Rowdy crowds, public drunkenness, scooters speeding and running through intersections, and traffic gridlock during the week culminated in a chaotic weekend in which outdoor café tables on Ocean Drive were overturned during stampedes of spring breakers, spilling their contents onto the sidewalk. Cafés from 7th to 11th Streets were forced to close out of concern for the safety of their employees and guests and, for an hour Saturday night, the MacArthur Causeway, one of the main entrances to Miami Beach was shut down after officials said the City had reached maximum capacity.
In conversations residents have been asking each other, “Is this spring break rougher than usual?” Fort Lauderdale, which famously ended its spring break tradition in the late 80s, comes up often.
Through interviews with residents, business leaders, activists, and City officials we sought to answer the question, “Is this Miami Beach’s Fort Lauderdale moment?”
James Schiltz published his Master’s thesis in 2013 on Fort Lauderdale’s effort to rid itself of its tawdry spring break image. The thesis, “Time to grow up: The rise and fall of spring break in Fort Lauderdale”, is making the rounds on Miami Beach-centric social media.
Schiltz wrote that after twenty-five years of a “love-hate relationship” with the tradition, the City reached its breaking point in 1985 when that year’s college crowd brought “more mayhem and destruction than Fort Lauderdale had ever seen.” Schiltz wrote of concerns about “decadent”, “vulgar and raucus behavior” and the strain on police resources and traffic from the the ever-larger crowds:
Miami Beach spring break observers recognize many of their complaints in Fort Lauderdale’s experience 30 years ago:
Another issue, according to Schiltz, the impact on non-spring break tourists:
Last week, 400 colleges were on break, the peak of the 2018 season. In a letter to Commissioners on Sunday, the day after the most difficult evening of spring break, City Manager Jimmy Morales said the City experienced “some of the largest crowds we have ever seen." That night, large numbers of people swarmed Ocean Drive when they were forced off the beach for the evening trash and debris clean-up. At a couple of points there were what were described as “stampedes” down the street, creating chaos and fear at the outdoor cafés. When a broken bottle was mistaken for a gunshot, a crowd of people can be seen running from one restaurant in a video posted on social media. One police officer suffered a fractured wrist when he put his arm up to block a bottle thrown at his head. Later, an occupant of a car fired a shot into the air near 5th and Washington.
In an email exchange that night that included the Mayor and City Commissioners, Mango’s Café owner David Wallack wrote:
It is too dangerous and disruptive for sidewalk café staff and customers to keep the café tables open.
We are closing the entire sidewalk café and taking the chairs away.
If the danger subsides later in the evening Maybe we can reopen it.
Mike Palma, Executive Vice President of BRIO Investment Group which owns The Clevelander, wrote shortly after:
I am shutting down entire Clevelander operations at 10pm. Staff are scared and there are not enough city resources to handle the crowds in the streets.
This is not an issue about what is IN our business. It is an issue about what is Outside our business and their lack of respect for our laws and community.
The next day, Wallack reflected on the closures, writing in another email, “The crazy thing is that here we are closing, not because of our customers, but because of the behavior of all those unruly ones that are not our customers.”
“Let it be absolutely clear that it is our good customers that are being chased away,” he wrote, “and now we Ocean Drive Café Owners are voluntarily closing a major part of our businesses for the safety of our staffs and our customers.” The impact of closing Ocean Drive to traffic, as the City did around 6 pm each evening of the peak week Wallack said, was “abysmal” dinner sales. Similar to the concerns echoed in the 1980s in Fort Lauderdale about the “notoriously thrifty collegians”, Wallack wrote, “The streets are packed and we and our staffs are starving for business with many empty tables every dinner service that traffic has been stopped. More evidence that these people filling the streets are not our customers.”
One of the common themes expressed by the residents and business owners RE:MiamiBeach spoke with this week was lack of enforcement. Wallack specifically mentioned the open container laws. “Police policy must evolve to not being ‘nice’ and non-confrontational, to being ‘effective’, and concentrating on all disruptive activity, illegal activity and disrespectful behavior."
