Downtown Miami

Billboard tower becoming Miami’s latest political football

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

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez says a twisting 58-story billboard tower proposed in the city of Miami is illegal under the county’s code of laws, and it looks like the city will give his administration every chance to enforce that position.

Last week, Miami commissioners voted to repeal legislation enabling “media towers,” such as the project proposed by developer Michael Simkins in the city’s Southeast Overtown Park West redevelopment area. Simkins envisions the 633-foot, three-sided observation tower as a money-making beacon for a 10-acre technology district, but commissioners signaled that the city may not allow his project by stripping enabling language from their laws.

Whether that’s actually the case isn’t clear. Miami’s zoning administrator has said Simkins can build his tower without the billboards, and wouldn’t need special approval. Simkins says, however, his digital tower is grandfathered in under the old city code since he submitted an application weeks ago for permission to erect five digital billboards as large as 30,000 square feet. City officials have taken efforts not to opine publicly on how their vote affects Simkins’ project, which he calls the Miami Innovation Tower.

What Miami officials have told the developer is that they won’t jettison his sign permit application without considering it. But they won’t move on it either until the state and Gimenez’s administration have given assurances that they have no problems with the project.

“The city of Miami will not process your pending sign permit application any further until you have addressed all potential issues with both Miami-Dade County and the State of Florida about the permissibility of the signage,” Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez wrote to Simkins’ attorney, Tony Recio, one day before the commission repealed media tower language from the city’s zoning code.

Getting assurances on all potential issues could prove a difficult task. As of a few weeks ago, the Florida Department of Transportation was monitoring the project to see if it would be built within 660 feet of Interstate 395, I-95 or Northeast First Avenue, all of which would place the project’s signage under the department’s purview, and therefore under regulations stricter than the city’s. State officials said the parcel where the tower is planned could place the project within range of any of those roadways, depending on where on the property was built.

An FDOT spokesman could not provide an update Monday on its review or whether the state agency has been in discussions with the developer.

The county’s authority on the project is more murky. The Division of Environmental Resources Management must issue permits for the project. But the county doesn’t have a clear role in approving or rejecting the tower’s billboards beyond seeking to enforce its laws through the courts should the city allow a project the county deems illegal.

Gimenez hasn’t ruled that out, but so far hasn’t indicated he’s interested in suing over the issue should it come to that. He’s also said that while he opposes the Innovation Tower, he supports the larger technology district.

“The developer should in fact reach out to the administration and explain what it is that he or she is proposing,” said Michael Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman. ‘We do want this innovation village; the mayor is a proponent of it. We just have to do it right.”

By waiting for the county to review the project, the city is delaying the tower’s approval — or rejection, since the city has given no assurances that it will approve sign permits for the tower. Regalado’s administration is also, whether intentionally or inadvertently, placing a controversial project in Gimenez’s lap for him to endorse or torpedo at a time when Regalado’s daughter, Raquel Regalado, is challenging Gimenez in the 2016 county mayor’s election.

In a statement issued Monday through a spokeswoman, Simkins said he’s confident the project will move forward.

“Although we have exhaustively reviewed state and county regulations and are confident in our legal position, we are re-evaluating both sets of regulations to assure the City Attorney that any potential issues have been addressed,” he said.

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