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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.

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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.

The site where SkyRise Miami was supposed to be built has turned into a wasteland of trash and construction debris.Daniel Rivero / WLRN

On a recent visit to the SkyRise Miami site, WLRN spotted several tomato and eggplant plants, apparently sowed and tended on one of the most valuable waterfront sites in the City of Miami.

“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.

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 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.”

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.

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.

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.”

Missing money for 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.

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. (WLRN/Daniel Rivero)

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.

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,'” he said.”At the end of the day, the taxpayers are fleeced.”

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 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.

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.” 

Daniel Rivero

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team.  His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team.  His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.