Voters Expected to Weigh in Again on Alcohol Rollback for South Beach Entertainment District

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Voters Expected to Weigh in Again on Alcohol Rollback for South Beach Entertainment District:

Pilot of 2 am last call begins May 22

After three hours of testimony and impassioned arguments from both sides, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber’s proposal to stop alcohol sales at 2 am in South Beach’s Entertainment District came down, as expected, to swing vote Commissioner Micky Steinberg. With the sides set at 3-3 since last month’s first reading of the legislation, Gelber acknowledged winning any early closure was up to what Steinberg wanted. “You’re the fourth vote so I’ll take whatever you’d like… We need a step in this direction,” he told her. “I’m going to embrace anything that moves us closer to where we need to be.”

The rollback is one part of Gelber’s 12 Point Plan to change what he calls the “anything goes” party atmosphere of the MXE District between 5th and 16th Streets on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue to an area more focused on arts and culture. “We are on the verge of accepting the normalizing of misbehavior and criminal activity that should never be normalized in a community,” he said.

Steinberg responded, “I firmly believe that taking no action is not prudent.” She then proposed a pilot program for a 2 am last call running through the November election to give voters the opportunity to have the final say.

Voters rejected a similar proposal in 2017 by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, with 67% opposed. Gelber and Commissioners Mark Samuelian and Steven Meiner contend residents are tired of out-of-control behavior in the last couple of years and would vote differently if they had to vote now. That theory will be put to the test when Commissioners approve another measure, as expected, to place the rollback on the ballot when they meet in July, the earliest date referenda can be approved. 

During public comment developers Donohue Peebles, Barry Sternlicht, and Jorge Perez supported the earlier last call. 

Sternlicht, who is building a new corporate headquarters here for his Starwood Capital Group, said before becoming a resident, he visited Miami Beach for nearly 40 years. “It is awful to see this turn the City’s taken,” he said. “Everyone is concerned, universally. People are fearful.” He told Commissioners his home was burglarized recently while he was sleeping. The situation “has gotten completely out of control,” he said, urging a 2 am rollback across the City.

Related Group’s Perez said he was “in negotiation with a major Wall Street firm” to locate here that decided the area was “too wild” with “too much partying.”  The atmosphere “harms the City of Miami Beach. It harms our ability to attract the types of businesses we want to bring to Miami Beach,” he said.

South of Fifth resident, Gerald Posner, called a rollback “an important first step… as part of a program to change the MXE attitude [of] party-all-the-time.” But he also urged everyone to “keep our eye out for unintended consequences.” In his neighborhood, he said, 5 am licenses go beyond the Nikki Beach and Story nightclubs with many licenses issued but not used. “But if they close down 5 am to 2 in the MXE, we may see operators start to use them South of Fifth, so you’ll have to address that coming up,” he cautioned.

On the other side, the operators of the businesses that will be impacted. David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Café on Ocean Drive for the last 30 years, agreed something needs to be done but he says the problem is not the entertainment businesses. The problem is cheap hotel rooms with 8 to 10 people to a room and cheap airfares created by the downturn in the travel industry during the pandemic. The tourists who are coming, he said, are “eating pizza… buying [alcohol] minis… and pouring minis into Gatorade and Coca Cola cans” and partying in the street, not patronizing the local bars and restaurants.

Though 44 businesses in the MXE are licensed to serve alcohol until 5 am, Wallack contends that only four are actually operating that late – Mango’s, the Clevelander, Ocean’s Ten, and Voodoo Lounge – and he claims they are being singled out.

“Why isn’t Washington Avenue included in this, Mr. Mayor?” he asked. “I’ll tell you why. Because Scott Robins owns property and he’s [Don] Peebles partner on Washington Avenue.  [Dave] Grutman owns Story. That’s not in the district. That’s south on Collins Avenue and he also is a partner in a new hotel on Washington Avenue,” he said referring to the new Good Time Hotel. “There have been more murders near Española Way and stabbings than anywhere else in all of Miami Beach and Washington Avenue isn’t [included]?” Wallack asked. “We just had a shooting outside The Licking and it’s not included?”

