commission rescinds vote to move all ocean drive tables westward

Ocean Drive

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

commission rescinds vote to move all ocean drive tables westward:

exemptions continue for Mango’s, Starlite Café, Voodoo

After hearing from businesses on Ocean Drive that said they would be negatively impacted by a decision to force all sidewalk café tables to move to the western portion of the sidewalk on Ocean Drive, the Miami Beach City Commission voted 4-3 this week to reverse itself.
When the 10 Point Plan for Ocean Drive was approved, one of the action items was to remove “the gauntlet” between the tables on the east side and the buildings on the west. At the time, exemptions were given to businesses that were unable to move their tables to the west because of issues with blocking entrances to buildings.
At the Commission’s September meeting, Commissioner Ricky Arriola, the Plan’s author, said, “We had carved this out as part of the 10 Point Plan. It only affected, at the time, I think five establishments and really it was an eye towards trying to preserve the Palace” allowing them to do their performances on the sidewalk. “Since the Palace is no longer there … I don’t know that we need to have this exemption any further.”
Three venues now have the exemption: Mango’s Tropical Café, Voodoo Lounge, and the Starlite Hotel and Café (above).

Commissioner Joy Malakoff said in September, “I think we should get rid of the exemptions and have everybody move closer to the buildings.”
“I think everyone feels the same way,” Mayor Philip Levine said. “We’re getting rid of the gauntlet for everybody.”
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez questioned the move. “I think it would be very punishing if you are going to close everybody down at 2 am” referring to the potential voters in November will rollback the sale of alcohol at outdoor cafés from 5 am to 2 am. “I just feel like how much more can they withstand,” she asked. “We just had a storm. We lost business for several weeks. Now we’re going to take … I can’t speak for Voodoo and Starlite but I do know the configuration of the street and I don’t think there’s anyplace else for them to put their tables.”
Arriola argued, “I will just add, because it’s a matter of public record, Starlite and Voodoo are chronic violators of City Code so they haven’t been the best neighbors. And Mango’s, they do so much business inside, I don’t think this is going to have a big impact on them.” (Following an inquiry from RE:MiamiBeach about code violations at Voodoo, City spokeswoman Melissa Berthier wrote in an email, “Because their first floor is under a complete renovation, they have no first floor restaurant and are not eligible for a sidewalk café” and a violation was issued for operating a sidewalk café without a permit. That café is not operating on the sidewalk at present.)
Mango’s attorney, Monika Entin, disagreed with Arriola's assessment regarding the impact on her client. “They would actually lose a lot of business because a lot of Mango’s business is done on Ocean Drive and it is done on the sidewalk.” Due to a step-up to the restaurant and retail shops, “Moving the tables to the west is actually almost virtually impossible … I would say they would lose at least half of their seats at this point because they would be very restricted.”

