Miami Herald: Miami Innovation District developers betting big on Miami’s tech future

His family just spent $120 million on 10 acres near downtown with plans to lure the likes of Google and Yahoo! to a roughly $2 billion Miami Innovation District in Miami. But even with the buzz of the week’s eMerge Americas tech convention still lingering in South Florida, getting people to see and understand the big picture has been difficult.

“I love the innovation center aspect of it,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Tuesday after giving a presentation at eMerge. “But I’m not so crazy about the 600-foot billboard.”

The “billboard” Gimenez referenced is a twisting, three-sided observation tower planned on Northwest First Avenue as the focal point of the 7 million square-foot district. Most of the discussion about the Simkins’ big plans has focused not on the district, but on the observation tower and its large digital signs, which would broadcast ads and function as the tower’s skin.

To Simkins, that’s the tail wagging the dog. And so after saying little to nothing for months as whispers of the project floated around Miami, the family is finally opening up, promoting a district they say would bring 13,000 “high-paying” jobs to Miami and finally turn the city into a Silicon Beach.

“Miami is on everybody’s radar,” Simkins said recently from his family’s Miami Beach offices. “The question that comes around is, what is needed? What do we need to move the ball? My answer to that question is a major technology company.”

And Simkins, the scion of a paper manufacturing magnate, believes his family is positioned to make that happen. Companies belonging to the family and their partners own more than a dozen properties in an area south of Interstate 395 known now for nightclubs and drab, box-like buildings. Last month, they submitted plans to the city for a special district designed by SHoP Architects, which also designed an “innovation hub” in Botswana and aspects of the Konza Techno City in Nairobi, Kenya.

SHoP has planned a complex that includes a quarter-million square feet of retail, 2.4 million square feet of residential units, and nearly 4 million square feet of office space with performance and exhibition zones geared toward incubators, start-ups and the globe’s largest technology firms. Apartments include “micro” 300-square-foot units marketed to millenials. The shops and offices would be tucked into buildings that curve and rise above an almost floating, horizontal mall where architects envision innovators collaborating.

“I haven’t seen the details,” said Manny Medina, the founder of eMerge and former owner of Terremark, which runs the NAP of the Americas server hub next to Simkins’ properties. But, he added, “there’s no question in my mind that the need is there.”

The $250 million Miami Innovation Tower — a 633-foot beacon with restaurants, observation decks, and a bottom floor amphitheatre — would be the center piece of the district. Simkins projects the site would get 1.2 million visitors each year.

It has been derided by activists as the ugliest building ever designed in Florida, and Miami’s mayor says he was “blindsided” when The Herald first revealed the details of the project last month. But Simkins and SHoP co-founder Bill Sharples say the opposition to the project is due to a lack of understanding and context.

“I think there’s just a lot of people looking at it like what they think it can be based on their experiences, and obviously the first experience they think of is the bright lights of Times Square,” said Sharples. “In the context of what we’re thinking about, it’s got to be something different. It’s got to be something unique. It’s got to be something nobody has seen before.”

Sharples envisions a tower that functions as something more sophisticated than a money-maker, with the potential to act as a promotional tool for tech companies, an Art Basel installation and public messaging machine. His team is still playing with the tower’s materials and technology — he says even calling it an LED tower is probably outdated — and they’re not yet sure exactly how art, public messaging and lucrative advertisements will mesh. But they know this:

“We wouldn’t have taken the job [if it were a billboard], and that’s not how it was presented,” said Sharples. “There was no way this office would have done a billboard. There’s just no way. That’s not what this office is about.”

Rather, Sharples says the tower is supposed to function in the context of the district, with its green roofs, expansive oculi and outdoor promenades. He believes, like Simkins, that the district will fill a void of large, cohesive office space that has kept major technology companies away.

Simkins pointed to a recent study by commercial real estate firm CBRE that found that Miami is 50th out of 50 among large office markets in terms of tech-talent growth. The firm also found that technology companies are leasing office at a faster pace than other businesses in Miami, and are poised to increase in number.

“The reason we’re 50 out of 50 is there’s no location for these companies to come here,” said Simkins, who hopes to break ground on the Innovation Tower in about one year.

Medina believes perception is holding Miami back right now more so than a lack of space for tech companies. Ken Krasnow, CBRE’s South Florida managing director, feels similarly. But, with many leaving eMerge Americas feeling that the hype of Miami becoming a technology hub is closer to reality, both say more space will soon be necessary.

“The market is growing,” Krasnow said. “Tech, media companies and new age digital companies are looking to grow and expand here – and that’s relatively new.”

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