“There are only four late-night establishments in the area that you seek to regulate right now,” he said. Acknowledging one of the four, Voodoo Lounge, has had “serious problems,” Wallack advocated for more regulation, suggesting the City create a late-night liquor license similar to one offered in Chicago. “That can totally raise the standard, if you wish to do it,” he said, but an early last call will put good operators in the MXE out of business when patrons who want to have a late dinner and cocktail will go elsewhere. “Regulate but don’t just annihilate,” he implored.

At the end of public comment, Gelber acknowledged “[T]here’s a lot of emotion about this issue, I expect that” but, he said, “Our city has changed dramatically” since the creation of the Entertainment District. Now, he says, it has become “something we just can’t control.”

“We created something that pretty clearly does not work anymore,” he said. Crime heat maps show the area in the middle of the District “is the magnet of the crime in our city” and it is “leaking all over this area.”

Responding to concerns about the party spilling into nearby residential areas, Gelber said, “We absolutely should do something about all those areas. I will tell you this is the first step.” 

The question, he said, is “Do we want to be a 5 am town or do we want to change, and I think we have to change.”

Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “We’re all united in making the Entertainment District better.” The images from the most recent Spring Break “are unacceptable to all of us… Nobody wants to see this type of party atmosphere on the streets.” But, he added, “We all have different ideas about how to fix it and make it better.”

By rolling back last call to 2 am in such a limited area and impacting “essentially four spaces,” Góngora said, “I think we’re selling the public false hope.” He cited concerns about neighborhood spillover and the results of the 2017 referendum. 

While not supportive of a pilot for earlier last call, he said, “I do respect the will of the voters,” adding he would support a ballot question. “[H]ave the voters come back and tell us [what they think]. If they changed their minds… then I will respect their will.”

Góngora asked Steinberg what a pilot would do besides just be “a bridge to an election. Is there any other purpose of the pilot besides that?”

Steinberg replied that the pilot would give City staff and the Police Department an opportunity to monitor the impact of the 2 am cutoff, determine if there was neighborhood spillover and create a staffing plan and direct resources to respond. “It’s an opportunity for them to really understand the issue at a greater level,” she said.

“I just feel like it’s just a bridge to an election because there’s no criteria to really be studied,” Góngora responded. “I’m not supportive of a pilot with no purpose. I am supportive of hearing from the voters again in November.”

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, in addition to “proactive, visible policing and Code enforcement,” an early last call is “part of a comprehensive program.”

“This is an important first step,” he said. “Miami Beach is not Vegas.”

Samuelian said, during the pilot, he will be paying “very careful attention to the spillover question… I want to make sure we’re not solving one problem and making other situations problematic.”

He argued for an earlier last call on a more permanent basis. “I think we should be bold. I think we should be decisive… I worry about tip-toeing in,” Samuelian said. A pilot makes it “hard for investors to make decisions” about coming into the area and also creates confusion for business operators. 

If the City Commission voted to test the waters, he said, it should be for at least a year to capture data from “the full season.” 

Commissioner David Richardson who campaigned on maintaining the 5 am closures said, “Nothing has changed that has caused me to change my position on that. We’re addressing the problem in the wrong way.”

While opposed to the pilot, he said he would support a referendum. “I think we should listen to the voters until they tell us something different.”

Richardson reiterated his concern that the City closed Ocean Drive “without a plan” during the pandemic. While designed to allow restaurants to expand their outdoor seating to meet social distancing requirements, Richardson said he believes it ended up being “one of the biggest public safety issues” in the area. “We created an area where people can compress in a very dense manner. If traffic were flowing right now it would be impossible for people to be so densely concentrated.” Reopening Ocean Drive until the City has a plan for its full pedestrianization would make it “easier to manage the public safety,” he said.

“I’m not opposed to having a different vision for Ocean Drive,” Richardson added, “but there hasn’t been a vision so far… and that’s been the biggest problem.”

The early last call impacting the four establishments that remain open until 5am “is the wrong action,” he said. “What we should be doing is addressing the public safety issue. The problem is not 5 am sales.” 

Commissioner Steven Meiner called the situation in the Entertainment District “untenable.” 

“It cannot continue,” he said. “Why it happened and how do we fix it, that’s where the disagreements come” but, he said, “Our number one role as elected officials is to keep people safe.”

“What we saw on Spring Break can never happen again,” Meiner said. “We had residents asking us to call in the National Guard… Think about what that means.”

“Our police force was completely overwhelmed,” he said, but after imposing an 8 pm curfew, “It worked within 24 hours. It was contained. We shut it down.”

