The Biscayne Times

Jun 05th
Miami Children’s Museum Lights Up the Sky PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erik Bojnansky - BT Senior Writer   
December 2013

From the MacArthur Causeway you can’t miss it, even if you wanted to

JCommNews_Billboards_1eff Berkowitz is a very busy man.

His company, Berkowitz Development Group, owns and runs six shopping malls in Miami-Dade County -- three in Kendall (including Dadeland Station), one in Coral Gables (Gables Station), one in Miami Beach (5th and Alton), and one in Aventura (Aventura Commons).

He’s also preparing to get into the observation-tower business. Last month Berkowitz announced he’s planning to build a 1000-foot-tall structure called SkyRise at Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami.

Instead of condos and offices, the $250 million, Arquitectonica-designed towering hairpin (to be financed by foreign investors wishing to obtain residence in the United States) will have a couple of amusement rides; a “flying” movie theater, where viewers will feel like they’re soaring over parts of South Florida; observation decks with views of Biscayne Bay and the skylines of Miami and Miami Beach; and other features.

If the City of Miami’s planners sign off on the concept, and Berkowitz succeeds in finalizing a lease deal with Bayside operator General Growth Properties, the project will break ground in mid- 2014 and be completed in mid-2017.

“When it’s built, it will be the tallest building in Miami and the tallest building on the Eastern seaboard south of Atlanta,” Berkowitz tells the BT. “It’ll be the second-tallest observation tower in the country, behind Las Vegas’s Stratosphere; and the 87th-tallest building in the world. It’s going to be an icon, Miami’s Eiffel tower.”

But you don’t have to wait to see a downtown bayfront spectacle. Just head across the MacArthur Causeway toward Miami or Miami Beach. Either way, you can’t miss it on Watson Island, even with all the construction related to the billion-dollar PortMiami tunnel.

CommNews_Billboards_2Pulsating on the façade of the Miami Children’s Museum are three LED billboards -- one on the west side and two on the east side -- that are big enough and bright enough to catch the eye of even the most distracted driver.

Last month these billboards flashed advertisements for Norwegian Cruise Line, the Dominican Republic, Interjet airline trips to Mexico City, and events at the Miami Children’s Museum itself.

The board chairman of the nonprofit museum and charter school is none other than Jeff Berkowitz.

Insisting that he’s merely a volunteer, Berkowitz says the billboards will generate income to enable the MCM to enhance its exhibits and operate for decades to come. “The billboards will help us stay forever as a wonderful institution,” he says.

Publicist Woody Graber asserts that the billboards primarily promote events at the museum and those of its partners. “In a highly competitive educational and entertainment market, we need every tool available to make our programs and exhibits visible to our target audience,” Graber says in an e-mail. “Our content and those of our partner institutions will be generously displayed in rotation, and it becomes an important component of our marketing package.”

As for the revenue from purely commercial ads, Graber says the money “will be reinvested in our institution to provide an even more engaging experience for the nearly half-million children and families we serve each year.”

The MCM also won’t allow tasteless or offensive advertising on its signs, Graber insists: “First and foremost, the Miami Children’s Museum has total and complete control over content that can be displayed on this billboard. We will never allow advertising that is objectionable to our family environment and that of our patrons. This includes alcoholic beverages, adult material, cigarettes (which we believe are not allowed anyway), personal hygiene items, and other controversial products. We will further not allow political and electioneering advertising. No advertisement can appear on this billboard unless we have first approved it!”

CommNews_Billboards_3But Barbara Bisno, president of Scenic Miami, a group that opposes outdoor advertising, argues that the very presence of the LED billboards, which she can see clearly from her Venetian Islands condominium, is offensive. “They don’t belong on a museum and they don’t belong on a charter school,” she says. “They’re a terrible traffic menace. The MacArthur Causeway is already famous for fast cars and accidents…. You just can’t do it.”

Counters Berkowitz: “All I know is that we went through a legitimate process and that the billboards are authorized by the city.”

On that point, Berkowitz is right. The Miami City Commission did approve the billboards. On May 23, 2012, the commission authorized LED billboards of up to 750 square feet for the museum, the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, and the James L. Knight Center.

