Mayor Says State of City is “very strong and getting stronger”

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Mayor Says State of City is “very strong and getting stronger”:

Annual Address included reflection and some new initiatives

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber this morning declared, “The state of our City is very strong and getting stronger. But we have real work to do to keep it that way.” Gelber made those remarks in opening his annual State of the City Address. 

In addition to the City’s accomplishments, Gelber discussed a few upcoming initiatives he intends to pursue as well as an announcement of the hotel flag for the new Convention Center hotel. Developers Jackie Soffer, Craig Robbins, and David Martin have informed him it will be a Grand Hyatt, “a company known for its best-in-class quality, its diversity and inclusion, and its support for arts and culture,” Gelber said.  

The Mayor spent a good bit of time highlighting the City’s efforts to increase its parks and green space. He also discussed increased public safety initiatives, the upcoming decisions regarding a transit connector between the Beach and the mainland and the upcoming discussions around the City’s action plan for moving its resiliency program forward.

In addition, he lent his support to increasing the budget for the Cultural Affairs Council, leveraging the City’s procurement power to compel best practices for inclusion, “a modest expansion” of the Holocaust Memorial to increase education and outreach efforts to combat hate, as well as pedestrianizing “some portion” of 5th through 8th Streets on Ocean Drive.

He also proposed exploring future uses of the City-owned West Lots in North Beach. “I will be asking the Commission to approve a Request for Information (an RFI) next month that will begin the process of figuring out how we can best program this area in a world class way – perhaps with low density or work force housing and public spaces that improve the quality of life in North Beach,” Gelber said.

He concluded by discussing the current atmosphere in the country that is also impacting Miami Beach. “Not just incivility but too often outright toxic hate. And most disturbingly, frankly, how can elements of this exist in our community? We need to do better,” he said. “If there is a city that can be an example of how to get along – of how to value civility and positivity, it is ours. Because, frankly, we have no excuse for negativity – look at all of the blessings we enjoy.”

Following are excerpts from the version of the Mayor’s speech provided to the media in advance.
 
Finances

Gelber started by ticking off the accomplishments of the last fiscal year which ended September 30, a $16.4 million budget surplus after trimming spending to account for an expected slowdown in real estate values and use of that money to increase the City’s rainy day fund to 20% of the annual budget.

“I believe this is fiscally responsible and has the added value of helping maintain our exceptional bond and credit ratings, which remain a very strong AA+”

“[W]hile many coastal communities saw stagnation or drops in property values in FY 2019 our property values increased by over 3%,” he said while noting the City was able to maintain the same level of operating millage rate (the property tax) “at the same level as the past three years – the lowest ever in our City's history – without impacting public-facing city services, thanks to new efficiencies and cost savings.”

“Our City debt also remains low – only 3% – even after a slight bump that followed the issuance of the first tranche of our General Obligation Bonds that were approved by our residents last November.”
 
GO Bond Progress

The $439 million bond program, approved by voters with 70% support, includes 57 projects throughout the City.
 
“Within 18 months of passage, I am happy to report we have already begun 32 projects, and fully completed 3,” Gelber said..
 
Parks, Greenspace, and the Beachwalk

“With the help of the GO Bonds, our City park system is in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance and expansion. Parks provide recreational opportunities, preserve property values and, most importantly, give family and friends (and their pets) beautiful spaces in which to share common experiences. And in our City, where many residents don’t have yards, they are especially vital. We are on our way to adding over 30 acres of new park space around the City and upgrading 20 existing parks. We are also adding 5,000 new trees to invigorate our city’s canopy.”

Gelber highlighted the new 3-acre public park coming to the 500-700 Alton Road/West Avenue area along with the pedestrian bridge over 5th Street that can now move forward following a legal settlement with the developers last week.

The long-delayed 19.5-acre Par 3 Park to be known as Bayshore Park was fully funded in the GO Bond and, according to Gelber, will begin construction later this year. “It is designed with a central lake featuring a boardwalk and environmental remediation measures to help naturally reduce stormwater runoff and will include an additional 259 trees, 6 tennis courts (right next to the high school), a children’s playground, and a dog park.”

He also highlighted three recently opened parks, the 5.8-acre Pride Park on the site of the old parking lot across from the Convention Center, a resilient park that when fully complete will have “over 500 new trees, a Veteran’s Memorial plaza, and ample open space for activities, public art installations and community activations.”