While noting he was “sensitive to the fact that voters did vote” on the issue previously, he said, “The world has changed… in the last four years.”

“Our number one job is public safety and when I feel that that has been compromised, [I] have to do something,” Meiner said. “This has now become a City of Miami Beach-wide issue… I’m ready to make those tough decisions for the benefit of our city.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “It seems like every year we have some version of this debate and it never gets fixed.”

“We’ve had a perfectly controlled experiment for 14 months” during the pandemic, he said, with varying curfew hours “and we still saw bad behavior, so we know this is going to fail.”

Arriola warned, “This is the first step to a 2 am citywide [last call] because that’s the only logical next step.” When the bad behavior continues and the spillover happens into residential areas, he said, there will be a proposal for 2 am citywide. “I think that will kill the city,” he said. “I think it’s negligent to say that nightlife is not part of our brand. It is very much an inherent part of our brand… it’s the reason people are coming here.”

Arriola said he’d rather see the Commission spend “the same energy [with] the same noted speakers [to] come up with other solutions” like programming. He said the City knows how to handle large crowds during events such as Art Basel, the Super Bowl and Orange Bowl. “It’s typically when we have the absence of programming” such as during Spring Break when “chaos” fills the void.  

“We’re doing nothing to address the other contributing businesses that create this environment that we’re trying to remedy,” he said mentioning “budget hotels, vape shops, tattoo parlors, nuisance businesses.” 

Rather than an earlier last call, he advocated for “fewer but better bars, fewer but better nightclubs.” He urged the City to focus on attracting better investors and better establishments, and fewer of them rather than a 2 am last call.

Arriola disagreed with Richardson on the closure of Ocean Drive to traffic. He said he worries that parked cars create more opportunities for drug dealing and weapons on the street. The noise from cars cruising the street would also undo efforts to quiet the area, he said.

When Richardson and Samuelian both asked Steinberg if she was willing to compromise on the pilot – Richardson to not have one prior to a referendum and Samuelian asking for a year – she replied, “I am not flexible.” 

Commissioners voted 4-3 for the pilot program that will take effect May 22 and run through the City Commission meeting on December 8. Gelber, Samuelian, Meiner, and Steinberg voted in favor. Arriola, Richardson and Góngora opposed. They then unanimously passed a resolution to direct the City Administration to create a ballot measure for consideration at their next meeting with a vote to place it on the ballot in July.

 


Expect a legal challenge, however, from at least one business. Jesta Group which owns the Clevelander objects to a number of actions including the 2 am cutoff saying it has vested rights within its Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for sales through 5 am. It has also taken issue with the repeal of the noise exemption for eastward facing noise on Ocean Drive between 9th and 11th Streets where the Clevelander is located. The Clevelander is licensed by the City as an outdoor entertainment establishment. Commissioners gave final approval to the noise measure this week also. Finally, Ocean Drive which was closed as a pandemic emergency measure should have reopened when Governor Ron DeSantis lifted all local emergency orders, according to attorneys for Jesta Group.

"The City’s proposed regulation would award a huge windfall to other businesses at a direct and substantial cost to the Clevelander,” attorney Kendall Coffey of Coffey Burlington wrote in a letter to the City prior to the vote on the earlier last call echoing the sentiment that patrons will simply move to businesses in other areas of the City.

Regarding the noise exemption as well as the potential permanent closure of Ocean Drive to vehicles, Coffey said they “pose an existential threat to the Clevelander, putting at risk tens of millions of dollars of funding already invested by the owner and threatening major and permanent decreases in revenues and property value."

On a procedural note, Coffey told Commissioners it was Jesta’s position that the 2 am last call is a zoning measure that requires a 5/7 vote not a simple majority. If that were the case, the 4-3 vote would mean the measure had failed.

Jesta attorney Alex Tachmes of Shutts & Bowen said, “I don’t remember an ordinance that is more significant in the last 30 years.”

Calling it an “important and sweeping piece of legislation,” he said, it will send “an immediate signal to the international tourism world that the nightlife brand is dead” in Miami Beach.

In addition to the last call and noise exemption ordinances, Commissioners also gave final approval to legislation that prohibits standalone bars in the area except when inside a hotel lobby.

Photo (top) from Shutterstock.com
Photo (above) courtesy The Clevelander

 

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