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A decade after voters approved 'Miami's Eiffel Tower', waterfront property is a wasteland

Debris piled up on a sandy waterfront land, with a skyline in the background.
Screenshot
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SkyRise Miami
The site where SkyRise Miami was supposed to be built has turned into a wasteland of trash and construction debris. "Definitely in its current state I think it’s unsafe,’ said county commissioner Raquel Regalado. “At a minimum they should try to clean it up and try to figure out what comes next.”

The dream and the numbers connected to SkyRise Miami were as big and eye popping as the architectural aspirations of the project: The downtown Miami development was supposed to rise 1,049 feet in the air and offer an unobstructed 40-mile view of the entire region. Scores of visitors and high-end shops and clubs would pop up around the paperclip shaped icon. Thousands of jobs would be directly and indirectly created.

It was supposed to be “Miami's own Eiffel Tower,” attract 3.2 million visitors a year, and bring at least $293 million in revenue to the city, according to presentations and statements made by developers.

It never happened. The project was officially canceled in 2021.

A full decade after city voters approved the lease of public land for the project, scars remain in plain sight.

What’s left on the waterfront site is a dumping ground of rubble and construction debris. Trash is everywhere, piling up in clusters under head-high weeds. The formerly paved, revenue-generating parking lot is now a rough gravel. A deep lake forms every time it rains.

On a recent visit, WLRN spotted several tomato and eggplant plants, apparently sowed and tended in what has become a wasteland on one of the most valuable waterfront sites in the City of Miami.

“I guess the city understands that we are running out of farmland and they want to farm in a very high-end part of downtown Miami,” joked Tomás Regalado, a former city mayor who at first supported the project, then later turned against it.

Turning serious, Regalado lamented what has become of the site of the failed project. A few months ago he strolled past it while taking his grandchildren to visit Bayside Marketplace. He served as mayor of the city between 2009 and 2017, and while in office often used the city parking lot that used to stand there before city voters approved the lease to developers.

“It’s shameful that a part of downtown Miami — a priceless property — looks like that. To me it’s shameful,” Regalado told WLRN. “It’s ugly. It’s trashy. There’s no available parking. It’s closed. I don’t understand why.”

Also left in the wake of the failed SkyRise development is hundreds of thousands of dollars that were never paid to a fund that helps the low-income Black community in Liberty City, WLRN has found.

Records show those annual payments — tied to the construction of the Tower — have not been made at least since 2019, even as the trash-filled plot of land is still being leased.

Regalado said the way the entire saga has played out deserves an explanation from the city, especially about why the site is in such terrible shape.

“The fact of the matter is that people have never been told or informed on what the hell is going on there, or if anything is going to happen there,” he said.

Troubles begin

When the question of whether the city should lease public property to developers for the tower project came about in 2014, then-Mayor Regalado was supportive. He went as far as actively campaigning to pass the item.

“I liked the project,” he said.

His affinity for the idea, for the shiny presentation brought forward by developer Jeff Berkowitz, rested on the promise that there was going to be no public funding of the project. The public would provide the land, but the ballot language clearly stated: it would be a “privately funded” tower, costing over $400 million to build.

Voters passed the item in August of 2014 with over 68% in support.

A few months later, the tune seemed to change. Developers asked the county government for $9 million in public funding.

“It’s shameful that a part of downtown Miami — a priceless property — looks like that. To me it’s shameful... I don’t understand why.”
Former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado

Regalado saw the push for public dollars as a betrayal of what voters authorized, of what he campaigned for. He wrote letters to county commissioners, asking them not to approve the money. That put him at odds with four city commissioners — current city mayor Francis Suarez; current county commissioner Keon Hardemon; Marc Sarnoff, who is now an attorney of current city commissioner Joe Carollo; and then-commissioner Willie Gort, who wrote letters in support of public funding.

Then-County Mayor Carlos Gimenez also supported the $9 million in public funding, saying it amounted to only about two percent of projected costs. In December of 2014, the county commission approved the $9 million in public funding in a 7-3 vote. The 'No' votes included current county Mayor Daniella Levine Cava; Xavier Suarez, the father of Miami Mayor Suarez; and Rebecca Sosa.

