Mayor Proposes Major Overhaul of South Beach Entertainment District

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Mayor Proposes Major Overhaul of South Beach Entertainment District:

Earlier last call, oversight committee, and permanent pedestrianization of Ocean Drive

UPDATE: The Commission will discuss the MXE District at a special meeting of the Land Use Committee on Thursday, September 17 at 1:00 pm. Log-in details are here

  • Mayor Dan Gelber proposes scrapping the South Beach Entertainment District and putting a new Art Deco Cultural District in its place.
  • Zoning changes proposed include a last call at midnight; operators could qualify to operate until 5 am through a Conditional Use Permit and abiding by certain requirements.

  • A Beverage Control Board would have regulatory oversight over liquor licenses and late night establishments.

  • Ocean Drive would be permanently pedestrianized.

  • Effort aims to end the “out of control” behavior.

  • Stakeholder reaction is mixed, depending on the point of view.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber this week proposed scrapping the City’s South Beach Entertainment District which he said has too often become the scene of “out of control” and “raucous behavior.” In its place, he wants to see an “Art Deco Cultural District” to change the dynamic of the area and reflect the City’s status as an arts and culture destination.

The proposal is more than just a name change. It contains a series of ordinances that would “reimagine” South Beach including setting last call at midnight with businesses having to qualify for permits to operate later, the establishment of an oversight committee with regulatory control over alcohol and late night establishments, and the complete pedestrianization of Ocean Drive. 

In a video address, Gelber said the establishment of the Mixed-Use Entertainment District or MXE in the 1980s was designed to encourage investment in an area in dire need of revitalization by allowing bars, clubs, restaurants, cafés, and galleries primarily as accessory uses of hotels. The MXE includes Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue from 5th to 16th Streets.

“Within years it became one of the world’s great destinations and it was safe and accessible to visitors and residents alike,” Gelber said. “But it became a victim of its success. Over the last few decades it has grown to resemble a beachfront Bourbon street with all-night hard drinking and too much misbehavior where too many people go to do what they would never do in their own hometown. Most of our city’s serious crime occurs in this district and the victims and perpetrators tend to be visitors.”

Despite various blue ribbon panels and attempts to “tone it down” through legislative measures, Gelber said, “We simply have not sufficiently altered the raucous dynamic of our Entertainment District. Worst of all, it is not the brand we have fostered elsewhere in our city and not one we should tolerate.”

“Since it’s clear we can’t program our way out of this and we’ve been unable to enforce and arrest our way out, it’s time to take a more drastic action that addresses the underlying issues,” he said.

In addition to creating a new cultural district to replace the entertainment district, Gelber is proposing “major zoning overhauls… to establish the kind of business climate we would like to foster in this district, making it easier to incent good operators and equally easy to drive out the bad ones.”

He noted more than “one hundred establishments in the Entertainment District that can serve liquor and entertain from 2 am to 5 am as a matter of right. Some are standalone bars, others tethered to a hotel or restaurant. Many are fine, but too many are not. Trying to shut down shoddy operators has been difficult.”

“These proposed ordnances would dramatically change this dynamic. We will establish a midnight last call everywhere and only allow certain establishments to remain open later if they can qualify for what is the equivalent of a conditional use permit,” the Mayor said. The City uses the CUP process to place certain requirements on businesses that they must comply with or they lose their right to operate. 

An oversight committee – a Beverage Control Board – would have regulatory control over liquor and late night establishments. “There’s no question this will result in some businesses unable to operate in our city in the manner they have previously,” Gelber said. “But I believe we’re at the point where we have to accept we just can’t be for everyone.”

Under the proposal, owners of properties will be responsible for the conduct of their on-site operators, “namely bars and clubs,” according to Gelber. “Right now, some building owners often don’t even know what is going on right under their noses and are not responsible for fines. This needs to change as we need to partner with building owners to help elevate this area.” 

He also wants to incentivize “the growth of more galleries, museums and businesses that promote culture and wellness.” He used the Wolfsonian Museum expansion plans as an example, something voters will see on the November ballot.

“We will also ask more of the organizations that promote our history and architecture and work on projecting and marketing our brand so that we attract more visitors seeking a cultural experience.”

