Miami-Dade County

SkyRise Miami drops pursuit of $9 million from Miami-Dade amid legal challenge

A rendering of SkyRise Miami, a 1,000-foot observation tower proposed for downtown Miami.
A rendering of SkyRise Miami, a 1,000-foot observation tower proposed for downtown Miami. ARQUITECTONICA

SkyRise Miami has dropped its pursuit of a $9 million subsidy from Miami-Dade, prompting a mayoral candidate to declare victory in her lawsuit against the proposed 1,000-foot observation tower and its claim on county dollars.

Developer Jeff Berkowitz said he was unable to meet county requirements for the economic-development grant funded by property taxes, telling Miami-Dade administrators in a March 30 letter that “we … regretfully hereby and permanently withdraw our application” for the funding.

But Raquel Regalado, who took SkyRise to court last year as she readied a run against Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, said Berkowitz’s about-face came amid a settlement of her case that will require SkyRise to forgo any public funds for the project.

“The whole point of this lawsuit has been the $9 million,” she said. “This is a huge win for every resident of Miami-Dade County.”

No settlement agreement had been posted online for Regalado v. Miami, a case whose very title captures the deep well of political drama in the SkyRise dispute. Regalado’s father, Tomás Regalado, serves as Miami’s mayor and campaigned for an August 2014 city referendum approving the construction of a “privately-funded” SkyRise on city-owned waterfront next to the Bayside Marketplace.

Two months after the vote, Gimenez announced his support of SkyRise for the $9 million grant, and county commissioners gave tentative approval of the deal in late 2014. In early 2015, Raquel Regalado joined billionaire activist Norman Braman in filing suit, saying the county grant would invalidate the referendum terms. Her father opposed the county money and declared himself “proud” of his daughter’s litigation, which at the time listed both the city and county as defendants.

Weeks later, Regalado announced her mayoral run against Gimenez. Berkowitz had been a top donor to Gimenez’s past campaigns. Braman went on to become Regalado’s top backer in her run against Gimenez for a mayoral race facing its first vote in an Aug. 30 primary.

On Wednesday, Berkowitz said the loss of $9 million in county funds for a project expected to cost $430 million won’t stop him. “We look forward to developing this iconic project, free from further purely political and self-serving distractions,” he wrote in a statement.

A recent exchange of letters suggests SkyRise ran into trouble with county administrators over a requirement that it own the actual projects and improvements that county dollars would fund, including a parking garage, roadway expansions and other structures needed for the tower. Those improvements would go on land owned by the state and city of Miami, and the county asked SkyRise to get agreements with those governments to sign on as co-sponsors of the grant agreement.

“We find it impossible to comply,” Berkowitz wrote in the letter, which Miami-Dade provided through a public-records request. “Accordingly, we believe it best to move on and give the County Commission the ability to identify another worthy project that can comply with all of your requirements…”

The county grant was part of a $75 million economic-development earmark that sat idle for 10 years before the Gimenez administration moved to spend it in 2014. The money was authorized under a $2.9 billion bond package approved by voters in 2004, and would be raised from funds tied to the special property tax set aside for county debt. Commissioners approved a string of allocations to various projects, including $14 million for a theme park by Zoo Miami and $10 million for ventures at the Opa-locka airport.

Commissioners and Gimenez faced a backlash against the grant program, which was not advertised and ended up benefiting some companies backed by significant campaign donors to county officials. None of the money has been officially authorized for the projects, with county officials still negotiating with applicants. The dollars can only be used for what’s considered public infrastructure that developers otherwise would pay for, such as parking, utility hook-ups and roadway improvements.

In exchange for the money, recipients must agree to local hiring targets and would receive the borrowed county dollars only when the projects are finished and the required jobs filled.

Regalado, a one-time lawyer who longer practices, dropped Miami-Dade as a defendant and Braman as a plaintiff to avoid challenges, and Bayside Marketplace had a judge agree to make it a defendant. The massive shopping center sits on city land and won approval of expansion plans in the same referendum that cleared the SkyRise project. Regalado said she’s settled her case with Bayside, which serves as SkyRise’s landlord and risked seeing its plans held up by the SkyRise dispute. Berkowitz declined to comment, and a Bayside lawyer was unavailable.

In his statement, Berkowitz said he would ask a judge to dismiss the case, based on his dropping his pursuit of the $9 million county grant. J.C. Planas, the private lawyer Miami hired to fight the mayor’s daughter, confirmed the litigation was settling but called it a “very, very winnable case.”

Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said the mayor still supports SkyRise “even if there is no county involvement.”