Miami paints an ugly mural of our skyline's ad-filled future
By Michael Lewis
Piece by ugly piece, Miami's urban core is yielding to massive signs. Let's halt that blight today.
Urban beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but these unsightly blots are impossible to mistake — they'll be too darn big to ignore.
City government not only is aiding and abetting destruction of its urban landscape but it has been profiting from the change. Now it's even instigating the incursions.
Two weeks ago Miami approved leasing the side of the city administration building at 444 SW Second Ave. for what is euphemistically called a wall mural — really a five stories high, five stories wide billboard.
Calling a 2,500-square-foot ad on the city's main building a "mural" is akin to calling a garbage truck a recycling vehicle. Call it what you want, it's still garbage.
Up to now, the 18-year-old riverfront administration building has been attractive. FPL bought it when it was two years old and sold it to the city the next year to house city offices then scattered in rental sites.
The well-landscaped building has enhanced its surroundings. But with signage due to tower over I-95, it's now about to degrade the area for just one reason: money.
The sole bidder, Fuel Miami, is to pay the city $9,875.50 monthly rent plus 18% of gross receipts from ad sales. Two years ago city officials estimated such ads would yield $30,000 a month.
So the city stands to get $183,000 a year for defacing its offices for all to see — and be annoyed by.
Please remember to call this blemish a mural rather than a billboard. Because I-95 is a federal highway, no billboard more than a third that huge is legal within 660 feet.
But call it a mural and the sky's the limit — such as the 250-foot and 350-foot electronic signs the city OK'd this year to tower over the Omni area along another federal highway, Biscayne Boulevard. They too are to fill city coffers.
Barring public outcry, the administration building's so-called mural won't be the city's final incursion into muraldom. Next is the police garage eight blocks north. The city failed to get a bid on a wall mural there when it auctioned the administration building's face but vows to try again.
Officials claim they have no plan now to sell the front of city hall — but then, that tiny historic building in Coconut Grove wouldn't yield much cash anyway.
As for downtown, Miami has been selling off our future for years. In 2008 it sold 35 wall mural permits to 10 outdoor advertising companies in a pilot lottery in which bidders paid $10,000 just to play, $30,000 if they had violated old mural regulations.
Nor surprisingly, every applicant that paid to bid went home a winner, with the city pocketing the money and yielding to urban blight.
That allowed the firms to pay at least $4,000 per month — $1 per square foot — with the whole year's fee due upfront, plus a $500 administrative fee, plus a new paid permit each time an ad changed.
It's lucrative to give up a cityscape in exchange for unsightliness.
The daily press hasn't said much about city incursions into muraldom, but murals hardly are hidden there. Just look at the ad-festooned Miami Herald building for a glimpse of Miami's pockmarked future.
Some who profit from urban blight ads point to Manhattan's Times Square and ask just what's wrong with muralizing Miami. Manhattan, they say, has done fine buried in massive ads.
They may be right, if we want to live in Times Square and turn Miami on its head to accomplish the alteration. But Manhattan lacks Miami's palms and tropical feel and lifestyle. You may feel perfectly comfortable in Times Square, but did you buy your winter condo there?
No, the elements that have created Miami have been Manhattan's obverse. We are happy to add cultural amenities and business institutions that we used to lack but retain Miami's look and feel — which is not that of the nation's outdoor advertising hub.
Think back to when we built downtown's performing arts center. Planners tried to bury a highway and exclude high-rise condos nearby just to preserve the views.
Now those views are destined to include electronic advertising stretching up to 50 stories skyward above the center. How quickly we forget.
We forget too that just over two decades ago the city toiled assiduously to get developers to accept height limits on signs more than 50 feet aboveground at 9 feet on the tallest buildings, less on others. The rules then even limited color contrast to maintain Miami's visual environment.
Of course, Miami has always had downtown ads. The classic Coppertone billboard stood virtually unchanged a third of a century, from 1958 to 1991, but it was among relatively few large signs.
While it was memorable, remember too that it covered barely a third of the area the city just sold off on its administration building.
Paradoxically, the city is fouling its own nest at the same time its Downtown Development Authority marches ahead to unify the maze of directional signs downtown with a single look and to thin the jumble of private ad signs, including those on pay phones and newspaper racks. "We're going to take out as many as we can," authority board member Jerome Hollo said last month.
While the city authority seeks to beautify, city hall seeks big money for defacing its own buildings.
What an ugly story.
The city needs to balance its short-term income from clutter and ugliness against the community's long-term livability and economy.
Clutter must come out on the bottom, not on top of our skyline.