Is Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive at a Tipping Point?

Ocean Drive

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Is Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive at a Tipping Point?:

Social media posts of fights on the street generate calls for change, potential rezoning

After an early morning fight outside Voodoo Lounge which ended with shots fired on Ocean Drive, Miami Beach shut down Voodoo for violating the City’s COVID emergency measures. MBPD officers arriving on the scene observed staff members without facial coverings and not practicing social distancing. 

Video of the fight in which no one was hurt started making the rounds on social media less than a day after an emergency City Commission meeting to discuss mask usage and compliance. Following that meeting, City Manager Jimmy Morales announced new rules making masks mandatory indoors and out when social distancing is not maintained along with a $50 fine for those not complying. In Voodoo’s case, City spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said they would be shut down “for the duration of the emergency period.” 

Beyond Voodoo being closed, the incident on video is one more in a string of social media posts that have some leaders asking if it’s time to make some radical changes to the City’s Entertainment or MXE District. [Click here to view the video posted on Instagram by marcoperez4783. Note, the video contains violence and profanity.]

During this week’s emergency Commission meeting, Commissioner David Richardson raised concerns about video clips of fights in the Entertainment District over the weekend. “It seems to me Ocean Drive has become an open-air bar club and with people going to the package stores and pouring their alcohol on the street,” he said. “One operator on Ocean Drive told me that he thought it was the worst situation he’s seen in thirty years.”

In order to help restaurants accommodate patrons and allow for social distancing between diners, the City closed Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic from 5th to 15th Streets and allowed sidewalk cafés to expand into the street, leaving space for pedestrians and bicycles. Richardson said the original intention was to allow residents to get out and exercise but instead it has turned into in a club scene. He asked Miami Beach Police Chief Rick Clements if the configuration is creating challenges for MBPD.

[Update: The City has reopened one lane of Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic beginning this weekend.]
 
Ocean Drive closed to vehicular traffic allowing expansion of sidewalk cafés


Clements said his officers are facing “pushback” and “defiance” when enforcing issues of crowds congregating in the streets, social distancing, and open containers.  “It’s particularly challenging and what we’re trying to do is temper that response as best we can without obviously escalating an already intense environment.”

“We’re starting to mobilize and putting more groups out there in a more assertive role in trying to get that under control but I’ll also tell you that the vendors aren’t really helping us,” he added, noting one business that allowed a “holding line” outside with stools where they were serving alcohol.  “We’re trying to get the businesses involved as well and the message has been to them you need to do a better job as well as to how you’re staging people coming into the restaurants.”

“It’s particularly challenging. It’s been really hard,” he acknowledged. Agreeing with the statement relayed by Richardson from the business operator, Clements said, “He's right. This has been the most difficult environment that I’ve had to deal with in 30 years, and I understand that and we’re trying to navigate as best we can.”

Richardson called for “zero tolerance” over the coming holiday weekend. “I feel very strongly that we’ve got to get a handle on what’s going on in the Entertainment District,” he said. “Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a safe area for people to operate” adding the business operator also told him his employees “for the first time in 30 years are afraid to come to work so we’ve got to get a handle on that.” Clements reassured Richardson there would be increased staffing this weekend supplemented by Miami-Dade County Police.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola who put together a Ten Point Plan for Ocean Drive following the recommendations of a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Drive in 2016, noted the recent closing of Fat Tuesday could be a “good thing for Ocean Drive” and asked, “To prevent another Fat Tuesday’s establishment from opening on Ocean Drive, do we start rethinking the entire Entertainment District right now?”

Morales responded, “We could certainly use this as an opportunity to perhaps look at [that], an opportunity to not have new bars, not have new clubs.”

“To some degree,” Morales said, “the business model on that street has always been not even advertising or marketing, for most of the businesses with a few exceptions… it’s grab the people off the street, get them into a chair and plow them with not too good food and a lot of alcohol, and play a lot of loud music… and that’s the business model up and down that street.”

Morales noted “that might require some changes to the zoning so that the business model going forward slowly just begins to die down because it can’t replace itself. We could look at hours of operation. We could look at the noise issue, etc. but it has historically functioned that way, so I’m not totally shocked that people who used to come before the pandemic are coming back because nothing’s really changed in the operation of the businesses that have reopened by and large.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mayor Dan Gelber who also set up a Blue Ribbon panel on Ocean Drive after his first election, said, “I thought we were making some progress before the pandemic,” noting a plan to pedestrianize the area from 5th to 9th Streets and the opening of “a couple of new properties there that are pretty high-end” including the not yet opened Celino Hotel, though he added, “there’s been resistance” to making changes.