Rather than penalizing local businesses for the bad behaviors, he listed problem areas that he thinks warrant the City’s attention:
What is the systemic problem? Cheap hotel rates ($50 a day for up to 4 people), wholesale liquor stores and cheap liquor, little causeway controls and lax or ineffective enforcement of city ordinances and aggressive behavior on transients, and an atmosphere of.... “Bums Gone Wild”.
We must start marching in the direction of the cannon fire rather than playing a “scorched earth” policy with our local businesses. The responsible businesses have already suffered immense collateral damage, and our hardworking employees continue to suffer every day this problem goes on, as does our national and international reputation.
Wallack closed by indicating his willingness to sit down with City leaders to come up with solutions to the problem.
Similarly, South Beach residents Gerald and Trisha Posner sent their own email to the Mayor and Commissioners with their observations. The Posners were co-founders of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association in 2007. An excerpt of their email:
The past few days of Spring Break rank with a handful of other party weekends as one of the worst we have seen in our 15 years here.
In walking around the city south of Lincoln, we have personally witnessed:
-- cars and motorcycles, some of the latter doing wheelies, drag racing along Fifth Street
-- groups of ten to fifteen people on scooters dodging between cars, sometimes running onto the sidewalk, and once racing along the Beachwalk
-- public intoxication, urination, and sex (a crowd cheering on a couple on Washington, no police in sight)
-- open smoking of marijuana as well as drug sales seemingly everywhere
We have learned from neighbors that we were not the only ones who felt the city had lost control of the partiers. The police response which started today in earnest seems only reactive. Given that other popular Florida Spring Break locations, from Fort Lauderdale to Panama City, had announced crackdowns [this year] on illegal or unsafe behavior, was it not foreseeable that Miami Beach might have a record number of visitors? Given the laissez-faire attitude of the police, it also seems predictable that partiers would assume that ‘anything goes.’
Trisha and I have great faith in all of you and in our police. We are confident that as our city leaders, if you make it a priority, you will find solutions going forward to maintain the city’s deserved reputation as the capital of sun and fun while simultaneously making it abundantly clear that Miami Beach will not tolerate the kind of abusive and reckless behavior that is at times an illegal assault on all our sensibilities.
You all have plenty of work to do and no reply is necessary. Trisha and I will find your answer in the steps you take in the future to make certain that days like the last few are not a harbinger of the beach’s future.
On Sunday, City Manager Jimmy Morales announced some extra steps the City was taking as a result of the weekend’s events. Crowds would not be moved off the beach en masse for cleaning crews, police officers would be stationed at critical intersections on Collins Avenue within the Entertainment District to keep cars moving, and additional officers would be out on Sunday night in the District. Morales also noted that parked cars would be removed from Ocean Drive. “The presence of parked cars at night created issues with people partying at their cars and then traffic issues when the cars wanted to leave during the road closure,” Morales said.
“Some of the sidewalk cafés on Ocean Drive between 7th and 11th will be voluntarily closing their sidewalk cafés tonight from 6 pm to 10 pm depending on crowd size,” Morales wrote. “If this proves effective, I will consider including it as part of the High Impact weekend strategy going forward this spring break season and thereafter.”
We welcome college students that come here to have safe fun and enjoy our many natural resources and hot spots. But we want them to do that in a climate that protects our residents, businesses and visitors alike.
John Deutzman, one of the founders of the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Facebook group said, “I’m not anti-spring break … but what happened over the weekend, particularly Saturday, is we were over capacity. It was too many people. It was too dangerous for that amount of crazy, drunken people.” That amount of people, in turn, made enforcement impossible, Deutzman said.
Prior to the start of the spring break season, the City identified the “high impact period” as being between March 3 and March 31. During that time, it implemented measures such as no coolers, tents, tables, or inflatable devices on the beach; a limitation on live or amplified music; and the “prohibition of any direct or indirect consumption of alcohol on the beach property.”
“It’s not practical with that volume of people for the police to make arrests for drinking in public,” Deutzman said. “It just physically can’t be done. Essentially most of the cops there are there to respond to major crises created by the crowd.”
“It’s not the case that we don’t like young people,” he said. “But I can tell you the streets were strewn with whiskey and vodka bottles. Not just garbage, but bottles of booze. It’s out of control. The fact of the matter is it was out of control because of too many people to handle.”
