"This book is all about the initial reactions of Parisians to the impressionists. They were like, 'Oh, my God, it's so garish!' " Siffin says, leafing through the artwork. "Some of the words I've read about my media towers are so similar to what Parisians said about what is now considered some of the finest art in the world."

He suddenly looks worried about the comparison. "My only real point in that regard is that shifts in societal forms of expression often generate an upheaval, like this thing," he says, hoisting his BlackBerry. "It is who we are, and it defines how we interact... These towers will have built-in text features that will allow you to interact with them and receive apps from them."

This is how Siffin talks about his project — in terms of "societal shifts" and classical painters, not the millions of dollars he stands to make.

Mark Siffin plans to top City Square with twin 40-story digital billboards.
Photo courtesy of Miamicitysquare.com
Mark Siffin plans to top City Square with twin 40-story digital billboards.
Photo courtesy of Miamicitysquare.com

The project still faces hurdles. Melton is right that county, state, and federal codes prohibit the signs. And Siffin is already being sued. Cooper Carry, an Atlanta architecture firm, put liens on the property last November, claiming Siffin and McClatchy stiffed it out of $400,000 for designing City Square's initial plans.

But Siffin's lawyers are working county commissioners and state regulators. Bercow, his Miami attorney, says the project is on track to begin construction in less than two years.

Plus there's a key difference between City Square and the disastrous effort in West Hollywood: No real opposition has materialized in Miami.

Bisno, the former federal prosecutor, believes Siffin violated the city's rules by ramming City Square through the commission so quickly and with so little public input. Former Mayor Manny Diaz helped pass the Miami 21 plan largely to prevent such fast changes. "There's a very well-defined process the community has become familiar with: public hearings, review by the planning department, and the urban review board," Bisno says. "He ignored all that."

But she concedes that her neighbors haven't mobilized, in part because Siffin cannily finalized the plan over the summer, when a huge number of snowbirds were far from Miami. "A lot of those people have still heard nothing about this whole deal," she says.

As for Siffin, City Square seems the closest he has ever come to fusing his many complex instincts: to create lasting urban change, to contribute to society's evolution, to make a boatload of money.

As obtuse as this onetime gem trader, oft-accused drug dealer, oil painter, millionaire, and son of a brilliant academic can be, he also sounds deadly sincere: "When I'm no longer here, the key thing is that whatever I did continues to reverberate," he says, chewing on his diction, his eyes squeezed shut. "My only job is to do whatever I do as well as I can."

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