“I lived on Ocean Drive in the early 90s and what happened is Ocean Drive went from really something that was almost decrepit to something spectacular in a pretty reasonable period of time, but it’s harder to change it from something that is financially working for some into something else,” Gelber said.

“The problem we’ve had is there is such resistance to changing the nature of the street and it has to be changed,” he said. “It can’t be another Bourbon Street which is what it’s becoming, and policing isn’t the answer because we can’t police our way out of it… We tried that and it doesn’t work.”

It’s not just one incident that blows up on social media, he said. “It’s like a tinder and it explodes. It explodes too often and too regularly.”

Gelber said any action is going to “have to change the nature of the street. It’s not going to be able to continue the way it is.”

He noted some of the “good operators” including Jonathan Plutzik, owner of The Betsy and new chair of the Ocean Drive Association. “His model is something we’d love to see up and down Ocean Drive, a place that has enhanced dining and entertainment that’s not so raucous that it creates a policing issue.” He also called Gloria and Emilio Estefan, owners of the Cardozo Hotel and Larios, “very committed.” 

“We’ve got a lot of investment coming into Ocean Drive so the market believes that there’s still magic there,” Gelber said, “but we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do to create some sort of governance on the behavior that’s sometimes out of control. There may be a bit of reckoning during the pandemic. Some of these places may not be there at the end and it will be an opportunity for us.”

“I’m all for looking at anything,” he said. “There’s nothing that should be off the table.” 

During Spring Break, Gelber tried to get a reduction in hours of alcohol service that was significantly shortened from his original proposal in terms of hours and length of time. “If you want to change Ocean Drive, we’re going to have to take measures to change Ocean Drive,” he said. 

“I’m not finished so I’m happy to try all of these ideas again because I think we need to do that,” he said. “There’s a physical change that needs to happen and there is a texture change that needs to happen.” The physical change he said would make the street “a little more approachable, a true pedestrian experience, easier to police, more friendly to nicer restaurants that can spread out a little bit. It cannot be a bazaar. It has to be something that reflects the cultural destination that I think our city has become. We’re not trying to be Bourbon Street. There has to be a place for good or fine restaurants, for art studios, for the kinds of businesses that people, that our residents would want to go see.”

Gelber added, this is not just an Ocean Drive problem but includes Washington Avenue and Collins in the overall MXE. 

“It’s not something we can maintain,” he said. “We’re putting our police in really difficult scenarios. It’s a street where it almost feels like anything goes late at night and how do you police that? How do you police that? I don’t know.”

The answer is not “tougher policing,” he said.  “We’ve got to change the character of the street and, not withstanding the pushback, it’s something that’s got to happen.”

In the short-term, with the emergency measures in place, he said, “I expect that anyone who’s operating poorly right now needs to lose that privilege” of their sidewalk cafés and the expanded café space out on Ocean Drive. “Anyone who’s allowing behavior to happen or not following the health guidelines we’ve set forth ought not have the privilege of expanded seating.”

“There’s so many businesses in our Entertainment District which are wonderful but there are some that are not,” Gelber said. “I hate to say this but some of them are not good for our community… and they may not survive this downturn. I hope the ones that are good corporate citizens do because we have plenty of those and they need to be here.”

As to the “bad operators,” he added, “If some of them don’t survive, we’ll be the better for it.”

Mitch Novick, owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel at 901 Collins Avenue in the block behind Voodoo Lounge where the latest incident occurred, regularly shares videos of fights and drunken behavior outside his hotel and uses the public comment period at Commission meetings to call attention to what he describes as “the carnival-like, crime-ridden circus on our streets” in the MXE District.

Novick implores them “to not throw money at the police, not to waste any more money without addressing the incompatible and problematic MXE zoning which is essentially a cancer which essentially destroyed my once thriving neighborhood.”

He has grabbed onto two City memos in which attempts to quantify the revenue and expenses of the Entertainment District had wide disparities, one showing a $6 million deficit, the other $28 million. Novick believes the higher figure “is more accurate” but regardless, he said, “We are entirely subsidizing this area… only to enrich a handful of club interests to no public benefit whatsoever.”

As to this maybe being a turning point, Novick said, “They’ve exhausted all the alternatives… but maybe this is that moment because it’s become especially dangerous and I hear it from everybody.” The solution he says is “a restriction on noise… restricted to the property line. There should be nothing that spews out onto the street.” Novick would also remove all tables and chairs from the streets and sidewalks and roll back closing times. 