At the time, city officials expected to garner $1 million a year in permit fees, as well as a cut of the revenue, from billboards at the three sites. Assistant city manager Alice Bravo told commissioners that MCM’s billboards alone would generate at least $800,000 in revenue each year. “The city’s share would be 20 percent of that, roughly $150,000,” she predicted. “Plus we would also be receiving an annual recurring permit fee of $252,000, for a total of roughly $400,000 a year.”

So far, only the Miami Children’s Museum has installed electronic billboards.

The 2012 ordinance was opposed by Scenic Miami and other neighborhood activists who didn’t want “visual pollution” on publicly owned facilities. According to Peter Ehrlich, director of Scenic Miami, no matter what City of Miami officials agreed to, “the deal was totally illegal.”

Under Miami-Dade County’s sign ordinance, “automatic electronic changing signs” are illegal anywhere in the county, except on parcels of land that are at least ten acres in size. Even then, the signs can only advertise goods and services provided on the premises.

The children’s museum, which was built on Watson Island with private donations in 2003, leases just 2.3 acres of land from the City of Miami. But even if MCM had leased ten acres or more, Ehrlich contends, the museum can’t advertise goods and services it does not provide. “You cannot buy a Norwegian Cruise Line ticket at the Miami Children’s Museum,” Ehrlich wrote in a recent letter to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami City Mayor Tomás Regalado. “You cannot buy an Interjet airline ticket at the Miami Children’s Museum. You cannot buy a stay at Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic at the Miami Children’s Museum.”

It isn’t just Ehrlich and Bisno who believe the City of Miami and MCM are breaking the law. In a memo dated April 17, 2012, just one month prior to Miami’s billboard authorization, Miami-Dade County Attorney Robert Cuevas, Jr. declared that programmable billboards on large parcels of land can only promote “point-of-sale” information (museum events), not off-site information (vacations in Puerto Plata). Violators could be fined as much as $20,000 each day.

Miami’s own attorney had a different opinion. According to a legal memorandum issued last year by then-city attorney Julie Bru, Miami opted out of the county’s sign code in 2010.

Cuevas, however, insisted that Miami cannot opt out of the entire sign code. The code, Cuevas declared, only allows cities to opt out of a very specific provision.

But here’s the catch: Enforcement of the county’s sign code is left to the cities themselves. The county could order local cities to comply with the law, but that would require action by the county mayor or the county commission. That hasn’t happened.

In fact, as revealed in “Billboard Jungle” (Biscayne Times, August 2013), Miami has even been encouraging the proliferation of outdoor advertising along major highways, in apparent violation of federal, state, and county laws.

That encouragement has included electronic billboards. In April 2011, the city amended its agreement with Clear Channel Outdoor, allowing the company to plant up to 14 LED billboards within Miami. In 2010, the city approved an ordinance to allow 350-foot-tall media towers within the Omni redevelopment district, a law that remains on the books. In 2009, Miami staffers permitted a 3400-square-foot mesh video screen for the Miami Heat-operated American Airlines Arena. That screen not only promotes arena events, it also advertises banks, watches, insurance, and other things unrelated to the arena.

The response Miami’s actions from county, state, and federal officials: legal letters, offers to negotiate, or outright silence.

In such a permissive environment, it’s not surprising that PortMiami director Bill Johnson would want to get in on the action. Last year he proposed installing LED billboards facing the MacArthur Causeway in a bid to increase revenue by promoting local tourist attractions. That idea has yet to be approved by the county commission.

The anything-goes legal atmosphere also inspired the original developer of SkyRise, known initially as Solar Universe. The developer’s plans for an “energy media mesh display” were approved by the city’s planning department in June 2010, despite a lack of any details regarding the “media mesh.”

When Jeff Berkowitz bought the rights to Solar Universe, the name and other design elements changed, including the media mesh, which morphed into an “interactive exhibit.”

So what’s the interactive exhibit? It won’t be a sign, vows Berkowitz: “This is not a media tower, and we’ve met with the usual folks who are concerned and assured them there will be no LED billboards on SkyRise.”

Instead, the so-called interactive exhibit will be seen only from inside the building. Berkowitz suggests it might have something to do with Star Wars or Indiana Jones. “We’re working,” he says, “with the Disney Company and Lucas Films for the licenses.”


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