SkyRise developer Jeff Berkowitz argued that Regalado’s insistence that any public funding of the project was a betrayal of public trust was “completely unjustified and unwarranted.” The public funding would only go towards public infrastructure surrounding the tower, not towards building the tower itself, he argued in a letter to Regalado.

Berkowitz wrote that the plan was always to try to get public funding “to help fund a portion of the substantial public infrastructure costs ($35m) associated with the tower.”

The lawsuit

Watching from the sidelines was Raquel Regalado, the daughter of Mayor Tomás Regalado. She was then an elected Miami-Dade School Board Member.

“I voted for it,” said Raquel. “When they went before the board and asked for bond money, I was shocked. I was like, wait a second. It specifically said on the ballot that no public money was gonna be used.”

Rendition of Pier Park underneath the SkyRise tower at Bayside Marketplace.
SkyRise Tower
Rendition of Pier Park underneath the SkyRise tower at Bayside Marketplace.

So, along with billionaire car dealer Norman Braman, Raquel sued the developers, the city and the county to stop the public funds from being shuffled to the project. The billionaire soon after became her largest financial backer in an unsuccessful run for county mayor, against Gimenez, in 2016.

Taking the city to court over the dispute meant that she sued her father, the city mayor.

“Which made Sunday dinners a little awkward,” she quipped.

“In the beginning I said ‘Are you kidding?’” said the former mayor. “But then when she was serious about it, I said ‘you know what? I’m on board.’”

The lawsuit was successful, marking the first major setback for the project. In April of 2016 the developers agreed to pull the request for public funding. The court case was dismissed.

“If we allowed that to slide, if we allowed a developer to put a ballot question and then say ‘oh the money that I get from the county is different than the money I get from the city,’ there would be no end to that,” explained Raquel.

The developer Jeff Berkowitz downplayed the defeat, and vowed to charge ahead.

“We look forward to developing this iconic project, free from further purely political and self-serving distractions,” he told the Miami Herald in a statement at the time.

Berkowitz declined to discuss the Skyrise Miami project when contacted by WLRN.

Raising money and pandemic issues

Some initial construction work was done simply clearing the site. Just one month after getting approved by voters, some outlets reported that the project had broken ground. But little work was done. Ten permits for work on the site were submitted to the city between 2015 and 2021 that were either canceled or expired, city records show. Some minor work, like installing a guardhouse for security guards, was completed.

Berkowitz spent years trying to amass a supply of investors needed to fund the project. He burnt through some of his own cash on plans, permits and making required payments to the city.

READ MORE: A Coral Gables man who refused to sell his home to a developer now lives in the shadows

Despite years of trying, the funding never materialized. By 2021, rising costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic made fundraising efforts to finance the project futile. Berkowitz announced that the project would be canceled.

“We moved heaven and earth during almost 10 years of challenges, obstacles, and adversity,” Berkowitz told the Miami Herald. “Despite everything we have endured and overcome, it is clear that given the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 to the tourism, hospitality, and entertainment industries, I have no alternative but to cease construction and to abandon our efforts to build this project.”

Missing money for the low-income in Liberty City

One of the conditions of the city leasing the land for the tower project was that the developer would make an annual payment of $100,000, made out to the Liberty City Revitalization Trust, a branch of city government that provides housing programs, small business grants and other community services in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Also, a one-time bulk payment of $350,000 would have to be made to the Trust upon completing the city lease agreement. City records show the $350,000 was paid by SkyRise in 2014.

Between 2015 and 2019, an additional $542,986 was paid into the Trust by SkyRise.

Since then, payments have stopped. The line item for SkyRise payments no longer appears on the Trust's annual budget. Over $450,000 in expected payments were not made.

Activist Grady Muhammad says it is unacceptable that Liberty City residents will no longer receive benefits from the SkyRise deal, even as the lease for city land is still active.
Daniel Rivero
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WLRN
Activist Grady Muhammad says it is unacceptable that Liberty City residents will no longer receive benefits from the SkyRise deal, even as the lease for city land is still active.

