Miami Beach Moving to Prohibit Peak Spring Break Alcohol Sales After 2 am in parts of south beach

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach Moving to Prohibit Peak Spring Break Alcohol Sales After 2 am in parts of south beach:

Businesses say ordinance is harmful, doesn’t solve the problem, and may not be enforceable

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber wants to put a stop to what he calls “two weeks of unacceptable conditions” during the peak of Spring Break. The City has already created a number of restrictions to tame the rowdy behavior and now he wants to add another – permanently stopping the sale and service of alcohol after 2:00 am for 17 days in March in South Beach’s MXE District and a little further west. 

Gelber is sponsoring an ordinance on first reading at Wednesday's City Commission meeting that would place the restrictions on alcoholic beverage establishments located in the MXE (Mixed Use Entertainment) district, generally Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue from 5th to 16th Streets, and a portion of the CD-2 Commercial District between Pennsylvania Avenue and Collins Court from 5th Street to 16th Streets which sweeps Washington Avenue and Española Way into the restrictions. Excluded is the MXE district on Ocean Terrace.

The time period for the restrictions would begin with the first Friday in March and continue for 17 days during what is considered peak Spring Break. In recent years those two weeks have been marked by rowdy, drunk crowds. Last year, the City was forced to take aggressive measures that included sending police in protective gear onto the beach.

Spring Break 2019. Photo credit: Logan Fazio

“The volume of people that come here and the hard party nature of it just creates too many circumstances that make it unmanageable,” Gelber said. “It’s not a hard call for me because we can’t suffer unmanageable situations. It’s not a kind of thing where I can hope that it gets better on its own.” 

During his two years as Mayor, the City has taken a number of actions to tamp down the behavior including refusing licenses to special event promoters during high impact events who, Gelber said, “promise not simply all-night boozing but a ‘do anything you want’ kind of experience.” 

Noise controls, including lifting the noise exemption on Ocean Drive, have helped, he said.  And, the recent Code of Conduct that tied the behavior of restaurants to their café permits is another tool. “We’re trying to elevate the entertainment district so it doesn’t feel like Bourbon Street,” Gelber said.

Businesses in the affected area and the organizations that represent them are not happy. While all say they support a safer experience for residents and tourists, they argue this is not the solution and they say the ordinance may not be enforceable.

In a letter to Gelber and the City Commission, leaders of the Ocean Drive Association, Washington Avenue Business Improvement District, and the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce write, “[W]e agree that sensible efforts must be put forth to ensure that the month of March 2020 and Spring Break are safe for all residents and visitors.” But, they write, “Cutting off alcohol sales at 2 am… is a bad strategy,” because it would not solve what they call the “main problems” of Spring Break – public safety and crowd control. In addition, they warn, the ordinance “would have huge negative economic implications.” 

“Public safety and crowd control issues are present at all hours of the day and night,” the groups say. "Therefore, focusing on the post-2 a.m. period is illogical. For example, cutting off liquor sales at 2 a.m. will do nothing to address crowd control issues at 6 pm when thousands of persons leave the beach at sundown and walk en masse west to Ocean Drive. Similarly, stopping liquor sales at 2 a.m. would not prevent crime earlier in the night, such as the recent shooting in Lummus Park that occurred at 9 pm.”

“A large proportion of the alcohol purchased by visitors to South Beach during Spring Break is purchased at convenience stores and not at Ocean Drive/South Beach establishments,” according to the business organizations. “A 2 a.m. cut-off of alcohol sales at Ocean Drive/South Beach restaurants and bars would do nothing to stop persons who are walking the streets of Ocean Drive and South Beach and have bought their alcohol elsewhere.”

The restrictions during “the busiest month of the season would be an economic disaster,” they write. “Hotel rates would plummet. Employees would be laid off and lose their income. Resort tax revenues would decrease dramatically. And South Beach’s international nightlife brand would be damaged, perhaps irreparably. The samples of other cities are instructive in this regard. Fort Lauderdale, Panama City Beach and Coconut Grove all instituted draconian measures only to find themselves subsequently mired in long term financial depressions.”

Finally, they say the early end to alcohol sales “would negatively impact hotel guests coming for Ultra Weekend (March 19-22), which has historically been a problem-free, lucrative weekend for the City as well as guests coming for the return of White Party (March 7-8).” The letter is signed by Mike Palma, Operating Partner for the Clevelander and Chair of the Ocean Drive Association; Troy Wright, Executive Director of the Washington Avenue Business Improvement District; and Jerry Libbin, President of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. (Disclosure: The writer sits on the Board of Governors of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce but does not vote on or participate in discussions of issues covered by RE:MiamiBeach including this one.)

The organizations propose several solutions including exploring ways “to generate additional funds for police needs for the month of March and Spring Break,” limiting pedestrian entry points to Ocean Drive as a crowd control measure and allowing the use of metal detectors and body wands by the Police Department as well as programming the beach area from 6th to 10th Streets.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Miami/Dade Chapter is also weighing in. Lynne Hernandez, South Florida Regional Director for the FRLA echoed the need for safety measures, “However, stopping alcohol sales at 2:00 a.m. during the busiest month of the season would garner a negative economic impact for our restaurants and hotels and the residents that they employ," she wrote in a letter to the Mayor and Commissioners. "We have many events returning to the area that can be a wonderful economic boost to the City.”

