November 14, 2019
‘It’s a Ferris wheel on steroids.’ Bayside Marketplace will soon have a new attraction
By Carli Teproff

Bayside Marketplace will soon offer visitors a new way to see Miami — and it involves heights.

With a goal of having it spinning by the time Super Bowl rolls into town Feb. 2, SkyViews America is erecting a 176-foot tall observation wheel. 

The wheel — which is smaller but similar to the London Eye and the Wheel at ICON Park in Orlando (formerly the Orlando Eye) — jumped its final hurdle July 31, when it won approval from Miami’s Planning and Zoning Board.

“It will be a good way to get a panoramic view of what downtown has to offer,” said Seth Gordon, a business consultant for Bayside. “It’s a Ferris wheel on steroids.”

Unlike a Ferris wheel, which has open gondolas that typically hold two to eight seated passengers, an observation wheel has enclosed capsules that hold up to 20 people, who can walk around in the capsule. An observation wheel usually rotates slower than a Ferris wheel.

The amusement ride is part of an overhaul and expansion of the more than 30-year-old center at 401 Biscayne Blvd. by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which acquired 49 percent of the mall in December of 2014 and took over management of Bayside on Jan. 1, 2016. Bayside has a lease on the city-owned property until 2067.

Part of the expansion includes the controversial SkyRise Miami, which will be a 1,000-foot hairpin-shaped observation and entertainment tower by developer Jeff Berkowitz.

Gordon said Bayside has tried for years to add the observation wheel on a sliver of property near Hard Rock Cafe. The first application went to the city in 2017, but the operators — who had already bought prefabricated pieces of the wheel — soon learned the city’s code didn’t allow it. 

“There was no chapter about wheels,” he said. “They had to create a classification.”

And that wasn’t easy either, said Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents the downtown area. He said while trying to come up with a way to allow the wheel, the city had keep in mind what its long-term effects on the zoning code would be.

“We didn’t want to open this up to amusement rides in public parks,” he said. “We had to get it right.”

It took several meetings and several drafts, but on June 27, the Miami City Commission passed an ordinance that allows amusement rides by getting an exception. On July 31, the planning board approved it.

Russell said the applicant has worked with the Downtown Neighbors Alliance — a group that represents residents and businesses — to have something everyone could agree on.

“We had concerns, but they have been addressed,” he said, adding it’s good for the city to be able to add such amenities. “We love to see investment in downtown.” 

The slow-moving wheel will have 42 glass-enclosed gondolas, each able to hold eight people, making the total capacity 336 passengers. The ride is expected to last 12-15 minutes and and it will be controlled by a “trained operator,” the lawyer representing SkyViews America wrote in the letter of Intent to the city. 

Compared to the Miami wheel’s 176-foot height, the Orlando observation wheel is 400 feet tall; the London Eye is 443 feet.

“Skywheel brings to the City of Miami an iconic and first-class amenity to Bayside and the City and is compatible with the surrounding area,” the lawyer said on behalf on the company. “Skywheel is the type of use anticipated to serve visitors of Bayside and due to the project’s passive nature in a public park is less invasive in comparison with other uses permissible at Bayside.”

While the goal to get it up and running by February may seem lofty, the developers say they are confident they will be able to get it done. Pre-fabricated pieces of the wheel have been in storage in Miami for months, Gordon said.

“It’s like putting a bicycle together,” Gordon said. “It’s in a bunch of pieces and it just needs to be put together.”