Solutions Proposed But Remain Elusive During Another Difficult Spring Break in Miami Beach

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Solutions Proposed But Remain Elusive During Another Difficult Spring Break in Miami Beach:

Mayor implores “bold” action

UPDATED March 20, 3:00 pm to reflect response from the Clevelander (see bottom of story).
  • More police reinforcements
  • Nearly 900 arrests
  • Call for incentives to change the business dynamic on Ocean Drive
  • Poll results support strong action

Miami Beach called in more reinforcements to gear up for another week of heavy crowds in the South Beach Entertainment District but after more fights and damage to sidewalk cafés, one iconic local business threw in the towel. The Clevelander announced it would close its food and beverage operations through at least March 24.

“Recently, we have grown increasingly concerned with the safety of our dedicated employees and valued customers and the ability of the City to maintain a safe environment in the surrounding area,” the Clevelander indicated in a letter to staff. The letter noted all staff will be paid their full salary during the closure. “We will re-evaluate the situation over the coming days and decide whether to re-open or remain temporarily closed.”

Mayor Dan Gelber called on Miami-Dade County and other local police agencies to send more officers to help but even with the increased police presence, he says, the crowds are too big, outnumbering police by a wide margin. With cheap airfares, low hotel rates, good weather, and an open economy in Florida following COVID closures, the City is experiencing large crowds over an extended period of time. At least twice in the last week police have deployed pepper balls to break up crowds.

Gelber who has put forth a series of proposals to change the “anything goes, Bourbon Street feel” of the Entertainment District said in his State of the City Address last week, “In my judgment, whatever the financial gain may be, it is not worth the disorder it creates. The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze. We need to end it and replace it with a true Art Deco Cultural District. The Entertainment District must go.”

He has urged his colleagues on the City Commission to be “bold” and to “act in broad and sweeping ways” but consensus has remained elusive. “Some of the commissioners really want to do this incrementally,” he told RE:MiamiBeach, “but, obviously, it’s not going to work.”

Last year, after another difficult Spring Break, Gelber proposed a series of ideas including an earlier last call for alcohol, but with many nightclubs closed for the pandemic, several commissioners said the recurring problems during the closures proved that the clubs were not the problems.

With Spring Break issues persisting this year, Gelber said, “I’ll tell you I think that we’re going to have to revisit the closing time. We don’t need 145 bars that can be open until 5 am. It doesn’t project out, I think, what we want to project out.” 

Though the hotels might be able to handle the later closing times, he said, “When in a relatively small area 145 places can be open all night, you’re sort of defining to the world who you want to be.”

Every time he raises the issue, he said, “It sorts of sits around. Everybody just sort of looks at it like it’s a bad idea” but, he said, “You can’t expect change if you’re not willing to take bold action. Baby steps will not do this."

Another of his proposals has been to turn down the noise on Ocean Drive, including getting rid of the noise exemption on Ocean from 9th to 11th Streets. In December the Commission compromised by keeping the exemption in place through 2 am, though during the current State of Emergency for COVID, only ambient music is allowed and a midnight curfew remains in effect.

When told of the Clevelander’s temporary closure letter raising questions about the City’s ability to maintain a safe environment, Gelber noted the venue’s representatives have fought his efforts to turn down the noise, an action he says police tell him reduces crowds and “hard to control activity.” Referring to the heat map of police activity, Gelber said, “Many of the top five locations” are in the 9th to 11th Street area where the noise exemption is in place. Opponents point to the ambient noise restriction in effect during the year-long state of emergency as proof noise from the venues is not the cause of the problem. 

The Clevelander will be before the City’s Planning Board on Tuesday after the Board requested a progress report on the venue’s Conditional Use Permit following recent complaints and violations, one of which was a zoning violation on February 18 for the unpermitted sign pictured below. The sign was removed immediately after the citation. There have also been several noise complaints and warnings issued within the last six months. The Planning Board could discuss a modification of the hours of operation for the Clevelander or revoke its Conditional Use Permit at a future meeting if it’s not satisfied with the progress report this week.


Nearly 900 Arrests

Gelber said he gets a lot of email imploring him to “just arrest people, create zero tolerance” in the Entertainment District.

“That’s what we’re actually trying to do. We have more police here than have ever been here. Twelve-hour shifts [by Miami Beach Police] increases your force dramatically” while the help from other local agencies creates “force multipliers,” he said. 

Police have been busy. In a letter to City Commissioners, Interim City Manager Raul Aguila reported nearly 900 arrests citywide between February 3 and March 14, one-third of them felony arrests. Firearms were seized in 78 of the arrests; 251 involved public consumption of drugs and 111 involved public consumption of alcohol. 

Geographically, 60% of the nearly 900 arrests citywide were in the Entertainment District while 349 of all arrests (39%) occurred on Collins Avenue which the Police Department says has become a hot spot.

Fifty percent of all those arrested live outside of Florida while 60% of those arrested in the Entertainment District live outside the state.

Closure of Ocean Drive

Another of the proposals the City has been working on for a couple of years is the permanent pedestrianization of Ocean Drive which it has been testing since last summer when businesses began to reopen after the initial COVID closures. Closing the street to vehicles allowed for additional outdoor seating for restaurants which remained closed indoors.

