Downtown Miami

Confusion reigns over proposed LED billboard tower near Overtown

A rendering of the Miami Innovation Tower
A rendering of the Miami Innovation Tower SHoP Architects

A proposed 633-foot LED billboard tower on the edge of Overtown is either an iconic work of art and architecture, or a gaudy symbol of Miami’s excessive thirst for development and money.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

So too, apparently, is whether Miami commissioners gave a developer the green light Monday to seek administrative approval for a permit to adorn his twisting, three-sided Miami Innovation Tower with five high-tech signs that would light up the sky with advertisements, public messages and esoteric art.

Commissioners, sitting as the board of the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, deferred a vote on a covenant with the developer of the Miami Innovation Tower that would cement local labor and wage commitments, and secure millions in dollars for the tax-funded agency tasked with stomping out blight. They said the agreement wasn’t ready.

But they also decided that there was no requirement to vote on an agreement between the agency’s executive director and developer Michael Simkins to allow the developer to seek a sign permit with the city’s building department. The agreement stood on its own.

That decision caused confusion among critics of the project, 1031 NW First Ave., who wondered aloud after a standing-room only conference room at Camillus House whether commissioners had effectively given their consent to five billboards totaling 85,000 square feet. The public was not allowed to speak during the meeting.

The decision also caused somewhat of a disagreement between attorneys for the developer and the CRA. After the meeting, CRA attorney Barnaby Min said Simkins can seek approval for the LED billboards from the building department, but he’d get no final approval unless the covenant had also been approved.

“The covenant is a condition of an approval,” he said.

That position appears to be supported by an agreement signed by CRA executive director Clarence Woods allowing the developer to move forward with a sign permit application. The document, signed in December, states that the CRA “shall execute and record the covenant” before the developer files for any permits in connection with the Miami Innovation Tower.

But Tony Recio, attorney for Simkins’ Miami Big Block LLC and affiliated companies, said he didn’t agree that the sign permit application was exclusively tied to the covenant. He said Simkins has not applied for a sign permit with the city’s building department yet, but would not give a yes or no answer as to whether he would, or whether he believed the developer could now file and seek a final sign permit.

Simkins, giving his first interview Monday since his plans went public in the Miami Herald, said he couldn’t say what he’ll do because he wasn’t quite sure what commissioners had done either.

“I can’t answer that because I don’t know the answer,” he said.

Simkins, whose family has a track record of real estate investment and small-time development, broke his silence Monday about his project. His architects and attorneys described the tower as a marvel of architecture and art, designed with three facades shaped like sails on a boat. They said the $200 million-plus tower would include restaurants, an observation tower and an indoor garden with views of downtown.

Simkins said he knew the project would have detractors, given the controversy surrounding LED billboards in Miami, which some say violate county code and state laws. But he said Miami has more than its fair share of condos, and not enough high-paying jobs.

“We could have taken the path of least resistance and put apartments and condominiums and made a good profit on this and not been subjected to a lot of criticism. Or we could take the harder road,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”

William Sharples, an architect with the Brooklyn-based SHoP Architects, said the tower was designed to fit in with the soon-to-be-developed Miami Worldcenter and All Aboard Florida’s MiamiCentral station. The tower is also planned as a linchpin for a larger, roughly 10-acre Miami Innovation District, which Simkins submitted last week to Miami’s planning department.

“We didn’t design this in a vacuum,” said Sharples, whose firm also designed the request for a special area plan from the city.

The preliminary design of the district, comprising nine towers on four blocks, would be about half office space, 40 percent condos and 10 percent retail, Simkins said. He said he’s had discussions with “top 10” technology companies about coming to Miami to establish a technology park designed for collaboration between tech companies and smaller living spaces geared toward millenials.

Simkins and his partners are already pushing forward other projects associated with the district. Earlier this month, Miami’s planning and zoning board gave a thumbs-up to a proposal to close a street between two buildings in the proposed district area. He said those plans are still far off, but he’s got a bigger vision for Miami — however controversial.

“We think it’s worth it. I don’t think Miami needs more condos and apartments,” he said.