Developer plans 1,000-foot bayfront tower in downtown Miami

A prominent Miami developer is getting ready to unveil a proposal for a colossal bayfront observation tower and vertical — not to say vertigo-inducing — amusement center in downtown Miami that he believes will become the city’s analogue to the Eiffel Tower.

The SkyRise Miami tower would thrust up 1,000 feet on a spit of land behind Bayside Marketplace, making it — at least for a time — the tallest structure in the city.


Shaped like a hairpin, the sleek structure would be open on the sides to allow hurricane-force winds to flow through and would contain observation decks, an upscale restaurant and ballroom and a pair of attractions for high-altitude thrill-seekers: A bungee jump and a Tower of Terror-like ride that would drop some 50 stories along the shaft.


The tower, designed by Arquitectonica’s Bernardo Fort-Brescia, would also contain a flight-simulation ride that would take visitors gliding amid the towers of downtown, over the Everglades and diving down beneath the sea to offshore reefs. The ride would be similar to Epcot’s immensely popular “Soarin'” and made by the same company responsible for Disney’s, said developer Jeff Berkowitz.


Berkowitz and Fort-Brescia said they set out to create a tower that’s sharply distinct from its competitors, typically symmetrical towers containing an observation deck and restaurant topped by what the architect called “an unidentified flying object.”

The Miami tower’s profile instead resembles a jumping fish or a cresting wave that faces south to Latin America, “the continents that Miami reaches out to,” Fort-Brescia said. The open sides would provide views stretching from the Gulf Stream west to the Everglades from indoor and outdoor observation decks. The southern façade would be covered in a perforated metallic screen. At ground level, a massive south-facing canopy — the tip of the wave — would frame a dramatic entrance and outdoor amphitheater.


Though long rumored, the plan remained largely under wraps even as it advanced beyond a wild concept to a detailed, engineered and wind-tunnel-tested design by some of the world’s top firms. Tishman Construction, builder of both the first and the new World Trade Center, would be the general contractor alongside Coastal Construction, Berkowitz said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve building heights along flight paths to and from Miami International Airport, has signed off on the tower, he said.


The tower project marks a departure for Berkowitz, who made his name and fortune pioneering stacked big-box malls like Dadeland Station and the Fifth and Alton shopping center in South Beach. Berkowitz, who plans to personally invest up to $50 million in the project, said he’s already spent millions developing it. He expects the total project cost to fall between $300 million and $400 million.

“I view this as a legacy opportunity,” said Berkowitz, 65, who plans to publicly unwrap the plan on Dec. 2. “It will forever cement Miami on the list of great world cities.”


Whether the tower gets built will depend in part on Berkowitz’s success in tapping into a U.S. visa program that grants residency to immigrants who invest a minimum of $550,000 in approved projects. Berkowitz, who hopes to raise $250 million through the program, is traveling to China to meet with interested immigrant investors. Though he acknowledged that competition for investment through the visa program is strong, Berkowitz added: “I think we will be the prettiest girl at the dance.”


Cities have sought to raise their profile, instill civic pride and draw visitors by building observation towers since engineer Gustave Eiffel built his namesake, and controversial, monument for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. Though some, like the Eiffel Tower, have no other purpose, some combine communications towers with observation decks. The most recent: Tokyo Skytree, which rises 2,000 feet and opened last year, displacing the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China, as the tallest in the world.


Observation towers and observation decks in high-rise office buildings like Chicago’s former Sears Tower and New York’s Empire State Building, Berkowitz said, are money-makers. According to projections developed by his consultants, the Miami tower could draw more than three million visitors a year, he said.

“It’s a proven concept,” said Berkowitz, who is not seeking any public funding. “These things are people magnets. I didn’t undertake this without a great deal of research. I’m confident it will be profitable. If I build it, they will come.”


Berkowitz denied rumors he planned to finance the tower partly by placing electronic billboards on it. The city permit he has applied for would prohibit them on the tower’s exterior.

The proposal has drawn moral support from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has long advocated for an observation tower. The tower, he said, would generate visitors downtown in combination with taxpayer-funded cultural attractions such as the Arsht Center, the under-construction Miami Science Museum and the new Pérez Art Museum Miami, which opens in early December.


“I really hope it gets off the ground,” Gimenez said. “It would be a signature structure for Miami. The thing I also like is that it works with all the investments in museum park and the performing arts center. It’s synergistic.”

But the tower’s prospects will hinge more significantly on city approval, though precisely what that will entail remains unclear.


Berkowitz took over the project in its incipient stages after its originator faltered. But the tower concept had quietly received approval from the city’s planning department before the current Miami 21 zoning code went into full effect. Berkowitz has applied for approval of a modified design under the existing Class II development permit by the city’s planning director, which means it would not receive a public hearing or City Commission vote.

Whether it goes forward could also hinge on ongoing discussions between Bayside Marketplace’s operator, General Growth Properties, and its landlord, the city of Miami, over its long-term lease. Berkowitz said he has negotiated an agreement with GGP to sub-lease land where the marina’s harbormaster office now stands.


But GGP’s lease expires in 2030, with options for extensions until 2060. GGP wants to extend the lease beyond that, but city officials are demanding substantial renovations and updates to the 1987 complex, which they say is tired-looking.

“Bayside is 1970s thinking executed in the 1980s,” said Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes downtown. “It’s time for Bayside to come into the year 2015. If you want an extension, you need to upgrade your facility substantially.”

If the city and GGP can come to an agreement, the lease extension would require a referendum.