Paul Ozaeta, Miami Beach FOP president, told Commissioners this week “It’s been a very rough year” with long hours starting with the Super Bowl last February, then COVID enforcement, and now Spring Break. “The crowds out there are the single largest threat we face,” Ozaeta said. “Ocean Drive is a fertile ground for crowds to grow” and he asked Commissioners to “consider opening [up to] vehicular traffic to prevent that.” Ocean Drive did re-open partially to traffic for a brief time after then City Manager Jimmy Morales noted MBPD indicated that “During the daytime, the street, which had been closed to vehicular traffic for a long time, served as a nice environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. At night, however, the street changed into an open-air cabaret environment that was very difficult to manage.” It later closed again completely to traffic.

Ozaeta told Commissioners the officers “appreciate the help of the outside agencies but we ask that you not forget the officer that’s out there on the street, being taken away from their families, getting hurt… trying to enforce the quality of life issues to keep the city under control… Most of us may not live here but we do work here. We are part of the community. We want to keep it safe because we want a safe place to work… any tools to make our job easier, we are asking, we are begging for.”

“Memorial Day Weekend is just over the horizon and after that we’ve got July 4th,” Ozaeta said. “It’s not going to end with Spring Break.”

Programming and Development Incentives

In previous years, the City has considered programming Spring Break like it has Memorial Day Weekend in order to give Spring Breakers something to do but those efforts were called off last year and not implemented this year due to COVID. Commissioner Ricky Arriola, a proponent of programming, said he wants to begin to talk about future programming now but he also wants to look at other bigger ideas such as development incentives, something Gelber and the City Administration put on the table but haven’t found the votes for.

Arriola asked, “To what extent have we created our own problems within the MXE [Entertainment District] through historic designation of all these buildings? Should we start considering allowing for some renovations of these buildings so that maybe these business establishments go from being bars and nightclubs to being offices or allowing hotels to be renovated so that they’re not little flea bag hotels and they can be upgraded to nicer properties? And how can we work with the business community and the property owners to just reposition the entire area?”

“I know Mayor Gelber is envisioning the Art Deco Cultural District and I fully, one hundred percent support it. That’s a great vision. How can we accelerate that? How do we bring art galleries, museums, performances into that area and then just totally reposition that area once and for all because, I think, we’re just going to be here next year faced with the same unfortunate circumstances.”

“I just feel we’ve got to be more aggressive with replacing what we have and not always having the conversation about just restrictions, restrictions, restrictions,” Arriola said, “because it’s not working very well. It harms our community and it just delays what I think, ultimately, needs to happen which is just replacing the entire thing and I want us to start having meaningful dialogues and real money behind it because we just gotta do this. I don’t think we’re going to be a lot more successful than we are just trying to implement restrictions. We’ll keep the party down, hopefully prevent some crimes and violence, but I don’t think it’s going to go away until we just completely replace it.”

Gelber points to The Betsy Hotel on the north end of Ocean Drive which expanded its operations onto Collins Avenue via a connection through the alley and the yet-to-open Celino/Park Central Hotel which combines three historic properties and one new one fronting Ocean Drive in a luxury hotel development in the 600 block.

“I’m not trying to beat the fun out of South Beach,” Gelber said, “but I’m just trying to tone down some of the outlier activity.”

Most people don’t like the rowdiness, he said, but “there are a lot of businesses that really seem to promote it and make it part of their business models and embrace it.”

“I know that I’ve upset lots of folks in the Entertainment District,” Gelber said. “I know that. I know they’re not happy with me because I keep promoting these ideas and I don’t mean any disrespect to people who invest in our city… but there has to be a different business model than the one we have.”

He supports office and residential use and a more diverse commercial base that includes businesses focused on wellness, art galleries, and “very nice shopping areas because that will make it attractive and manageable.”

“I know it won’t happen quickly, but I want to get the template down and get some of these things done,” he said. His proposals may change a bit after “listening to people who are coming up with some good ideas” but the big challenge he said, is determining “what do we want this place to be.”

Gelber said he wants to see a “live-work-play, not play-play-play area. That’s the worst thing in the world in a residential area.”

Mitch Novick, a vocal community activist and owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel at 901 Collins Avenue, doesn’t support development incentives until the problems are under control but he acknowledges Gelber’s efforts to fix the area. “He’s begging for his colleagues to be bold and stop taking baby steps.”

“I don’t believe the Commission will support him,” he said. Novick alleges Commissioners are “beholden to their campaign donors,” including businesses in the Entertainment District.

“They are doing a disservice to residents by their refusal to be bold and address the zoning itself, the open-air entertainment,” which, he says, “is what has destroyed this place.”

“Nothing should be discussed in terms of incentives until public safety can be ensured and what this group of people has shown us is that they do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,” Novick said.

Matthew Gultanoff, South of Fifth resident and founder of Better Streets Miami Beach, has a different view. “During the daylight hours, the vast majority of the time things are nice out there and there is magic,” on Ocean Drive.  “I think there are good vibes on Ocean Drive the vast majority of the time. I’m not discounting there are challenges," he said.