“I’m not criticizing the police for anything they did,” Deutzman said. “I don’t think General Patton and the Third Army could control Saturday night. It was just ridiculous.”
Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates said, “Each of the four years that I’ve been here for spring break, the crowd has gotten larger … Generally, most of the people who come here are well behaved but a percentage are not.”
At the peak on Saturday, Oates estimated 4,000 to 5000 people on the beach during the day “and somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 might have been on Ocean Drive, in the park, all around the area in the evening, inside the establishments on Ocean Drive. So, there was a massive, massive crowd, the largest I’ve seen in my time here.”
The crowd wasn’t only on Ocean Drive. When vehicle traffic came to a standstill, one of Oates’ police captains recommended closing the MacArthur Causeway. Oates knew it was an option though he admitted to being “anxious” about the decision but “traffic wasn’t moving in South Beach and that’s dangerous for emergency response and those kinds of things. We had to clear out the traffic.” Closing the Causeway for one hour between 8:45 and 9:45 netted the desired results. “Obviously it was a tremendous inconvenience to everyone but it was definitely the right move in sort of resettling the city,” he said.
When asked if he had enough officers on the street, Oates said “at the height of the activity” from 8 to 10 pm, there were 75 officers working in the Entertainment District. At 10:30, an additional 23 came on duty. Looking ahead, he said the department has a program called Alpha Bravo in which all officers work twelve hour shifts, a strategy that could be deployed if another high impact weekend is projected. That type of deployment would result in extra overtime expenses to the City but could “easily double” the number of officers that were on the street this past weekend, he said.
Oates' impressions of the crowd this year? “It’s a larger crowd than last year but we’ve had less in terms of the tell-tale signs,” he said. “We’ve had almost no fights on the beach where last year we had quite a few. If there’s a change from last year it’s the emergence in this recent year of two or three social media sites that people are reading about Miami Beach” resulting in more attention paid to individual incidents. One of the most prominent is Deutzman’s group which is up to 1,700 followers. Those groups didn’t exist a year ago, he said. Now there’s an “awareness and buzz.”
Oates and Deutzman agree on the difficulty of enforcing the alcohol ban on the beach. “If you have 5,000 on the beach as we did on Saturday and someone is in the middle of a crowd of 5,000 drinking from a bottle, it’s unreasonable to think the cops are going to wade in there and arrest someone for drinking without causing and provoking very difficult situations,” Oates said.
“It’s a delicate balance to not provoke a problem or provoke violence directed at the police,” he continued. “We got through Saturday night without anybody seriously hurt. By my count 74 arrests – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – which is the height of spring break and I think 39 of those are felonies, so we had a relatively modest weekend for a major weekend. Compared to other holiday weekends, we had maybe a third less total arrests than we would have for Labor Day weekend, Memorial Day Weekend or July 4th weekend. Given how large the crowds were and how important it was to get through the weekend without anyone being hurt, I think my cops exercised the right amount of balance and restraint.”
Arrests take officers off the street for “a minimum of an hour,” Oates said. With “75 or 100 cops on the street, they’d disappear real fast if we’re arresting people for drinking in public and then we wouldn’t have the necessary people on the street.”
“Crowd control is all about balance,” he added.
With regard to handling future spring breaks, he noted the City Commission will be discussing the issue at its meeting tonight. “I think there’s going to be healthy discussion,” he said.
One of the people involved in the discussion is Mike Palma, the managing partner at The Clevelander, who wrote Commissioners Saturday night about the lack of resources on the street.
“I think that spring break for the normal behaving is a workable thing,” he told RE:MiamiBeach. “This last weekend we experienced a very difficult weekend from a behavior standpoint and it wasn’t good for the business community. It wasn’t good for the residential community and it wasn't good for the City.”
He thinks the City needs to “step back as a whole and assess its rules and protocols.”
“We were inundated with too many people and it wasn’t manageable,” he said. “This weekend a lot of people were not interested in our economy. They were just partying and taking over the streets. When spring break becomes a street thing and car cruising thing, it’s not good for anybody.”
Palma said he plans to work with the City Manager and Commissioners on the best ways to address the bad behaviors without punishing good businesses. “The level of this weekend cannot continue,” he said. “We need to address it and come up with a long-term solution that’s good for the vitality of the City.”