Sidewalk tables outside Mango's Tropical Café

She added “When we did the 10 Point Plan we worked diligently with Commissioner Arriola and the City … and we discussed the fact that there are businesses that financially would not be able to tolerate this change and that’s why the exclusion was specifically to these four vendors.” She did acknowledge some of the issues. “Now I understand that some of these people are continuous violators but Mango’s Tropical Café … there are no violations. They do not get violations for their activities. They work within the confines of the law and I would ask that you allow the 10 Point Plan to do what it was supposed to do and give it the chance to operate before we take away these exemptions.”
Levine responded, “My feeling is you need to get rid of the exemption for everybody and you need to make a level playing field. That was the vision of what we had up here to begin with … If we’re going to clean up Ocean Drive, let’s clean it up. Let’s just stop picking favorites.”
The vote in September was 5-1 with Rosen Gonzalez voting no and Michael Grieco absent.
Fast forward to October and Commissioner John Alemán raised the issue of a rescission. “I wanted to [revisit] this dialogue about Ocean Drive,” she said. “Of course, we all have the same goal which is to really revitalize, reinvent, improve the Ocean Drive experience for our visitors and, hopefully, in such a way that begins to attract residents to the Drive.”
“We all know the importance of our brand and what we’re trying to do there,” she said. Speaking of the 10 Point Plan, she said, “A few of these guidelines and recommendations have been implemented. We have largely removed the gauntlet on Ocean Drive. It is a much more pleasant, beautiful, and safe experience.”
After the September meeting, she said she received a call from the family that has owned the Starlite for 40 years. “I’m very supportive of continuing to make changes to our sidewalk café permits and our ordinances to get the operators into compliance with how we envision the future of Ocean Drive,” she said. “I’ve been supportive of that. I continue to be.” But, she said, “I think we can control how the sidewalk cafés operate through our permitting process and what we say the rules are. You know, if we don’t want hookah pipes, let’s outlaw hookah pipes. If we don’t want giant fishbowl drinks with beers upside down, then let’s address that in the permit guidelines.” After walking the property and seeing the hotel entrance in the middle flanked by two retail spaces, she said, “Once you get out there and stand in front of it you can see that it doesn’t work.”
“The Palace is not operating right now,” she noted. “The Voodoo is not operating right now based on their code violations and I think perhaps the history of code enforcement with the Voodoo was maybe slathered across the other operators. The only ones operating at this moment are the Starlite and Mango’s.”
“Part of my discomfort and desire to rescind,” she said, “is also based on the fact that we passed that new rule a week and half before their sidewalk café permits were due so from a process standpoint, I don’t think that that’s really right.”
She asked the Starlite and Mango’s for an assessment of the effect that moving tables from the east to west side of the sidewalk would have on them. “The Starlite would have to reduce from 37 current seats to 12… that’s not really enough seats to operate, so they’ll probably have to just close their café. Rather than go find a good operator who’s doing something beautiful for 37 seats, they would have to just shut down.” Mango’s, she said, would go from 86 seats to 36 in the summer and from 74 to 30 seats in the winter.
“I would much rather see us apply our pressure to what we allow in the sidewalk café permits so that we can have great operators,” she said.
Arriola responded, “First off, great words. Great arguments. Great points. Really well articulated and it’s hard to argue.” That said, he listed the accomplishments of the 10 Point Plan: “We got rid of the gauntlet. We moved almost all but five properties and now four and now three properties all to the west side of the sidewalk on the western portion of Ocean Drive to create not only a better pedestrian experience but to make it easier and safer for our police to patrol the area, have better visibility to get to trouble spots more easily.”
“But, a few things to keep in mind,” he said, “operating these sidewalk cafés is a privilege not a right.” Adding that some of the buildings have been retrofitted over time so that complying with the new rules may be difficult he said, “You know, things happen. Sometimes your property is not in a great position to take advantage of opportunities that exist out there and, again, this is a privilege, not a right.”
“A couple of the operators that were mentioned have been problem operators,” he said. Calling the Voodoo Lounge “a chronic problem” he told his colleagues, “This is what happens, folks. We pass a law to address a problem, the person affected hires a lobbyist, they come lobby the Commission, and then we undo our vote.” 
“I want to stick to this until such time as we’ve gotten Ocean Drive cleaned up and we can always revisit this,” he said, but added “We’re either going to hold to our guns and mean what we say, that we’re going to try to clean up Ocean Drive and problem areas or we’re not. We’re going to let lobbyists to get us to undo our votes and our positions – and I’m not addressing that to anyone particular on this dais – it’s just kind of that’s the way things work. I’m going to stick to my guns on this one. If you guys want to rescind, rescind but I think it’s important that we be consistent with what we vote on.”
Malakoff said, “I don’t think we should rescind but I understand Commissioner Alemán.” She suggested delaying implementation for 120 days to give the operators time to work with code enforcement and the fire department to determine how they could reconfigure their properties so they are not blocking entrances.
Regarding the Starlite, Arriola said they could move their café indoors to the retail space. “I am for consistency in our application and how we want to see Ocean Drive and the pedestrian experience exist.”