Jonathan Plutzik, owner of The Betsy which sits at the northern end of Ocean Drive has been chair of the Ocean Drive Association for two months. In talking about the current state of the street, he said, “First we have to acknowledge the artificial, unexpected, not completely understood environment that we operate in. Two, as Chairman of the Ocean Drive Association for maybe two months, I want to stress how concerned I am and the Board is – representing all kinds of businesses – about conditions on Ocean Drive.”

He said the ODA has been meeting “to talk about alternatives to the current environment.” Recently, he took a two hour walk with City Manager Morales and his leadership team, “looking at every block.”

“Last week the Ocean Drive Association Board took the unusual step of opposing an application that a business was making on Ocean Drive to add speakers and a day later the Planning Board approved that speaker request anyway,” Plutzik said. He was referring to an application by Pink Taco to have outdoor ambient music which initially failed but was reconsidered and approved by the Board after the restaurant agreed to close its doors if there was loud indoor entertainment at any time of day that could spill out onto the street along with a mandatory closing of the sliding exterior doors at 11 pm.

“The reason I give that example is the Board of the Ocean Drive Association was trying to assert itself as a completely responsible party, trying to be a partner with all the good forces in the community to make this as great a place as it should be,” he said.

“We’re not policing experts and we have a lot of respect for our Police Department and for the challenge of the job they have to do,” Plutzik said noting he met yesterday for more than an hour with the Chief of Police and his command team “because we’re all collaboratively trying to answer the question how to properly get from here to there when you know the world is very uncertain.”

He said the ODA Board “is a group of people of not 100 percent uniform views but it’s a group of tremendously responsible people who have generally very large investments in Ocean Drive so their future is in line with what the City’s is to make it a safe, attractive, family-oriented, entertainment-oriented place for the world to come.”

The issues right now, he said, are very complex. “We have a pandemic. We have a financial crisis. We have curfews. We have the beaches open and closed. We have the tragic death of George Floyd and all the appropriate response to that which we completely support and it’s a really interesting time in the world.”

“Many of our businesses are closed and we have almost zero international travel in the summertime in Miami Beach and the consequences of that is more than 50% of our usual customers aren’t here,” Plutzik added. “But I’m not saying all that to make an excuse. That tape is completely unacceptable. I repeat, completely unacceptable,” he said regarding the early morning incident in front of Voodoo.

“It’s not just simply 'Well, we’ll do that,' whatever X is and it will all be better,” Plutzik said when asked about solutions. The current “unusual environment… is ultimately producing conditions which are unacceptable.” He said he has “great sympathy” and “respect for the Police Department” and “profound respect for the Mayor, City Manager, and Commissioners” with the many difficult decisions they are making right now with regard to the pandemic, “beach open, beach closed, curfew, no curfew, indoor dining, outdoor dining, pools open, pools closed, hotels open, hotels closed… it’s really complicated.”

When asked about potential rezoning on Ocean Drive, Plutzik said, he didn’t know what that means at this point but added, “We need to have a conversation about this MXE. We have to talk about South Beach below Lincoln Road. We have to deal with [the fact that] businesses are going out of business, so we have some more vacant storefronts because of the economic conditions… We have to look at every corner and every storefront and how do we make it look great even as we confront challenges. It’s why the Ocean Drive Association took a stand against someone getting more speakers because we said we don’t think they need them and we don’t need more noise outside the Cabaret District on Ocean Drive but the Planning Board approved it anyway.”

“I don’t think the answer to these questions is simply open or closed” with regard to the street, Plutzik said. “The answer to these questions is really a comprehensive, block by block discussion, hybrid in nature.” The conversation, he said, is “ultimately not for Ocean Drive in isolation” but should also include Collins and Washington Avenues, Española Way, and “thinking about the connection to Lincoln Road. We have one of the most unique and attractive tourist destinations in the world which is, at the moment, not sufficiently orchestrated.”

“We need professional engagement about what is a really complex thing, what is the right urban planning model for this incredible gift we’ve been given,” he said, regarding the beach, Lummus Park, and the Ocean Drive, Washington and Collins to Lincoln Road corridor. “They’re all tied together and no city, maybe in the world, has it but it’s time to go about it in a professional planning way. How do these pieces of the puzzle fit together? How do we make it warm and inviting for residents, families, children? How do we maintain the energy that comes in the evening that’s good energy?”

Working with the business associations from the neighboring streets, Plutzik is encouraging the City to look at that planning. “None of us, none of us is happy with the status and nobody sitting around the table at the Ocean Drive Association, is supporting or defending the current kind of state of play out there,” Plutzik said.


Photo Ocean Drive (top), Shutterstock.com

 

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