Economically, he said, “The hotel market is booming but the ancillary food and beverage market, including nightclubs, is hurting and I think that says we’re not getting the right people.”
Scott Needelman is President of the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association. When asked about the anecdotal comments about this being a “rougher spring break” than usual, he said, “The crowds we’re getting are not as upscale as what they were and also the crowds are bigger, much bigger, so combining those things, it’s going to be a rougher experience so what you’re hearing is right.”
Regarding tonight’s Commission meeting, Needelman said, “They’re going to talk about things that, in my opinion, they may solve a minor issue but they’re not going to get to the core of the problem. The core of the problem is people come to Miami Beach because they believe anything goes and I think that’s because the City is very lax in strictly enforcing current laws and what happens is when people are out on the street and they come into town and they have open containers, they’re drinking, smoking marijuana, have radios blasting, motorcycle riders going through stop signs and lights … and there are no consequences, word gets out, ‘hey it’s a great party town’ and I think that just breeds more of this kind of activity.”
Needelman said the City can close Ocean Drive or not force the crowd off the beach at a certain time “but we’re still going to get the big crowds. They’re still going to go somewhere and they’re still going to act like they do because they can. There are no consequences.”
In the late 90s, he said, when “cruising down Ocean Drive became very popular”, the City passed an ordinance prohibiting loud music from cars. “Go down there now,” he said. “They can pass all the ordinances they want, if they’re not enforced they’re meaningless and people are beginning to figure that out, the visitors here.”
“Overall, I think that’s why we’re where we’re at,” Needelman said. “Yes, it’s pretty difficult. It would overwhelm our police. There would also be a lot of pushback from business owners.”
“This city and elected officials, for whatever reason, they’re very hesitant to enforce,” he said, though he points out “This didn’t happen overnight.”
“I’m not singling anybody out, our city leadership over the last 20 years, it’s what happened.” Now, he said, the idea to ban scooter rentals during spring break has been mentioned. His fear? “The minute they’re hit up with a lawsuit, they may back down.”
How do we break the cycle? “Right now, it’s going to be very difficult to start that because of the crowds we’re getting, but we have to start somewhere, little by little,” Needelman said.
He praised the license plate reader (LPR) program that both Oates and Deutzman highlighted as one of the successes of this spring break. The LPR’s are currently being utilized on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle Causeways and have resulted in several stolen cars being confiscated in the past week. “What they’re doing with those license plate readers – and I think that’s a good start – it says to people if you’re driving a stolen car, ‘Don’t go to Miami Beach, you will be arrested.’ That’s a start.”
Needelman, like everyone else interviewed, had good words for the Police Department. “Every time I’ve had an incident they’re very friendly and they’re very helpful but I just think they’re overwhelmed.”
Told of Chief Oates comments about the difficulty of enforcing the alcohol ban on the beach, Needelman said, “At this point, he’s correct. If there’s 5,000 people on the beach, you can’t go into the middle of a crowd and ask them to dump their alcohol. They’ll get bottles thrown at them. But little by little you have to enforce… then it gets a little easier.”
“You have to at least start somewhere and gradually do it that way,” he suggested. “The license plate readers, that’s a very good start.” Next, he said, “Start every so often on weekends, have an officer on one block of Ocean Drive. Someone plays music loud, tell them to turn it down. If he does it again, he gets a ticket. Then word will get out that Miami Beach is not the place to go for spring break and then maybe we’ll get the family tourists who spend money in the Ocean Drive businesses.”
Joseph Magazine has lived in the South of Fifth Neighborhood for more than four years. He looks at the issues through his decade-long experience in the investment banking industry reviewing state and local government balance sheets.
“Miami Beach is unique,” he said. “I’m certainly not denying in any way that tourism is the lifeblood of our economy” but compared to other cities who have reined in their spring break activities including Fort Lauderdale and more recently Panama City Beach, Florida and Myrtle Beach, NC, “Miami Beach has more of a diversification from their revenues,” he said.