Also opened, Collins Canal Park “which connects two communities behind the Convention Center and features great public art” and Altos del Mar park in North Beach.

Included in the GO Bond program “a major project that will include a park, library, and aquatic center in the 72nd Street parking lot,” Gelber said.

“While we might not think of them as parks, our beaches and bayfront are actually the biggest park spaces in the City. Our vision of an uninterrupted beach walk from 88th Street to South Pointe Park is nearly complete. One of the last sections to replace – from 24th to 45th Street – is underway and expected to be complete by Spring of next year, with plans to finish the final section of Beachwalk in North Beach in early 2022," Gelber reported.
 
Public Safety

Gelber recognized the 416 police officers of the Miami Beach Police Department. “Each one wakes up every day prepared to be a hero – prepared to put themselves in harm’s way – to protect us.”

He gave a special mention to Officer Ricardo “Chip” Castillo who was seriously injured on Ocean Drive last month while responding to a call of a man with a knife. “He has a long road to full recovery but I am so glad that is on the mend and able to be with us today,” Gelber said.

“We are a comparatively safe city and overall our crime rate has been trending down over the last few years according to the latest Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data,” he reported. “But we have unique challenges. Though our population has been relatively stable for decades at roughly 92,000 residents, we host millions of visitors a year and our daily population can swell to over 300,000. We are a famous destination known not just for our beaches and cultural venues, but also for our restaurants and bars which are hubs of late-night activity. Many of our visitors come from other countries with cash in their pockets.”

“That is why according to the FBI data that the vast majority of crimes in our City are directed at tourists, and while that number has also fallen consistently for the last few years as well, there are still places in our community that at times don’t feel safe.”

“Part of the challenge is to make sure our efforts to protect our tourists don’t cause us to neglect our residential communities who have an understandable expectation that our neighborhoods should be crime-free.”

Gelber noted new efforts in public safety including “more community interactions with your police” highlighting the new Community Affairs Unit created by MBPD Chief Rick Clements which is a “consolidation of every point of contact our Police have with the public, including the Homeless Resource Officers, School Resource Officers, and Neighborhood Resource Officers. This unit will help to better engage with residents creating the most effective Community Policing program anywhere.”

“MBPD is also emphasizing High Visibility Police Details, where patrol officers are now instructed to keep their red and blue overhead lights on and park in high traffic areas (without impeding traffic) while conducting police business, to establish a visual reminder of our widespread police presence.”

“And you will see the continuation and expansion of programs like our park rangers who, dressed in fluorescent yellow, are making our parks and public spaces safer, as well as new programs that focus policing on that small group of unapologetic repeat offenders who steal from visitors to our beaches.”

He highlighted the success of the police in schools program implemented after the tragedy in Parkland. “Our officers are not merely patrolling our public schools – they are working to be part of the fabric of the school experience so our kids learn how to interact with their police. We have also helped with efforts to better secure our private and religious schools through training and offering our police radios.”

“We can’t stop at schools. With the rise of anti-Semitism and other hate crimes, our Area captains and officers regularly work with all our faith leaders to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep our many houses of worship safe,” he said highlighting training programs, on-site facility safety assessments, and police presence during “heightened times of worship so that congregants feel safe when they attend services.”
 
Transportation

Gelber noted the City’s expanded trolley system which now handles nearly 500,000 riders per month “but traffic is still too difficult too often. We need more long-term solutions,” he said.

He summarized discussions between Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami Beach to connect the mainland with the Beach. 

“In fact, we are at some pretty critical decision points. The County transportation plan contemplates a connection along 5th Street in our City to the mainland over the MacArthur Causeway. But the details including what route and what mode remains undecided.”

“The Malayasian Genting casino company – who owns the area formerly known as Herald Plaza – has requested the County consider using their land to build a monorail from 5th Street on Miami Beach over the MacArthur Causeway to the Genting site on Herald Plaza. That system would require riders to transfer to the Metromover to make their way to Government Center – where the Brightline and Metrorail connect – or to other locations. It would have a bus depot nearby. An alternative plan would simply connect from the 5th Street location on Miami Beach but via Metromover extension that would be a direct connection to and from Government Center and Metrorail stops – allowing for a one seat ride from the Beach to these major connection points.”

