Op-Ed

This tower would rise to ‘new levels of awfulness’

PROPOSED LANDMARK: Innovation Tower would stand 633 feet high.
PROPOSED LANDMARK: Innovation Tower would stand 633 feet high.

Would you like a 633-foot electronic billboard tower in your neighborhood?

No? I didn’t think so. But that’s precisely what developer Michael Simkins wants to put in the neighborhood east of Overtown and just south of I-395. He’s proposing a gigantic nose bleed of a tower that twists and turns upward more than 60 stories with an electronic skin from which high-def, high-tech ads would be blasted on five screens (totaling 85,000 square feet) as often as once every six seconds.

Talk about visual pollution! Sounds like a movie set for a Florida version of Blade Runner.

Simkins and his architects have taken great umbrage at early criticism of their project. They say that we dweebs who find this gigantic, flashing billboard undesirable, inappropriate and esthetically offensive just don’t get it, that we don’t see the beauty of the thing.

First, they say, it’s so wrong to call their huge, glowing ad tower an “LED billboard” ’cause it’s more electronically sophisticated than that. Also, just too cool for school. Sniffs architect Bill Sharples, “There was no way this office would have done a billboard. There’s just no way.”

Way, Bill, way. What, after all, is the primary purpose of this skyscraper? To run advertising. Yes, there’s an observation deck and some room for restaurants and retail, but essentially this is a fancy, schmancy, 633-foot, $250-million electronic billboard.

Sharples and Simkins have made the Innovation Tower, the centerpiece of a much larger development that appears to have much promise. SHoP, Sharple’ architecture firm, has planned a complex that includes nine towers on four blocks between Northwest First Avenue and I-395 with office space to lure a major high-tech company, plus retail, restaurants and condos.

But the price of admission seems to be approving the Miami Innovation Tower, which would blast high-powered, super-bright commercials out into the ether 24/7. The tower will be unavoidable. And it will be a constant presence for the residents of Overtown, a community already rent asunder once by the construction of I-95.

Ah, but developer Simkins is working to finesse that problem. He’s pledged to hire 20 percent of the subcontractors on the project from a local pool and 40 percent of unskilled construction workers. Additionally, Simkin’s Miami Big Block LLC would kick in $5 million to the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency to get the project going, and once it’s up and running pay $1 million a year or 3 percent of gross sales. Looks like they expect a lot of sales.

But all of us will pay for it. The Miami Innovation Tower would be a visual blight on the landscape and on our collective psyches. I don’t live anywhere near the site, but frequently drive to downtown Miami and don’t want to be bombarded by advertising flashed from a huge tower.

The city of Miami has already played fast and loose with its billboards; this one would rise, literally and metaphorically, to new levels of awfulness.

That’s why Simkins and his group have evidently developed it on the QT. Turns out Miami’s zoning chief OK’d the project in March 2014, but somehow failed to bring it to the awareness of Mayor Tomás Regalado, among others.

When the Herald broke the story last month, it was news to Regalado and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The county mayor said he likes the idea of a high-tech innovation district, but is put off by the advertising tower.

It’s already passed muster, however, with the Southeast Overtown Park West Community Redevelopment Agency, whose executive director quietly entered into a covenant with Miami Big Block LLC last December for Simkins’ sign application. The tower is within the CRA’s boundaries.

The CRA is chaired by Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, a bright, ambitious young lawyer. He and his four commission colleagues sit as the CRA board, which normally defers to the chair’s wishes. It appears the chair wishes for the Miami Innovation Tower to go forward, along with the rest of the Innovation District.

The developer, we should note, has hired Barbara Hardemon, the commissioner’s aunt, as one of his consultants.

The CRA discussed the project at a meeting two weeks ago, where confusion reigned. The CRA board deferred a vote on the covenant with Miami Big Block LLC, which is required for the project to proceed. It should not proceed until a full-blown public hearing is held. No member of the public was allowed to speak at the CRA meeting.

The Miami Innovation Tower would be within the city of Miami, but its impact would be felt and seen throughout Miami-Dade. This major project came to light only in the last few weeks when we discovered it had already made some astounding progress without public scrutiny or comment.

Well, there was one pithy comment from the nonprofit group Scenic Miami, which seeks tighter regulation of billboards: They called Innovation Tower “the most visually ugly structure in the State of Florida.”

I would disagree. The design of the Innovation Tower is intriguing and creative. But it’s not the form that’s questionable, it’s the function.

Shooting out countless, impossible-to-miss ads at us, all night, day after day, year after year from a 63-story tower? Please, not in our neighborhood.

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