“We have seen similar measures taken in our State and in other parts of the nation and they were met with drastically negative economic impacts, closures and job loss for local residents,” Hernandez said. “After reversing positions, it has taken years to try to regain their market share and reboot business, which is still not recovered. Let’s seek alternative measures together towards promoting a safe and enjoyable environment that attracts visitors of all ages from across the globe without punishing the businesses that contribute to the vibrancy of the area.”

Steven Adkins, President/CEO of The Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter urging the City not to implement the restrictions.

Jonathan Plutzik, owner of The Betsy at 1440 Ocean Drive, said he’s “very concerned about the proposed legislation.” While in the restricted zone, The Betsy doesn’t serve alcohol after 2:00 am.

“We are a destination that the world loves,” Plutzik said. “I’m on a bit of a high, actually, from the extraordinary week we just had around the Super Bowl.”

With “kudos” to the City’s elected leaders, Police Department, and employees, he said, “The City presented fantastically under the bright lights of the world media and we have to be really careful not to do something, however well-intentioned, that has the chance of compromising our brand in a meaningful way.”

“I understand perfectly why our City leadership, who I respect greatly, feels like they have to do something and this feels like a really clear line-in-the-sand step to take which will produce a clean and clear outcome. I’m really concerned that it won’t,” Plutzik said.

“I’m conscious of the fact that many of the young people whose behavior that we’re trying to get under control are, frankly, not in these institutions we’re trying to close early. They’re actually in the streets, in the park, on the beach, taking advantage of liquor store product,” he added.

Plutzik also noted the timing of Winter Party in early March. “We are a community that has opened our arms for all people and, obviously, the LGBTQ community is a community that’s very important here, both as permanent members of our community and people that want to come visit, so I would think long and hard about that as well.”

“There are months when businesses in Miami Beach don’t make money,” he said. “People have the misconception that people are making money all the time and everything’s great. March is the most important month of the year. The consequence of bad business in March has a ripple effect, not only for these businesses but employment opportunities for people that rely on hospitality. Businesses that close three hours early don’t need as many people working at them to start with.”

“But what I worry about most is, again, the ripple effect of doing something that all of a sudden has public relations legs in the hospitality world… that has a negative effect on the overall brand of Miami Beach,” he said. “We’ve got to be tremendously careful about doing something that seems, on its face, simple and clean and could have an adverse ripple effect."

“We’ve got to be tremendously careful about doing something that seems, on its face, simple and clean and could have an adverse ripple effect."

In their letter, the business organizations suggest, “The long term solution to Spring Break issues is programming events for this period so the City can attract a different clientele and so that persons engaging in criminal behavior will not feel welcome or desirous of going to Ocean Drive. Once the clientele changes, crime and crowd control issues will decrease, as will the need for police. Area businesses and the City should form a permanent committee to ensure this programming is done every year, with plenty of advance planning and to make sure there is adequate funding.”

Ceci Velasco, Executive Director of the Ocean Drive Association, said the City has yet to try the many restrictions it has placed on this Spring Break. She said the business community “worked very closely with the City to support the expanded powers given to the City Manager last year to address problems during high impact times. There are about 14 measures the city can utilize, including street closures, suspension of the noise exemption and outdoor café early closures.”

“These tools have yet to be used during a Spring Break. Applied judiciously, these measures address the issues without damaging the businesses that are the backbone of Miami Beach tourism,” she said.

“All indications show that incidents occur during the day, not late at night,” Velasco added. “We are also concerned that if parts of the city are shut down at 2 am, customers will simply move to other areas – which are more residential – where clubs are open until 5 am. Even so, the unintended consequences go from customers added to the street crowd at 2 am at closing, expanding to the residential areas where clubs are still open until 5 am, to driving the customer base off the Beach.”

“South Beach was just on the world’s stage during Super Bowl week and everyone wanted to be here,” she said. “We need to be very careful that the message going out to tourism, conventions, investors and people wanting to buy here isn’t that ‘Miami Beach is closed for business’ especially during the peak month of the year.  Our guests have already spent thousands of dollars to book rooms for March, planning to enjoy themselves through the night. Our staffs are planning on those shifts to support their families. We have concerns about the reaction when guests arrive and find the carpet rolled up early. Other tourist destinations that have made similar decisions found that they drove tourists away and have yet to recover economically.”

Gelber, however, isn’t moved by the arguments. “I didn’t start with the 2 am thing,” he said. “This wasn’t my first move.” He pointed out that the ordinance is limited. “It’s not doing it across the board and it’s not doing it every day. It’s doing it a couple weeks” during a very intense Spring Break period.