“The largest single line item on [Miami Beach’s] revenue side is property taxes,” he said. Pointing to the City’s September 20, 2016 balance sheet, he called attention to the property tax line representing 33.3% of the revenue with 19.6% “from resort taxes, sales and beverage taxes.”
“What that tells me,” Magazine said, “is the thing that Miami Beach would be most susceptible to is a decline in property values,” resulting in reduced property tax revenue if the City continues to chase “bottom of the barrel tourism.”
“There’s a point of diminishing returns by chasing every last tourism dollar in a way that could be detrimental to City residents,” he said. As property values have increased, the City has managed to keep tax rates low while still collecting the necessary tax revenues. In fact, during this last budget cycle, the City boasted the rates were “to our knowledge, the lowest in the history of the City of Miami Beach.”
Because of the importance of the property taxes to the City’s budget, Magazine said, “A decline there is going to hurt much more than potentially losing out on tourism revenue. That could be detrimental to the overall functioning of the City.”
“You’re looking at a real balancing act,” Magazine said, “where I think the jury is still out on if your revenue is up on a weekend like this… the overall net effect of that, if that becomes Miami Beach’s brand, it impacts things on many different fronts, one being tourism of other kinds and two being property values,” the loss of which can “essentially more than offset any potential revenue you’d see from a weekend like this.”
“Brickell has become a formidable quasi-competitor to Miami Beach,” Magazine notes. “What Miami Beach was once thought of – as a sophisticated, upscale, urban chic place – that’s now becoming Brickell and when you have these wealthy foreign investors or even let’s call it wealthier, white-collar families that are looking to potentially raise a family, Brickell has become more than a formidable competitor to Miami Beach.”
The problem with spring break didn’t just happen this year, he said. “The type of tourists we’ve been attracting the last 24 months seems to have changed.”
When asked if this is Miami Beach’s Fort Lauderdale moment, Magazine said, “Without a doubt, in my opinion. My wife works in the hospitality industry and weekends like this are detrimental from how they’re treated to having to potentially close. Nobody wants to see a pullback in tourism or people coming back to enjoy Miami Beach, even the local residents.”
“We moved to Miami Beach knowing this isn’t Boca, but tourism needs to be promoted in a responsible fashion,” he said.
“What makes Miami Beach unique is how much authority residents should carry based on that revenue diversification and amount of money residents are committing to the city largely through property taxes,” he said. [We note, though, that a good portion of those property taxes are paid by second homeowners, not residents.]
On the other side of the ledger, Magazine explained, “50% of Miami Beach’s entire budget from an expense portion goes to line items marked public safety, primarily police and firefighters and, while we all think to an individual level they do a tremendous job, what’s driving that significant line item is tourism and I think the question has to be, is that budget being strained without the bang for the buck in return?”
“50% of our budget number,” he emphasized. “That compares with only 20% of the revenue that, essentially, is attributed to sales and beverage taxes. 20% is directly tourism related, however 50% of all expenses is related to possibly a strain from tourism.”
Magazine noted while he’s lived here for four years, he and his wife had been coming to Miami Beach for 10. “We started coming down for events like what was spring break and Ultra Music Fest in the past and we fell in love with this place, but we see it changing before our eyes.”
Another resident, concerned about the impression left on visitors is Margueritte Ramos. Ramos lives in North Beach but posted in the Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness Facebook group about an experience friends from New York City and Pompano Beach had this weekend in South Beach’s Entertainment District. After eating at a restaurant South of Fifth, “they walked to 5th and Washington to call an uber. (They were unaware of the Spring Breakers.) At 10:20 PM While waiting for their Uber and [sic] a black car drove by and shot a gun! Is this seriously Miami Beach?? We really need to rethink if we want Spring Breakers disrupting our city and keeping people hostages in their houses.” Ramos was referring to an incident in which the occupant of a car fired a gun into the air.
Not everyone agrees. Flamingo Park Neighborhood resident Wanda Mouzon wrote in an email to RE:MiamiBeach, “I think it would be an unwise move for Miami Beach to create an unwelcome environment for tourism during spring break weeks. Unless we are prepared to become an elitist city like Palm Beach, and are willing for what it can cost residents, it would be unwise. The most sustainable cities are those that have a mix of income levels and provide opportunities for entrepreneurs, and millennials alike! And if we don’t embrace them as college students, they sure won’t come back to live and do business!”