He reiterated his concerns about Genting’s casino business.  “First of all, Genting is a casino company who has long wanted to put a mega casino in the area – Herald Plaza – that they are trying to market as a transit location. I am inalterably opposed to gambling expansions in or around our community as it would be a direct assault on our quality of life – so we need assurances that that is not in the cards so to speak.”

“But make no mistake – I support long term mass transit solutions to our challenges as does our Commission. But this could easily feel like a vendor driven process – and the decisions as to the route and mode must be based on what is best for our residents – not what makes sense for a casino company… We must continue to be alert and engaged as this discussion and decision are forthcoming.”
 
Sea Level Rise / Resiliency

The Mayor addressed the City’s efforts to combat flooding from sea level rise noting “as a barrier island, sitting at sea level and on porous limestone – we are compelled to address climate change before most other communities.”

Referencing the many studies reviewing the City’s stormwater and resiliency efforts over the past two years, he said, “[T]he good news is every expert, every study, and all our experience shows that this is a surmountable challenge so long as we address it head on and not with our heads in the sand.”

What is known as “The Jacobs report” which will contain a recommended plan of action is now in its final phases. Gelber said the Administration will use that information “to inform and reorient” the City’s efforts as it puts together an action plan with community input.

“Here are a few polestars that have to guide us,” he said. “First, we do not have the luxury of converting this into a political debate. For me, the only thing we should care about is what is the best science and engineering available to guide our decision-making. Second, we know much of what we are already doing is working – 85 incidents of flooding have been avoided thanks to these efforts. There is no question that in areas where we have raised roads that flooding has diminished. The financial markets have responded by reducing our stormwater insurance premiums and awarding us high bond ratings because of our resiliency efforts.

And our property values are still faring better than other similarly situated communities. Third, we have to learn from our past efforts to make sure we get it right and minimize resident disruptions. We must treat every single parcel of land as if it was our home and navigate the harmonization issues with great diligence. Finally, we have to give the community full access and input in these decisions so that no one feels powerless or put upon.”

“Finally, we cannot push this issue to the bottom of our inbox. We just can’t do that. And there is no “pause” – we are simply informing our program with new information. So, make no mistake – the challenges of sea level rise, like transit, are real and must continue to be addressed and we will do that every day.”
 
Arts and Culture

Gelber highlighted the Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony, “our amazing museums and cultural venues” and Art Basel which “have all made it clear that the very best version of ourselves is a community that embraces art and culture and the visitors who seek to experience it.”

“We are no longer an emerging art and culture destination – we have fully and completely arrived,” he said.

He highlighted an increase in the City’s contribution to the Art in Public Places budget. “[N]ow all City projects dedicate 2% of hard construction costs to public art which is the highest commitment in the nation. You can see many of these world class art installations in and around our City center. All free and open to the public – the largest municipal sponsored Art in Public Places exhibition in the Country.”

“We still need to do more for emerging cultural festivals like the Miami Music Festival, a series of more than 60 mostly free classical, opera and Broadway music performances all over the Beach each summer – I believe with the right local support it could become a world-renowned recurring summer music festival right here in our city. That is why I think it’s time for our Commission to consider increasing the budget of our Cultural Arts Council which has been stagnant for too long.”

“Perhaps one of the most exciting cultural initiatives is actually happening in our public schools. I have long believed that hyper testing in public education has had the unintended consequence of all but eliminating art and culture instruction. So, I was proud last year when our city partnered with Miami-Dade County Public schools and 6 of our local world-class cultural institutions to do something about it through creation of the STEAM Plus Program. STEAM Plus provides the mechanism and funds to allow our cultural institutions to teach existing curriculum of science, technology, engineering and mathematics through the arts.”

“Last fall, my Commission colleagues unanimously approved an expansion of our City’s commitment to Treasure Island Elementary and Ruth K. Board Bay Harbour K-8 and introduced... new cultural anchors so now twelve institutions are participating, and every public school in our Feeder Patter is officially STEAM designated, perhaps the only feeder pattern in the state with that distinction."

"Through STEAM plus this year alone more than 4,000 kids will participate in arts programming," Gelber said.
 
Environment

“We are no longer a city that coasts on the beauty of its beaches and inviting climate – we realize that we need to devote ourselves to constantly elevating our community to complement these natural gifts to make it even more special.”

