Downtown Miami

Uncertainty once again surrounds Miami Innovation Tower after vote

A rendering of the Miami Innovation District, with the Innovation Tower on the left.
A rendering of the Miami Innovation District, with the Innovation Tower on the left. Courtesy

A city of Miami law allowing controversial billboard towers near Overtown is on the verge of being repealed, potentially throwing a developer’s planned $250 million project —and possibly an entire 10-acre technology district — into limbo.

Miami commissioners on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a measure that would strike a section of the Miami 21 zoning code that allows for “media towers” in the Park West and Overtown redevelopment area. The law has been on the books in different variations for about 13 years, and was used by developer Michael Simkins in planning and designing his 633-foot Miami Innovation Tower as the centerpiece of a proposed 10-acre technology district.

At the urging of Mayor Tomás Regalado, commissioners voted 4 to 1 to repeal the language enabling media towers near Overtown, with CRA Chairman Keon Hardemon casting the dissenting vote. When Hardemon asked his colleagues to include language clarifying that Simkins’ project wouldn’t be affected by the change, the other commissioners declined.

“I think they left it up to interpretation,” Hardemon told a reporter after the vote. “And by leaving it up to interpretation, I think that puts the project in jeopardy.”

In December, the executive director of the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency gave Simkins permission to seek a permit for five digital billboards that stretch over approximately two acres. They would be mounted on a pedestal and embedded within the skin of the three-sided, twisting tower.

On Monday, Simkins secured a mandatory covenant that would have him pay $5 million to the agency by the time his tower opens, along with a minimum $1 million each year thereafter.

Simkins also agreed to hire a percentage of workers from the Overtown area, and to pay wages higher than the living wage. But, as he pursues administrative approval, it looks like commissioners may ban the project — or at the very least ban any others in Overtown while making it unclear if Simkins can move forward.

Simkins left quickly after the vote and was unavailable for comment. He and his attorneys say he’s spent millions planning his tech district and tower, which Simkins has described as a crucial revenue generator for the larger project.

“We followed the letter of the law to a T,” he told commissioners.

Thursday’s vote was just the first of two, and the commission can vote differently when it considers the proposal again. Even if they decide to repeal the law, Simkins’ attorneys have argued that a repeal wouldn’t and shouldn’t affect his project, saying it’s “grandfathered” in due to his pending application.

At the same time, anti-billboard activists and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez contend that, under county code, Simkins’ tower is illegal.

In other action Thursday, commissioners:

  • Gave final approval to the Institute of Contemporary Art after a testy hearing that saw Hardemon walk off the dais and leave the meeting. Hardemon wanted museum representatives to commit to internships for 20 school kids from poor areas. But museum booster Norman Braman, in an email to his attorney, declined, at which point Hardemon picked up his files and left without speaking.
  • Agreed to contribute $3.75 million from the Omni CRA toward Tri-Rail’s efforts to connect to All Aboard Florida’s downtown station. Sitting as the CRA board, commissioners also voted to sell a small CRA office parking lot for $1.5 million to a company related to NR Investments. The company is planning a mixed-use development, and submitted an unsolicited proposal in March for the parking lot used by CRA employees.
  • Extended a moratorium on puppy stores for another year.