Activist Grady Muhammad was pleased with the promised payments to the Liberty City Revitalization Trust when the lease was being debated in 2014. But he also worried about what might happen if the project fell through.

"I spoke before the city commission and I made that issue plain that what they was promising, they was overpromising, and they was going to underdeliver to the community, and ten years later that’s an actual fact," Muhammad told WLRN.

The missing funds could have gone as grants to support small Black-owned businesses, he stressed. The Trust is currently doing affordable housing projects. That money could have supported those efforts.

The city pointed to the specific terms of the lease agreement to explain why payments have ceased.

"The pledge agreement stated that the obligatory payments would begin upon the opening of the Tower," a city spokesperson told WLRN by email. "Since it never opened for business, payments did not continue."

For Muhammad, the bulk of the blame for the missing money falls on the city and the lease deal it negotiated with developers. There was no clause specifying what would happen if the tower project fell through. Without such a clause, the lease for the publicly owned land is still active. But the Black community that was supposed to benefit from the deal is left out in the cold.

"They never put any penalties or punishment that 'if you don't complete this deal by a certain time, we cancel the lease,'" said Muhammad. "Unfortunately our technocrats and bureaucrats are beautiful administrators, but they're not negotiators."

"At the end of the day, the taxpayers are fleeced and they're the ones holding the bag along with the bill. The city continues to drop the ball on valuable city land."
Liberty City activist Grady Muhammad

Muhammad said he would like to see the city either move to cancel the lease or pursue payments to the Liberty City Revitalization Trust, even if the tower never gets built. The more time that passes, the less people who work for the city even remember the original deal. He sees that as a roadmap for broken promises and a wasted public resource.

"At the end of the day, the taxpayers are fleeced and they're the ones holding the bag along with the bill," said Muhammad. "The city continues to drop the ball on valuable city land."

The city did not respond to questions about whether it might move to cancel the lease.

Raquel Regalado told WLRN it seems as if some aspects of the project have simply fallen through the cracks of city bureaucracy. It didn't surprise her.

“Let me list all the things at the City of Miami that have fallen through the cracks,” said Raquel Regalado, a city resident. “SkyRise, Watson Island, the Olympia [Theater], the Marine Stadium. We have all these projects that have been lingering and you ask yourself: ‘Where is the sense of urgency?’ Even the [Coconut Grove] Playhouse that I have been fighting with them about now for four years. You ask yourself: ‘What’s happening?’”

“I’m sure it’s not the only thing that has fallen through the cracks. But definitely in its current state I think it’s unsafe," added Raquel. “At a minimum they should try to clean it up and try to figure out what comes next.”

The city told WLRN there are open code enforcement violations at the site, although it remains unclear what those violations are for, or when they were posted.

Several piles of rubble line the site where SkyRise Miami was proposed. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the company that owns Bayside Marketplace, told WLRN that "cosmetic improvements" to the site should be coming soon.
Daniel Rivero
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WLRN
Several piles of rubble line the site where SkyRise Miami was proposed. Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the company that owns Bayside Marketplace, told WLRN that "cosmetic improvements" to the site should be coming soon.

The future of the site

Technically, the plot of land was subleased to the company SkyRise Miami, while the original lease for the site is with Bayside Marketplace. The city acknowledged that the lease with Bayside Marketplace "remains in place," and it directed WLRN to the company regarding any future plans for the site.

Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, the company that owns Bayside Marketplace, told WLRN in a statement that the conditions of the property are soon going to change.

"The entirety of Bayside Marketplace is currently undergoing tens of millions of dollars in renovations. In addition, development plans are in process for the former Skyrise site,” a spokesperson for the company told WLRN. “Permits have already been filed with the city for near-term cosmetic improvements there. We expect to start work shortly." 

Under the city charter, any new non-tower construction project that goes on the site would likely have to be approved by voters, once again.

WLRN recently created an investigative reporting team comprised of reporters Danny Rivero and Joshua Ceballos, and two editors, Jessica Bakeman and Sergio R. Bustos. WLRN is a nonprofit newsroom that relies on your donations to fund their work and undertake stories like this one. Please donate today.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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