“Finally, we need to literally change Ocean Drive,” he said, proposing the $25 million in G.O. Bond money approved by voters for improvements to the street and Lummus Park be used to create a permanent pedestrianized-only area with more space for café tables “giving operators and visitors an enhanced experience, fostering restaurants rather than bars, and promoting finer and more cultural dining.”

“There are plenty of wonderful operators in this area including owners and employees who share our vision for this important district. South Beach is still attracting serious investment up and down Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue with plans for mixed-use development that could truly elevate this area. And there is a cultural explosion in our city that needs to better define this area as well.”

“We have some real possibilities, but we need to send a clear message as to what we expect,” Gelber said. Noting the efforts by many on the Commission to tackle issues in the district, he added, “I have supreme confidence in my colleagues’ shared commitments to these goals… if we disagree on the details, I’m confident we can get on the same page. We need to.” Gelber will bring a package of ordinances to the City Commission meeting this Wednesday.

Concluding his video address, Gelber said, “Some might say, why now, when so much is not normal. This area is already under so much pressure and strain. The answer is, this is precisely the right time. We can no longer kick this can down the road and what we have tried to do is clearly not enough. We cannot attack this problem any longer from the edges. And when we emerge from this pandemic – and we will emerge – we should have a different kind of South Beach. A better one, just as vibrant and iconic, but also cultural and safe. South Beach for everyone.


Reaction from stakeholders

Initial reaction from stakeholders is mixed, depending on the point of view.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian who served on Gelber’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Drive and who sponsored several of the measures aimed at “bad operators” said, “We need to really dramatically change Ocean Drive and I believe we’re at a unique moment. I would like to see more arts and culture and wellness. I believe we need to move beyond just alcohol and nightlife. I am hearing tremendous energy in the community. People are really thrilled with the idea that Ocean Drive will now potentially be all for pedestrians and I think people are thrilled that we will try and bring different types of businesses. People are thrilled that what we’ll have is all sorts of folks, residents, families, visitors because everyone’s welcome as long as they play by the rules.”

Mitch Novick, owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel at 9th and Collins, has been a fixture at City Commission meetings complaining about unruly behavior which he believes comes back to loud music. “I’m all for noise being contained to the property,” he said, one part of the new proposal that he likes. Another is the rollback of hours for alcohol service. “Alcohol is what drives this.” 

Despite liking some parts of the plan, Novick says he’ll fight the effort to pedestrianize the street. The current temporary closure, put in place to allow residents a place to get out and exercise during the pandemic and as expansion space for sidewalk cafés to have socially distanced dining, has negatively impacted his property, he said. The side streets have become “intolerable” with “total gridlock, absolute mayhem… At least it was spread out when the street was open,” he said. 

Novick has already contact his lawyer. “[This] will likely result in litigation. I’ve already advised my counsel this cannot happen. It will greatly diminish the valuation and marketability of my property.”

He does agree that “the model has to change and now’s as good a time as any and it should be completely changed, turned upside down,” he said. The operational costs of the MXE – though the numbers are not entirely clear – are “disturbing” to him and he has blamed the status quo on political contributions by Ocean Drive operators. Policing makes up a large portion of the budget.

Ultimately, Novick said, “We’re a beachside community. People will come here if public safety can be ensured and we have good things, cultural things. That will attract an affluent visitor, not a Spring Break type of crowd.”

Josh Wallack, whose family owns Mango’s at 9th and Ocean, called Gelber’s proposal “compelling” because of its focus on the arts, “exactly what is revitalizing the urban core of Miami.” 

“It’s clear that the mayor has been working on this plan,” Wallack said. “It was very thoughtful. It was well researched.” If passed, he said, “This will make him a transformational mayor... It will make him a mayor remembered in 50 years.”

“It definitely needs input from stakeholders but, certainly, they’re looking to get their hands around these bad actor tenants.” While expressing support for the idea of a new Ocean Drive, Wallack objects to long-established businesses having to go through an annual “audition” with a Beverage Control Board. “I don’t think that legacy businesses should be subject to any sort of whims of a new board like that… that’s for someone who’s taken over this bar or that bar and has to prove to the City that they’re a good operator. They should have to go audition,” he said.

Several Ocean Drive businesses, he said, are “historically and culturally important” including Mango’s, The Clevelander, and the Palace, similar to other iconic businesses like Joe’s Stone Crab and the Fontainebleau. He wants the City to make sure those businesses don’t go away in any plan to overhaul to Ocean Drive. 