Rosen Gonzalez, the lone vote against removing the exemptions in September said, “We’re a community of people who live here, they were born here, they own commercial interests here, many of them elected us to be here, and we’re supposed to be the voice of reason, compassion, set the standard in being fair and when this came up last month, two of these owners had no idea that it was even on the agenda and that they could be potentially losing their business. And there’s something about that, it just seems, it’s just unethical. It’s not right. We don’t want to treat anyone like this.”
She said, “What I’m asking right now is for this Commission to stop, take a breath before we put people out of businesses. You have a discussion. You go to them and you have a dialogue and you don’t just put people out of their business. It’s not right and you knew about this exemption. The only reasons they have this exemption is because there’s no other way architecturally for them to have these outdoor cafés.”
Arriola responded, “We specifically were worried about the future of the Palace because … it’s iconic and was an important establishment in our community. We said, in their case, having to move the tables to the west side, they could not do their performances. It would put them out of business. These other operators, it’s not that important that they be on the east side of the sidewalk. They’ll lose some tables and some revenue but, again, this is a privilege not a right. So this was actually to protect one of the iconic businesses that is no more.”
Alex Tachmes, attorney for the Starlite, took issue with Arriola’s statement. “I was there to draft the 10 Point Plan with Ricky, so I can tell you the exemption was not just there for the Palace. It was property owners and buildings that were configured in such a way they can’t push their furniture to the west because physically it won’t work … One of the key principles behind the 10 Point Plan was trying to surgically deal with the bad operators and make sure the good operators are not hurt. In this circumstance you are hurting a good operator.”
David Mulrad, owner the Starlite Hotel since 1974 said, “This whole matter is very distressful to us.” Saying he wasn’t notified of the Commission action in September, he pointed to the unanimous vote on the 10 Point Plan and then, “this same Commission … in a secretive manner brought it up on the agenda and undid the whole thing. This doesn’t make any sense to me. It makes no sense.” Mulrad’s family owns the building, the Starlite hotel, and the sidewalk café. He said the sidewalk café makes up 25% of their income. “We’re a mom and pop hotel, we don’t have massive crowds. The sidewalk café is a very laid back situation and those retailers that are in front, which Commissioner Arriola would have me throw out – the clothing store – so I could put in some tables and chairs … this clothing store has been there for 20 years. 20 years. Now I’m going to go [throw them out] so I can put in some tables and chairs which I’ve been licensed since 1996 [to have] on the curbside because of the situation with the structure.” [RE:MiamiBeach noted a clothing store on the south side of the hotel entrance but what appears to be a vacant storefront to the north.]
His father, Mulrad said, set up a plan to have the profits from the café take care of his autistic grandson. Losing the café would not impact whether or not the family took care of the grandson, he said, but it illustrates his father’s view of the long-term commitment the family had to the business and Ocean Drive. “This was ten years ago,” he said. “But in his mind, the Starlite was forever. This is not a business where we throw out a clothing store so that we can accommodate the City’s new resolution and be able to have chairs inside.” Recalling family birthday parties through the years at the hotel, he said, “This hotel is part of our life. It’s not just a business.”
Then he took aim at one new business coming in. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that the tourists that we’re looking to attract on Ocean Drive, when they see the new CVS opening on our block, if they’re not going to feel that the ambience of Ocean Drive maybe is worse than having my tables that have been there since ‘96 on the curbside.”
He said, “I’m all for renovating Ocean Drive” and noted that “during the darkest period of Miami Beach during the Mariel boatlift” when code violations were rampant and property owners did not have the means to fix their buildings, he worked with the City and building owners to find solutions. As a member of the Planning Board at that time, he said, “We ruled with compassion.”
Finally, he said, “If we lose the sidewalk café, we are out of business but you can be sure of one thing. If we don’t take in one nickel there ever, we will remain the owners there for all time. You can’t get rid of us.”
Alemán came back to her initial point that “everyone in the room has the same objectives. We may just not agree on how to get there but I really do believe we have the same objectives.”
“I didn’t put this on the agenda because I’m bending to lobbyists,” she said. “I didn’t put this on the agenda for any other reason than I felt that our action wasn’t fair. I like that you said rule with compassion,” she said to Mulrad. “I didn’t feel that we had done that. These are longstanding residents and a family that’s affected and I’m sure they’ll survive, but we as a body, we’re obligated to play fair and to follow a due process.”
By a vote of 4-3, the Commission voted to rescind the September vote and to allow the continued exemptions for tables on the eastern portion of the sidewalk. Voting no were Arriola, Levine, and Malakoff. Voting yes, Alemán, Grieco, Rosen Gonzalez, and Micky Steinberg.
“And so Mr. Mayor, this is how the 10 Point Plan gets killed. Death by a thousand cuts,” a frustrated Arriola said. “This is why the 2 am [vote] is important because today was the sidewalk ordinance and then it’s the noise ordinance, then it’s the awnings. Every little business comes and kills you with a thousand cuts and so we get nothing done to address the reason we’re even discussing this which is crime on Ocean Drive and so you have to bring in draconian measures like a 2 am rollback because everything you try to do to contain the problem and address the problem gets slice and diced.”

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