He does want to send a message about Miami Beach to the world: “If you’re coming here to party all night long and act reckless then you might want to go somewhere else. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s the students that come here. The students that come here don’t seem to be the problem. The arrests don’t bear that out,” he said.

“It’s sort of simple,” Gelber said. “We have tried a lot of approaches but, as a mayor, what we saw projecting out of our entertainment district a year ago during Spring Break was just so beyond the pale of acceptable, so I can’t just say I hope that doesn’t happen again. We have to do something.”

“I’m very much listening to those that disagree, have a different view,” he said. Businesses have had “time to look at proposals, comment on them to suggest different options. Obviously, it’s 2 am not midnight. It’s not the whole month, it’s two weeks.”

Gelber said he “tried to modify the approach” with business input. “We’re not using a chainsaw. We’re probably not using a scalpel either. It’s somewhere between a chainsaw and scalpel but we’ve got to do something.”

“Last year was so horrible. It was dangerous. It diminished our brand. It created insecurity in the City and that’s just not tolerable,” Gelber said. “I know people are a little bit concerned about this measure. Most places don’t have drinking all night. Most places don’t do that and the Spring Break sort of party atmosphere has been effectively shut down in most of the places where it previously existed. Fort Lauderdale, Panama City, Daytona Beach all have shunned it for the reasons that I think we are concerned about it.”

Spring Break 2019. Photo credit: MBPD

Asked about the business concerns that the real problem is the time when crowds are leaving the beach and the early evening hours rather than 2 am, Gelber answered, “I have been there at all times and I think the problem, more than anything, is that we are inviting a 24-hour party to our city. We’re inviting a 24-hour hard drinking party to the city and whether that manifests at 5 pm or 3 am, it’s the signal we send out… I understand the problem can manifest at different times but it’s letting the world know ‘If you want to party hard for 24 hours and don’t want to worry about rules, come here.’ That can’t be the message.”

“I don’t believe that programming the city alone into other things works either,” Gelber said. “I’m not convinced of that. If we had lots of other programming we would just have lots of other things going on and it would be even more difficult.” At last month’s meeting, Commissioners rejected a proposal for a full month of day and nighttime programming during the month of March, opting instead to start small with daytime events only.

“We’ve got to send a very specific message to people who want to come here and do things they wouldn’t ever think of doing in their hometown," Gelber said. "If you’re coming here to go crazy, don’t come here. We don’t want it. We’re not going to tolerate it. Lots of other people will sell you drinks. We will not.” 

“I’m the mayor. I’m responsible, ultimately, for what happens and I can’t let what happened a year ago, happen again so I’m trying lots of differcent things and this is just one of those things,” he said. “I don’t think I’m doing it with a broad brush… It’s 17 days, 2 am and, hopefully, that will help tamp down this very unacceptable behavior.”

Regarding the economic implications, Gelber said, “This is pretty binary for me and that is what we have is utterly unacceptable. There’s nothing about the current experience that we can or should promote or maintain. I don’t see this as ‘Well let’s just cross our fingers. Let’s just put more police in riot gear or tell our residents to leave town for a month.'’’

“There’s no amount of drink sales that are worth what I saw a year ago,” Gelber emphasized. “There’s nothing on the other side of the scales to me, so we’re gonna do something and I’m all ears to hear the ideas, but hope and optimism is not a policy that I’m prepared to rely on.”

“There’s no amount of drink sales that are worth what I saw a year ago."

Meanwhile, on Friday the Ocean Drive Association (ODA) played another card saying the ordinance, if passed, is not enforceable. Alex Tachmes, a partner with Shutts & Bowen who represents the ODA, delivered a letter to City Attorney Raul Aguila in which he said the ordinance represents a change to the permissible uses in the MXE zoning district that can only be accomplished by an amendment to the City’s Land Development Regulations (LDRs). That means the City would have to follow "all the necessary procedures for an LDR amendment, including a 5/7 vote and review by the Planning Board.” As a result, Tachmes said, the item “is legally insufficient to amend the hours of alcohol sales in MXE and, if passed by the City Commission, will be of no force or effect.”

He points to previous actions of the City to back up his argument. “During the mayoral term of Mayor [Philip] Levine, the City attempted to prohibit liquor sales after 2:00 a.m. in MXE, just like it is doing here,” he wrote to Aguila. “However, in that circumstance, City Staff attempted to achieve the liquor sale restrictions through an amendment to the LDR’s. Therefore, the City’s own actions in the past confirm that an amendment to the zoning code is the only legal way to prohibit alcohol sales in MXE.”

In the language to approve the ordinance, the City states it is “within the police power and [statutory] authority for a municipality to change the hours of regulation of alcoholic beverages.”

Tachmes disagrees. “[T]he Florida Supreme Court has noted that a city cannot circumvent the protections accorded in a zoning code for a property owner by labeling an ordinance an exercise of its police power.” Tachmes is asking for the ordinance to be withdrawn.

Wednesday’s meeting is the first reading of the ordinance. In order for the legislation to take effect in time for Spring Break, second reading will be February 26.  Ordinances take effect ten days after passage. Details of the item can be found here.


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