By Toluse Olorunnipa
American cities are starting an architectural arms race to the sky with super-sized Ferris wheels, a 100-story observation tower and maybe even a mammoth golf ball atop a 300-foot tee planted in the Arizona desert.
From Phoenix to Camden, N.J., city officials and developers are seeking to punctuate their skylines with exclamation points, vying for the world's attention with the next Eiffel Tower or London Eye.
For Miami, the skyward thrust is a planned 1,000-foot, hairpin-shaped tower, from which tethered thrill seekers could plunge toward the turquoise water below.
"I can hold up a handful of architectural icons from throughout the world and you would identify the city in a heartbeat," said Jeff Berkowitz, whose Berkowitz Development Group will build SkyRise, the Miami tower scheduled to open in 2018. "Miami is on the precipice of becoming a world-class city and one of the goals is an iconic structure."
Cities are looking up as urban neighborhoods benefit from an economic recovery, rising real estate values and an influx of residents. That's led to calls for attractions downtown, some of which are being spurred by land grants or taxpayer funds.
"Interest in living and working in cities is rising, so investments like this are a sign of exuberant confidence," said David Dixon, who leads a Boston-based urban planning team for Stantec Inc., an architecture and engineering company. "It's a sign of how much confidence has shifted from suburbs to cities."
Miami approved $9 million in taxpayer subsidies for SkyRise, which will feature a "sky plunge" jumping experience, a nightclub and other attractions. Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, last year approved a 300-foot tower to be built on the waterfront, pitching the chance for tourists to take in the urban vistas as a way to combat years of blight.
Others are chasing novelty. Consider the race to build Ferris wheels, such as the 400-foot Orlando Eye, which will be Florida's largest when it's completed this year.
The New York Wheel will be the world's biggest when it opens on Staten Island in 2017. It will be about 60 stories tall, seizing the mantle from the 550-foot ride that opened at Caesars Entertainment Corp.'s Las Vegas casino last year. New York's reign could be short-lived: A 690-foot wheel has been approved for Dubai.
In Las Vegas, the SkyVue observation wheel was supposed to carry riders 500 feet above the Strip. Construction, which began in 2011, has since stopped because the developer, Compass Investments LLC, has struggled to raise funds. That's left a half-built project across the street from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino.
Howard Bulloch, a developer with Compass Investments, didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment.
"The Las Vegas skyline is something else, but at some point you've got to ask how much is enough," said Chris Giunchigliani, who sits on the Clark County Commission and regrets approving the SkyVue wheel. "It probably will be sitting there like that for quite some time."
In Phoenix, city leaders considered providing public land and artwork last year for a 430-foot tower shaped like a golf ball nestled on a tee.
Novawest LLC, the real estate company that proposed it, said on its website that the nation's sixth-most-populous city deserves an "architectural emblem worthy of its emerging status."
The edifice has since been postponed over disagreements with the city. Jay Thorne, principal at Novawest, didn't return calls seeking comment on why the company postponed the project.
"There was excitement and interest for the proposed observation tower," said Eric Johnson, a program manager for Phoenix's Community and Economic Development Department. "Unfortunately, the developer withdrew their proposal."
Some monuments have proven successful tourist draws.
The London Eye observation wheel became the U.K.'s most-visited tourist attraction that charges admission after it opened in 2000, and now draws 3.5 million visitors annually. The Seattle Space Needle and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, both built in the 1960s, are still those cities' most-visited sites.
New York state and its local governments have pledged more than $50 million for improvements related to the New York Wheel on the Staten Island waterfront. Developers say it will attract more than 4 million visitors annually, while city leaders have backed it as a way to revitalize Staten Island, sometimes derided as New York's forgotten borough and its least populous.
The Miami-Dade County Commission voted last month to use $9 million from a municipal-bond fund for SkyRise, which will sit on public land downtown. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, was less enthusiastic: He vetoed a $2 million grant for the project lawmakers approved last year.
Berkowitz, 66, the SkyRise developer, described the $430 million tower as "Miami's Eiffel." When finished, he said, it will be the tallest structure in Florida.
Berkowitz estimated that 3.2 million people will visit SkyRise each year, coming from the nearby cruise ship port and countries like Colombia and Brazil. He said he's putting $30 million of his own into it.
"It's going to become Miami's premier tourism attraction," he said.
Some lawmakers question his judgment. Attracting as many paying customers as Berkowitz expects is unrealistic for Miami, which draws fewer than half as many tourists as places such as New York and London, said Xavier Suarez, a county commissioner. The Miami area had about 14.2 million visitors in 2013, compared with more than 54 million for New York, according to the cities' tourism agencies.
"I just don't see this thing succeeding," said Suarez, one of three commissioners on the 12-member panel who voted against taxpayer funding. "It really looks like an eyesore, overwhelming downtown Miami. I've started referring to it as an inverted toe-nail clipper."
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