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10 years on, why is the Eiffel Tower of Miami project still stalled?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The Eiffel Tower of Miami - that was the idea for a development 10 years ago. It was supposed to become one of the tallest towers in the world. But a decade later, the site is still on an abandoned waterfront lot. Danny Rivero of member station WLRN looked into why this prime piece of real estate is still empty.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: The SkyRise Miami project was supposed to be built on a tiny sliver of publicly owned waterfront land in downtown Miami. The two acres are some of the most valuable real estate in town.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: SkyRise Miami, a landmark project for a world-class city, Miami's Eiffel Tower.

RIVERO: In 2014, the developer promised the entertainment tower would be privately funded to the tune of more than $400 million. Restaurants, bars, bungee jumping - it would be over a thousand feet tall and create thousands of jobs.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And for the adventurous, a rock climbing wall with amazing views, as well as a premium observation deck that will be breathtaking by day.

RIVERO: Millions of people would visit the site every year. Some described its design as a giant paperclip. Because the lot was city owned, voters needed to approve the 99-year lease of the public land, and they did so, with 70% of the vote. A full decade later, there's no tower on the site, and the lot has become a wasteland. There's mounds of trash head high and giant piles of rubble. That's what I found on a recent visit.

Not for nothing, it does look like someone's actually been farming here. There's eggplant. There's some sea grapes planted. There's tomato plants with a bunch of tomatoes on them.

So how did this iconic project turn into a renegade community garden?

RAQUEL REGALADO: I thought that it was a good idea. I mean, every large city needs an emblematic thing.

RIVERO: Raquel Regalado is a Miami-Dade County commissioner, but back in 2014, she was an elected school board member. She lives in Miami and said she voted for it. But just a few months after voters approved the project, the developer went to the county government and asked for $9 million in taxpayer money. That's where they lost her.

R REGALADO: When they went before the board and asked for bond money, I was shocked. I was like, well, wait a second. It specifically said on the ballot that no public money was going to be used. And the response to that from the administration of the county at that time and the commissioners were, well, but that was city of Miami money.

RIVERO: The county commission approved the funding, 9 million in tax dollars to support the tower project. So Regalado and a wealthy friend went to court.

R REGALADO: We decided to sue, and sue we did. So that's how I sued my dad.

TOMAS REGALADO: At the beginning, I said, are you kidding? But then when she was serious about it, I said, well, you know what? I'm on board.

RIVERO: Raquel's father is Tomas Regalado, who was the mayor of the city of Miami. Like his daughter, he supported the project at first, but turned against it once public funds were in play.

T REGALADO: I thought that violating the trust of the people was the ultimate sin that a politician could make.

RIVERO: His daughter won the court battle. The developer withdrew the application for public dollars. It was the first major roadblock for the project. But developer Jeff Berkowitz said in 2016 that he would press on. For years, he struggled to put together enough private money to push the project forward. He applied for some permits, cleared the land, laid out some minor groundwork, but no real construction ever happened. He didn't want to talk to me about the Miami Eiffel Tower for this story. Three years ago, Berkowitz announced that he was officially pulling the plug. What was once a city parking lot is now rough gravel. A large pond forms in the middle every time it rains. The former mayor says...

R REGALADO: It's shameful that a part of downtown Miami looks like that. To me, it's shameful.

RIVERO: A big promise for the SkyRise vote in 2014 was that it would benefit poor communities in Miami. The lease spelled out that, every year, the developer would pay $100,000 towards affordable housing and social programs in a poor Black neighborhood, Liberty City. For a while, Berkowitz made those payments. But according to city records, the money stopped in 2019. The city said the money was only required after the tower was completed. Activist Grady Muhammad warned this could happen.

GRADY MUHAMMAD: 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 10 years later, that's the actual fact.

RIVERO: Muhammad called on Miami to sue or do something to get the land back. The city referred any questions about the future of the site to Bayside Marketplace, the outdoor mall next to the lot. It now holds the lease. The company said in a statement that work will soon start to make cosmetic improvements to the SkyRise site, and that long-term plans are in the works to put a different project on this prime piece of real estate. For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
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