He also cautions there needs to be a holistic look at the hours of alcohol service to ensure the party doesn’t just move to residential areas where last call is later.

Overall, though, Wallack likes the idea of a focus on arts and culture. “Art deco. That’s what brung us to this dance,” he said, calling it an opportunity to “get our swagger back.”

“Make South Beach somewhat safe and clean and cool again,” he said recalling Tony Goldman’s strategy. Goldman is one of the visionaries credited with the revival of South Beach. “All it takes is a couple of cool restaurants… and suddenly everybody’s talking about it.”

Jo Manning, Ocean Drive resident and member of Gelber’s Ocean Drive Panel: “Miami Beach residents, especially those who live on Ocean Drive and remember when it was a safer and classier street for residents and visitors alike, are all for this plan. I especially like the recognition it will give to the Miami Design Preservation League. The MDPL has been ignored for far too many years by the group that thinks it is the only one that can speak for our iconic street, the Ocean Drive Association.” The Ocean Drive Association represents many of the property owners and operators on the street.

Frank Del Vecchio, Ocean Drive resident and neighborhood activist, wrote in an email, “This is a desperation measure which is necessary to deal with lawlessness and its causes, and this political recognition is at long last an extremely positive move and is to be supported.”

“His proposal is clever,” he said. “The city has power over liquor licensing. The politics is who gets the competitive advantage of 5:00 AM while all others must close at midnight.” 

The politics of a Beverage Control Board are what concern him. “In every city in which I have worked, liquor licenses have been a monopolistic commodity and a source for political payoffs and corruption,” he wrote. “Our city has no experience in this and I fear that the same political influence that has been dominant for Ocean Drive MXE for the last twenty years descent into lawlessness requiring a virtual police state will simply operate by effectively controlling the liquor licensing regime.”

“How to manage liquor licensing, the criteria and authority of a liquor control board require incisive work and analysis and public examination before this element of the package is enacted,” Del Vecchio said. “My reaction, based on years of observation of liquor control boards in other cities, is to scrap that escape clause in the plan and go with a midnight liquor closing hour in the new Art Deco Cultural District.”

Alex Tachmes, attorney with Shutts & Bowen who has represented a number of local businesses including some on Ocean Drive, wrote in an email to Ocean Drive stakeholders following the announcement of the proposals, “Today, like all of you, I read with dismay about another misguided attempt to address the perceived problems on Ocean Drive. The attacks on Ocean Drive property owners and businesses by the city have sadly become routine. A short time ago, we all unified to turn back a 2am alcohol cut off. Today we are faced with a midnight cut off. When will it stop?”

“The core problem of Ocean Drive is lawlessness and a lack of safety. Until that changes, you will likely be faced again and again with ordinances by the city seeking to reduce hours of alcohol or taking other drastic and ineffective measures,” he said.

“In every country in the world, the first and intuitive response to lawlessness and lack of safety is the police. For some reason, the approach is different in Miami Beach,” Tachmes wrote. “The extreme measures being proposed by the city should be considered only if basic policing has failed. Basic policing has not failed here because it has not been tried.”

Tachmes suggests “a more aggressive police approach… for a certain amount of time until the definition of normalcy changes from lawlessness to law and order. It won’t happen overnight or in one weekend.” He wants to see one or two police officers on every corner of Ocean Drive “round the clock for the next 6 months” with “zero tolerance for criminal infractions.”  

He urged business owners to move forward with their plans for a Business Improvement District (BID) and use the extra taxes they pay to fund the extra police resources. “If you do not take that step, I believe the city will continue again and again to impose operational restrictions on Ocean Drive that are ineffective and hurt businesses.” 

South Beach Alliance sent a letter to the Mayor and Commissioners announcing their new collaboration of MXE business stakeholders two weeks prior to Gelber’s announcement. In it, they acknowledge the issues and urged the City to begin an urban planning process immediately for the area.

“The District was a challenge prior to the pandemic and will continue to be one once this pandemic is over without proper adaptation and action. But, as Winston Churchill is credited to have said, ‘never let a crisis go to waste’. In times of crisis there is an opportunity for great leaders to rise to the occasion in ways that they could not in times of normal.”

