestrian-friendly urban environment. In an effort to solve the issue, Berkowitz bought a second piece of property behind the vacant lot where he proposed to put the building and had Arquitectonica design a campus-like ensemble of two buildings, similar to the nearby historic Bacardi buildings, which now house an arts foundation.
Berkowitz contends that city officials then went into virtual silence for more than four months, failing to respond to his team’s queries, before he went public with his complaint.
The planned Fairholme building would be the latest arts institution in a burgeoning cultural district that runs from Miami Dade College’s new art gallery at the Freedom Tower to the Design District. North of the MDC tower are the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the private CIFO gallery in Park West, the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, YoungArts’ Bacardi campus, the private Rubell Family Collection and Margulies Warehouse, the Wynwood Walls street-art park and the private De la Cruz Collection. All are open to the public.
Also on the drawing board is a new museum and sculpture garden next to the De la Cruz in the Design District for the private Institute of Contemporary Art, which is operating in temporary quarters nearby.