The closure of Ocean Drive to vehicles has turned Ocean Drive “from one of the areas in our city that has had the most problems to, frankly, one of the fewest” with cars not able to cruise the street and play loud music and the inability to perform any stunts on the highly visible strip.

“We have a lot of money to spend on these sorts of items and, unfortunately, the lowest hanging fruit always seems to be more enforcement which doesn’t bring long-term value.” Gultanoff said, “I’m shouting against the wind almost and I completely understand that… it’s an unpopular opinion” among people who want “more police, more cameras, more tech but, frankly, if someone doesn’t care about getting caught, going to jail, losing their life, what’s it going to do? We need structural change.”

He pointed to Snapchat which was founded on Venice Beach and had offices “up until a couple of years ago, overlooking the ocean and the beach, the equivalent to our Ocean Drive.” 

“When you go down Ocean Drive in the middle of the day on a normal weekday morning, it’s quiet,” Gultanoff said. “What would help liven up these areas is office workers in boutique office space for high-end type industries” such as finance, technology, and marketing. A lot of people live here, he said. “I’m sure a lot of them would prefer to work here rather than going over to Brickell.” He emphasizes, he’s “not talking large-scale development” but rather low-scale development that is compatible with Ocean Drive, Collins and Washington Avenues. 

“We don’t need more hotels, no matter if they’re high, low or medium end,” he added because any increase in the number of units would only result in lower rates. “In our situation, a rising tide doesn’t lift all ships.” 

Additional Poll Results Released Show Support for Proposals to Fix the Entertainment District

Also this week, former Mayor Philip Levine who recently conducted a survey of 300 Miami Beach voters showing public safety and the Entertainment District were on the top of residents’ minds shared further data indicating “Beach voters are by and large coming to a consensus on how to address [the issues].” 

According to research firm McLaughlin & Associates, “Policies such as making Ocean Drive more pedestrian-friendly, limiting noise levels from bars and clubs, incentivizing more responsible development and limiting party boats and rental jet skis draw significant levels of support.”

The research firm noted:
  • By a 77% to 18% margin, voters approve of closing off Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic and making it pedestrian only, similar to Lincoln Road.
  • Seventy-two percent (72%) approve of limiting or regulating the volume of music from bars and clubs in the South Beach entertainment district. Just 22% disapprove.
  • Nearly seven in ten (68%) approve of incentivizing developers and property owners in the South Beach entertainment district to repurpose their building from bars and clubs to environmentally friendly office spaces and areas for cultural uses. Just 23% disapprove.
  • By a greater than two to one margin of 63% to 31%, voters approve of limiting and regulating the amount of party boats, charter boats and rental jet skis that can leave from Miami Beach.

Lots of ideas, differences of opinion, and another difficult Spring Break. For many, it’s déjà vu all over again.
UPDATED March 20, 3:00 pm with additional comments from Clevelander attorney Alex Tachmes: 
First of all, the mayor is continuing to make “us versus them” comments and that is totally wrong. The Clevelander is a victim, just like everyone else, if the city is unable to maintain safety on the streets. Do you think we are happy with the atmosphere of lawlessness?  If we were or didn’t care about the lawlessness, we would remain open this weekend and just earn revenue. But that is not who we are. Like every other responsible person and business, we want the crime to stop and order restored.  It’s ridiculous to lump us in as part of the problem when we are closing specifically because we want no part of the lawlessness.

Do you think we like our employees refusing to come into work because they are afraid of getting assaulted while they walk back to their cars at night?

Do you think we are happy when our eating and drinking patrons have trouble breathing because the police fired a pepper ball on the street near our establishment?

Months ago, when the mayor started his anti MXE policies, he said he would protect the responsible operators and seek to close the bad operators and cooperate with responsible operators. Why has that changed so he now wants to close all businesses in MXE, regardless if they are responsible or not?

We are available 24/7 to meet with the mayor and city administration to work as a team to resolve these issues and even to help craft legislation.  

Second your comment about the upcoming planning board meeting, where Clevelander is being asked to give a progress report, requires context.  The city has been blatantly and for months [been] violating the due process of Clevelander and many other businesses by ordering shutdowns of businesses without notice or a hearing. The US Constitution requires due process and a hearing before anyone’s life liberty or property is taken away.  That constitutional and iconic principle is being thrown out the window in Miami Beach.  

In the case of 3 of the code violations and 2 of the shutdown orders issued to Clevelander in the last few months, the city refused to allow us the chance to appeal the violations and orders. And we were blocked from appealing these cases even when we presented Code Enforcement with real evidence that the violation was issued in error. How is that fair or constitutional? So now we are being asked to give a progress report to the planning board due in part to a violations record which is completely erroneous.  

And in other cases, the city will allow an appeal of a shutdown order but the business remains closed for weeks until the hearing is held. If the business wins the appeal, it can reopen the next day but what about being closed for weeks and losing tons of revenue on the basis of an erroneous code violation?

Photo (top): Large Spring Break crowd gathers at 8th and Ocean, March 13, 2021 captured by Alex Fernandez and shared via Twitter

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