Mouzon’s suggestions include charging a toll for non-resident cars coming onto the beach after 6 pm during special peak times. “They can come for free via Transit of course,” she said. “This is to limit the cars and all that is associated with it.” She would also close Ocean Drive to vehicles on weekends and during peak times and she, too wants more police enforcement. “Make them behave when they are here! Residents should not have to fear for their safety,” she wrote.
Commissioner John Alemán has been vocal on social media about what happened this weekend and she echoed Ramos’ sentiment that “people feel trapped.” Like Magazine, she questions the value of the spring break business.
“I don’t believe Spring Break business is worth the cost to the city and the residents,” she wrote in a text message. “Overall, people are sick and tired of these high impact weekends… Residents can’t get home from work and school, and then once they do, they can’t go out and enjoy their weekend. People feel trapped.”
She also took aim at the pop up events at the various vacant nightclubs in the City. “The promoters that are bringing all these kids here leveraging our free assets of a beautiful beach and a beautiful city, and the immense security provided by Miami Beach PD and fire rescue, not to mention sanitation, and they’re taking all those city dollars and lining their pockets with it to absolutely no benefit to the city,” she wrote.
“This is our season. All the hotels, restaurants and entertainment establishments would be doing just fine, if not much much better, without this business,” she continued. “What you’re going to see next is a new set of measures from the city over and above what had already been put in place from prior years. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been on the phone with our chief of police, our city manager, and city attorney as well as area businesses about what we are seeing. It’s excessive. Our police officers have been doing an amazing job, but there are capacity limits to what they can do.”
Thirty years ago, similar sentiments were being expressed in Fort Lauderdale according to James Schiltz in his Master’s thesis. “In the wake of 1985’s turbulence, an unprecedented number of residents and business owners organized to demand a reduction of spring break rowdiness… “
Measures included constructing a temporary barrier down the middle of ‘the strip’ separating the bars, hotels, and stores on one side of the road from the beach on the other. “By allowing students to cross A1A only at designated points, ‘the wall’ prevented pedestrians from mixing with traffic, offered little reason to cruise aimlessly along the road, and significantly eased congestions.”
He noted Fort Lauderdale also aggressively enforced “formerly neglected capacity limits and fire ordinances during spring break 1986.” After passing an ordinance in late 1985 to ban open containers of alcohol, the City also aggressively enforced the new law.
The following spring break, Schiltz reported, a newspaper article at the time quoted one student who said, “You can’t drink on the beach. They put walls up. It’s not as wild as last year.” Another said, “I wouldn’t come back … It’s not an appealing place. The Bahamas is better.”
From a high of 350,000 spring breakers in 1985, the number dwindled to 20,000 in 1989. Schiltz reported the drop in revenue hit hard:
But, as Magazine noted, Miami Beach’s revenue is more diverse, from property tax revenue as a percentage of income to a broader tourism market including conventions and Art Basel. Deutzman pointed out that he heard The Betsy Hotel is booked quite a ways into the future “with high-end customers. That means we have alternatives to this that we can plug in pretty quickly.”
Schiltz concludes his thesis by quoting economist Alister Mathieson and Geoffrey Wall’s theory of “carrying capacity”:
Finally, he notes, “[D]espite its brief but difficult transitional period, Fort Lauderdale now enjoys a more diverse and lucrative tourism industry… While 350,000 collegians contributed an estimated $120 million to the local economy in 1985 ($197 million in 2001 dollars), during that same period in 2001, Fort Lauderdale attracted 650,000 vacationers – mostly families and business travelers – who expended more than $600 million.”
Postscript to his thesis: Fort Lauderdale is once again experiencing large spring break crowds, the Sun-Sentinel noting the 2017 spring break season was “larger and rowdier than in years past” with 131 police calls last March, a 72% increase over the previous year.
Taking a page from their 1986 playbook, Fort Lauderdale Police this year warned of a “zero tolerance policy” on open containers, underage drinking, creating drunken disturbances, fighting, and public indecency.
Beach photo: Clean Up Miami Beach Facebook page
Cafe Milano photo: Mitch Novick