Miami Skyline Could Reach New Heights

You think those new towers rising in downtown Miami are tall?

Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Get ready for the Great Leap Upward — a new class of super-tall skyscrapers that would reduce those big new high-rises to the status of relative pygmies.

Undeterred by the real-estate downturn, and aided by a little-noticed relaxation of the downtown height limits that protect Miami International Airport’s flight paths, two local developers want to take you higher — up over the 1,000-foot threshold, rare heights in the United States outside of New York and Chicago.

On Thursday, the Miami City Commission will consider Maclee Development’s proposed Empire World Towers, a pair of rounded residential cloud-busters that would rise 93 stories over Biscayne Boulevard across from Bayside Marketplace. The city’s planning board has recommended approval.

Already approved by the commission: veteran Miami developer Tibor Hollo’s One Bayfront Plaza, a 1,008-foot glass office tower resembling a twisting, billowing mainsail. The $1.8 billion project, which also includes a shorter hotel tower, would replace an existing 19-story “high-rise” at 100 S. Biscayne Blvd., across from Bayfront Park.

Both developers say they fully intend to build. Because of their size and complexity, both projects would take years to design, review, and construct. They wouldn’t be finished until the mid-2010’s, allowing plenty of time for the sagging market to rebound, the developers say.

Both mega-towers would exceed Miami’s current height champ, the 4-year-old, 789-foot Four Seasons Hotel & Tower on Brickell Avenue, by more than 200 feet. That’s roughly 20 stories, or what used to be considered a skyscraper in Miami not so long ago.

But why so tall?

“It’s begging for it, the site,” said Hollo, chairman of Florida East Coast Realty, developers of the Omni complex, Venetia, and the new Opera Tower. “We are talking about creating a signature building for the city of Miami. I am laboring here for 52 years, and I wanted to leave a legacy to the city.”

Hollo, 81, says he’s spending $35 million on 18 contractors, including Terra Architecture of Coral Gables, who are collaborating on the design. So massive is the undertaking that Hollo estimates it will take two years to finish the plans, and as long as two years more for city building officials to review the 8,000-plus pages he expects to generate.

For Maclee chief executive Leon Cohen, going tall is no case of skyscraper envy but of land economics, location and Miami’s increasing affinity for urban living.

“We have had to face a lot of resistance to the concept of such a tall building,” Cohen said. “Why would anyone want to be up there on the 90th floor?

“It’s no longer the Miami you and I knew in 1990. It’s metropolitan. There is an opera house nearby, new activity downtown. There is unique interactivity of land and water. People will continue coming here. And there is nowhere else you can be at 1,000 feet and looking directly at the water.”

The $1 billion Empire World Towers, designed by Miami architect Kobi Karp, would wrap around the back and side of an existing hotel at Northeast Third Street and Biscayne. Karp said the towers, to be wrapped in blue-green glass to recall Biscayne Bay and connected by three sky bridges, do not strain to be iconic.

”We wanted to keep it simple and sleek and elegant,” Karp said.

At a time when some local trophy projects have been going to bigger or imported designers, landing such large and prominent commissions has also been a boon to Karp and Terra principal Ignacio Permuy.

Terra is only 2 years old. Karp’s Miami firm has extensive projects underway across the world, but no landmarks of this scope or significance in his hometown. But he said he’s not taking construction for granted just yet.

“It would be a real honor and pleasure to have these buildings move ahead,” Karp said. “Right now, we have to have a kind of wait-and-see attitude.

If finished today, both towers would be among the 35 tallest in the world according to Emporis.com, a website that tracks and ranks buildings. Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles each have one building over 1,000 feet.

But while Empire World Towers would be among the very tallest residential buildings in the United States, it would pale next to the 2,000-foot, 150-floor Chicago Spire, now underway at the mouth of the city’s river.

And neither Miami mega-tower would approach the height of the world’s current tallest, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which exceeds 1,600 feet.

Until last year, 790 feet was as high as a Miami skyscraper could go because of regulations meant to keep tall buildings from interfering with MIA’s flight paths, which go over downtown Miami. Developers and city officials complained the rules, supported by airlines serving MIA, were overly restrictive.

After long negotiation, airport officials reached a compromise that slightly broadened the area where the tallest buildings would be allowed and increased the top height to 1,010 feet, while lowering heights in some adjacent areas along the Miami River. That means the local rules will more closely mirror federal aviation rules. The Federal Aviation Administration approved the new plan.

Designs for both mega-towers are over that threshold, but the developers said they will reduce heights to comply. Both must still be reviewed by MIA and FAA.

If successful, the mega-projects could inspire other super-tall towers nearby, real-estate professionals say.

But areas where current zoning would allow them are limited to Biscayne Boulevard south of Interstate 395 and the West Brickell area, said Miami land-use attorney Lucia Dougherty, who represents Empire World Towers. Since most of the boulevard frontage has new buildings under construction or already approved, it’s unlikely to be converted into a forest of super-tall buildings, she said.

“Everything else is done,” Dougherty said.

The projects have raised few objections aside from concerns over increased traffic. Both are designed to be pedestrian-friendly, concealing massive parking garages and service areas behind screens of shops and offices, and with active storefronts opening to sidewalks. In addition, Hollo’s project would be certified as green.

“I’m not going for the tallest building,” Hollo said. “I was looking for a lasting design. I’m hoping, I am trusting, we have done that.”

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