“In that spirit, and with the determination to seize the opportunity for improvement, the stakeholders of the District, specifically the Ocean Drive Association, Washington Avenue BID, Collins Improvement Association, and the Espanola Way Association have formed an alliance.”

Saying they want to “join with the city to promote the development of a comprehensive urban plan to elevate all of South Beach and make sure that we are positioned to properly claim our location as one of the most important tourist and residential destinations in world,” the group urged the hiring of architect Zyscovich Architects and Jerome Barth of Town Square to develop an urban plan for the Entertainment District that considers vehicle/bike/pedestrian traffic patterns, lighting, landscaping, and signage.

“We need experts such as Bernard Zyscovich, Jerome Barth and others to help us properly plan the future of South Beach. We must expeditiously conclude this urban planning discussion and execution as a foundation. We all share a common goal: A clean, safe, and forward-thinking South Beach that delivers on its brand and experiential promise.” [Emphasis in letter.]

The letter is signed by Jonathan Plutzik, Chairman, Ocean Drive Association; Andrew Resnick, Chairman, Washington Avenue BID; Scott Robins, President, Espanola Way Association; Marlo Courtney, Founder, Collins Business Improvement District; David Berg, Co-Chair, South Beach BID Partners, Inc. [Updated July 28: The Lincoln Road Business Improvement District has signed on to this letter as well.]

We reached out to Plutzik as chair of the Ocean Drive Association for his reaction to Gelber’s plan but had not received a response by the time of publication.

The Details

Some of the details that were provided in an overview document from the Mayor’s Office:

Alcohol Sales

  • Last call everywhere in the ACD will be midnight and establishments must apply to a newly created Beverage Control Board for conditional permission to serve alcohol later. 

  • The Beverage Control Board will have authority over applications for extended alcohol sales; extensions would bring extra requirements (e.g. like paying for police on-site, codes of conduct, or agreements not to host promoted parties).

  • Decisions of the Beverage Control Board will be final and they can revoke any extensions they grant.

  • Any establishment in this area selling packaged alcohol (like liquor stores and convenience/grocery stores) will have a 5pm cutoff (currently 8pm). 

Noise and Land Development Regulations

  • Stand-alone bars and stand-alone drinking establishments will be prohibited in the ACD, unless as part of a hotel.

  • Sidewalk café operations are treated as all restaurants with last call at midnight unless approved for later; no outdoor speakers will be allowed in the street or sidewalk or audible music outside the confines on each individual property (other than curated via special event permits). 

  • Commercial uses of rooftops will be limited to restaurants.

  • Property owners will be liable for the actions of their tenants – currently many building owners don’t know they are hosting bad operators and aren’t the ones receiving fines. 

Ocean Drive

  • Ocean Drive will be elevated to be level with sidewalks and permanently pedestrianized; each side street will have dedicated loading and delivery spaces.

  • Hotels and restaurants will be afforded the privilege of creating outdoor dining experiences in the expanded areas consistent with our City Code of Conduct.

Details on the Beverage Control Board process were provided in a memo from City Manager Jimmy Morales:

Establish a process for alcoholic beverage establishments (except for package stores and retail sales, which would comply with current restrictions) to request a closing time after 12:00 am through an alcoholic beverage control board. 

  • This new board process would be like the Planning Board CUP process, as it would have regulatory authority to review each request for expanded hours on a case by case basis, as well as require pertinent material for review and creating a basis of decision. Such material would include, but not be limited to, operational and circulation plans, sound studies and crowd control. These plans would also be subject to an applicant subsidized peer review. 

  • The board would have authority to require periodic progress reports, or progress reports as needed, re-consider matters based upon violations and failure to operate in accordance with an approved extension, as well as the authority to revoke or suspend a previously approved extension of hours. 

  • The board would consist of 5 to 7 members, with expertise in entertainment, alcohol regulations, architecture and planning, and be appointed by the City Commission 

  • The board would meet multiple times per month, with lesser notice requirements, to provide an expedited process for review of all applications.

  • The extension of hours by the board would be good for a fixed period (e.g. 1 year) and would need to be renewed. If the operations of the venue are flawless, the renewal would be pro-forma. 

This is just the beginning of the process. The various components of the package will go through Committees and Land Use Boards before coming back to the City Commission. At each step, there will be the opportunity for public and stakeholder input.

The City Manager’s memo and draft regulations can be found here.



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