“For instance, our Plastic Free MB campaign has not only limited plastic straws and bags in our environment but been a model for other communities and businesses. FOX Sports, when they located on Ocean Drive for the Super Bowl, followed our lead and went plastic free.”

He thanked his daughter Sophie “whose urging was the reason I become so interested in this,” and the City’s Environment and Sustainability team and the City’s residents “who demand we continue to push the envelope to make sure that we remain good stewards of our environment.”
 
Inclusivity

“[W]hen it comes to inclusivity and LGBTQ rights we refuse to be second to anyone – we don’t check boxes, we create the boxes for other communities to check. This year we received another higher than perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign. But there’s more to do.”

"For instance, I believe there are ways to leverage our City’s procurement power to compel best practices. Let’s make sure in the area of social justice that we continue to blaze new ground," he said.
 
New Initiatives

Holocaust Memorial
Under new issues to address, Gelber noted the City’s Holocaust Memorial which was dedicated 30 years ago, that today “stands as a special part of our city, a beacon of remembrance and hope. It hosts more than 100,000 visitors each year including young and old, residents, tourists and people of all religions.” He recognized three survivors in the audience, Lazlo Selly, David Mermelstein and Fred Mulbauer.

Gelber lent support to “a modest expansion” of the Memorial proposed by the families of Norman Braman, one of the leaders in its inception, and Ezra Katz, that “would give it the bandwidth to take a greater role in education and outreach to the entire community, combating hatred of all kinds – giving it a vitality at a time when all communities must speak out against hate. I believe it makes sense, if not our duty, to give this space an even greater role as a bulwark against hate.”

Ocean Drive
“During the Super Bowl the entire world saw how uniquely stunning Ocean Drive can be. But Ocean Drive – and our entire entertainment district – sometimes doesn’t meet expectations,” Gebler said. “Too often it feels like Bourbon Street or a place where anything goes. While we are grateful for the efforts of the Washington Avenue and Ocean Drive Associations to elevate this District, more needs to be done.”

“Since I’ve been Mayor we’ve banned the aggressive hawking that cheapened the atmosphere, scaled back the noise exemptions, eliminated the promoted parties, and elevated the cultural programming taking place in Lummus Park. We are now implementing requirements that late night alcohol establishments retain off-duty officers and are even considering rolling back last call for alcohol by a few hours for certain difficult weekends. 

"Some of these initiatives will help, as well as the new upscale hotels and businesses that are investing in this area. But more will be needed.”

He lent his support to pedestrianizing “some portion” of 5th through 8th Streets on Ocean Drive. “This along with other changes will give us – I believe – a real opportunity to elevate the experience and allow it to become a place for anyone at any time.”

West Lots
“One portion of our City left unfinished for decades are the West Lots – the eight blocks of vacant lots (over 9 acres of undeveloped land) that face the beach between 79th Street and 87th Street.”

“These lots are not simply an eyesore – the lack of activation drags down the area,” Gelber said. “I will be asking the Commission to approve a Request for Information (an RFI) next month that will begin the process of figuring out how we can best program this area in a world class way – perhaps with low density or work force housing and public spaces that improve the quality of life in North Beach.”
 
Spirit of the Community / Civility

Gelber, who opened by saying it was his privilege to be Mayor of the only hometown he’s ever known, concluded by saying the City is “doing more, and doing it better than ever in our century long history." He then turned to address the City’s spirit and urged more civility.

He highlighted residents and business owners making positive contributions to the community saying, “This is what makes Miami Beach special – the character of our City. But when I see such selflessness and kindness, I can’t help but wonder how our nation has become hostage to a growing divide that seems to value negativity over unity. Not just incivility but too often outright toxic hate. And most disturbingly, frankly, how can elements of this exist in our community? We need to do better. If there is a city that can be an example of how to get along – of how to value civility and positivity, it is ours. Because, frankly, we have no excuse for negativity – look at all of the blessings we enjoy.”

“Millions of people every year save their money, and bank their vacation times, so that they can leave their own communities to get a brief taste of ours. Imagine – millions actually dream of spending just a few days here.”

“So, smile – we get to wake up in Miami Beach every day!”

Note: We will post a link to the speech as soon as it is available



 

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