By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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Siffin first came to Miami in 2004, when a bank flew him to town to check out some properties. He loves the place, he says in the charmingly off-center way that has won over so many potential opponents. "I've lived in the South of France, in New Mexico, in California, and there's something extraordinary about the light here," he says. "To me, light is life. Without light, you have no colors. You can't really experience life without light."
In January 2005, he bought his Dilido Island mansion and set his sights on remaking the Magic City. First he spearheaded the face-lift at the Strand Hotel at 10th Street and Ocean Drive in South Beach. Then he joined a bid by megadeveloper Pedro Martin to buy the land from McClatchy for three new condo towers.
After the real estate bubble exploded in 2008, Martin's plans fell apart and Siffin moved to the forefront as the sole developer interested in McClatchy's land. He saw the potential for digital advertising on the site.
In 2006, he put über-lobbyist Ron Book on the payroll to persuade state officials to change billboard restrictions. Siffin then hired a mighty triumvirate to argue his case in Miami: former city Commissioner Rosario Kennedy and heavy-hitting property attorneys Jeffrey Bercow and Ben Fernandez.
Siffin hasn't given much money to political candidates, aside from a small donation to a committee backing Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower. But outdoor advertising companies have. They are the same firms that stand to profit from the planned giant billboards. For example, Commissioner Sarnoff, who represents the neighborhood where the signs and mall are proposed, has received nearly $5,000 from donors listed explicitly as "outdoor advertising" interests, including execs from Van Wagner Aerial Media and Worldwide Rush.
In Miami, Siffin has orchestrated the same hearts-and-minds campaign he set up in West Hollywood. Neighborhood leaders and condo boards were invited to his home. "Mark is one of the most creative guys I've ever met," says Murray Dubbin, a retired Miami Beach city attorney who now heads the condo board at the 801 N. Venetian Dr. building. "He's extremely bright and seems detail-oriented. You feel he's going to get done what he says he'll do."
But Siffin has also shown his mastery of talking without saying much. "You sit with Siffin, and he's smooth and smart and engaging," says Parker Thomson, a veteran lawyer and member of the Arsht Center board of directors who says he still has not made up his mind about the project. "But when you're finished, you shake your head and say, 'What in the world did I just hear?'"
That goes double for Siffin's grand Arsht Center speech in May. The garage? "Automotive storage" in Siffin-speak. The billboards? "Media towers." Their purpose? "Entertainment" and "information."
Bisno and others left baffled. Then their fears were confirmed. On June 30, just a month after the meeting, the Omni Community Redevelopment Association (CRA) issued an expert report on the impact of Siffin's signs. It was blunt: They would blast the equivalent of "four full moons" on nearby residences, according to Main Street Engineering's analysis. "It is [also] important to note that the signs will be emitting a constant color-changing scheme which will result in additional offensive glare," the engineers wrote.
Here's the strangest part: Just two weeks after the damaging report came out, the longtime head of the Omni CRA, Jim Villacorta, was fired. His replacement: a Sarnoff subordinate named Pieter Bockweg, who has spent the past two years crafting a new sign code for the city.
Again, the echoes of West Hollywood were unmistakable. To one of the largest condo associations nearby, Plaza Venetia, Siffin gifted $300,000. To the city, he pledged $2.2 million in annual "fees" and a "voluntary" $800,000 yearly toward the city's Museum Park project.
On July 22, the city commission voted 5-0 for Siffin's plan. Just seven days later — after fudging the requirement to advertise a second vote in two weeks — the commission took up the plan again. During a limited public comment section, the only real opposition came from a former Herald reporter and Miami-Dade County lobbyist named Eston "Dusty" Melton. He pointed to ordinances in the city code, the county code, and federal legislation that all seem to bar Siffin's signs.
"The history of this commission is to empower and approve behavior by sign companies and developers... who brandish city approval that runs counter to the law in exchange for giant wads of cash," Melton said from the podium. "Some of us fear that's what we're seeing here again today."
The commission voted 4-1 to finalize the deal. Frank Carollo was the only dissenting vote. "What is the rush?" he asked.
"Hang on!" Mark Siffin says with a crooked grin and momentarily leaves the room.
It's a humid summer afternoon at his Dilido Island home, and the bay windows are cracked open as usual. Workers hum around, refinishing woodwork and trimming hedges. Donalee, smiling, comes in and offers iced tea.
Almost a month has passed since the commission gave Siffin the go-ahead to proceed with City Square.
He returns with a glossy coffee-table volume of impressionist art and opens to a page of pastel Monets.