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Voters give SkyRise Miami liftoff

Miami voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly endorsed SkyRise Miami, a swooping observation tower and tourist attraction proposed on a spit of land behind Bayside Marketplace.

The public supported the 1,000-foot tower — coupled with a long-term lease extension for Bayside’s operator — by a roughly two-to-one margin. The vote gives developer Jeff Berkowitz the green light to begin construction and triggers a $10 million upfront payment to the city of Miami.

At a campaign party held in a private room at the Hard Rock Cafe at Bayside, Berkowitz declared victory upon the release of only early and absentee voting tallies, which favored the agreement by more than 70 percent.

“It’s a mandate,” he said. “Up, up and away.”

Berkowitz said the SkyRise team would get to work next week reconfiguring utilities that serve the Bayside marina, which are currently under the pier where the tower will be built. The pier will then be excavated and a foundation can be laid, which he said should take about nine months.

He hopes to complete SkyRise — a hairpin-shaped tower with observations decks, an upscale restaurant and a ballroom — by the first half of 2018. He plans high-altitude attractions, such as a Tower of Terror-like ride that drops 50 stories along the tower’s shaft. There’s also the possibility of a casino if the Legislature ever allows it.

Berkowitz, who says the project will be Miami’s Eiffel Tower, has already lined up contractors and begun securing financing for the estimated $400 million project. He says he’s investing some of his own millions, and seeking much of the financing from foreign investors through the federal government’s EB5 visa program, which swaps green cards for local investment.

“As far as I’m concerned this was our last required approval,” he said of the referendum.

For General Growth Properties, the operator of Bayside, Tuesday’s results extend the terms of its lease with the city to 99 years and require GGP to make at least $27 million in renovations to the 1980s-era shopping center. The operator can also expand the marketplace at 401 Biscayne Blvd.

SkyRise is subletting land from Bayside. Under the agreement with the city, if Berkowitz fails to build the tower, GGP would get a shot. Otherwise, the market’s lease will be renegotiated.

The wide margin of passage Tuesday was somewhat expected, with pollsters predicting a nearly 2-to-1 margin of support leading up to the election. Together, Berkowitz and GGP invested more than $300,000 into radio ads and mailers that focused almost entirely on Bayside. Mayor Tomás Regalado helped them campaign.

The renegotiated lease with Bayside was also laced with public incentives, like the $10 million lump sum, increased annual payments and revenue percentages to the city, minority contracting stipulations and annual $200,000 installments to the Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust, a semi-autonomous arm of the city.

“That means the community as a whole will benefit, too,” said Cyndy Hill, a 60-year-old Coconut Grove voter who cast her ballot at the Frost Museum of Science.

There was little organized opposition. An online petition to stop the project gathered less than 350 signatures. And while two Miami activists sued to stop the project, both cases were dismissed and the Third District Court of Appeal on Tuesday affirmed a lower court ruling in a case filed by Grove architect Charles Corda.

“The court has spoken,” Corda said. “I’m going to wish Mr. Berkowitz good luck.”

Voters on Tuesday also approved two charter amendments. One requires a second referendum for developers who fail to secure building permits on public land four years after first getting voters’ consent. The other gives Miami’s administration the power to lease submerged land directly to upland owners.

This article has been changed to correct inaccurate information about SkyRise’s use of the EB5 Visa program. The city of Miami’s EB5 Regional Center is not involved.

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