Miami Beach City Manager Responds to Ocean Drive Reopening Controversy

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Miami Beach City Manager Responds to Ocean Drive Reopening Controversy:

Several Commissioners complained they were not consulted on decision

Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales has responded to criticism by several City Commissioners who say they were not consulted about the partial reopening of Ocean Drive to vehicle traffic. The street had been completely closed to traffic since mid-May to create space for socially distanced outdoor seating as restaurants began to reopen following COVID-19 closures. In addition to the expanded sidewalk cafés, it was a place for residents to walk and ride bikes as safer-at-home orders were loosened. But following concerns raised over an “open-air club” atmosphere, Morales consulted with the City’s Police Department to come up with solutions as the July 4th holiday weekend approached.

Though notified by email of the pending change to open the northbound lane to traffic, three Commissioners expressed surprise and anger over the move on social media.

Mark Samuelian was first with a post on twitter.



 


Followed by Commissioner Michael Góngora:

 


Commissioner Ricky Arriola responded to Samuelian then posted his own tweet about the impact of the reopening:

 
 


By Friday, Morales felt the need to respond, sending a letter to the Mayor and Commissioners in which he referenced the concerns raised at the June 29 Special City Commission discussion. “During the meeting, several Commissioners raised serious concerns about public safety in the MXE [Entertainment District] and particularly on Ocean Drive. Several videos of unacceptable behavior by visitors on Ocean Drive (particularly the footage at the Voodoo Lounge) prompted the Commission to direct me to come up with a plan for the upcoming weekend to address these issues.”

In addition to a curfew, early closure of package stores, and “enhanced police staffing” along with a multidisciplinary team from Police, Fire, Code Compliance, and Ocean Rescue to enforce the emergency COVID measures, Morales reopened one lane of Ocean Drive to vehicle traffic.

“While working with City staff to assess the challenges in the MXE and specifically on Ocean Drive, it was pointed out by Police leadership that Ocean Drive was a tale of two streets,” Morales wrote. “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.”

The Police Department, he said, recommended reopening the one lane to vehicular traffic, suggesting “we would significantly reduce the area available for congregation and make it easier for PD to manage the crowd and disperse folks when the curfew kicked in,” he said. “In fact, their comments to me after the weekend indicate that the strategy accomplished it’s [sic] intended goal. Furthermore, they point out that the lane of vehicular traffic also relieved some of the traffic problems on Collins Avenue and even reduced some of the loitering on Collins Avenue as some of those folks chose to drive the strip instead.”

Morales also responded to criticism the actions were taken on behalf of the Ocean Drive Association (ODA) which passed a resolution in June urging the City to “immediately and safely reopen Ocean Drive from 5th to 15th Street to a single lane of northbound vehicular traffic in the eastern most portion of the road way.” The resolution makes note of the “significant financial duress” of Ocean Drive businesses and stated “given economic conditions, speed of implementation is of the essence.” 

“[T]he purpose of re-opening a lane of vehicular traffic was not to prioritize business over residents,” Morales stated. “Rather, it was to directly respond to the public safety concerns expressed by our residents, businesses and Commissioners.”

“Mainstream and social media have reported that I did not communicate with the Mayor and Commission regarding the reopening of one lane of vehicular traffic on Ocean Drive. As I indicated above, the Commission discussion about the need to address the issues on Ocean Drive and in the MXE, and the direction to me to put together a plan for the holiday weekend, occurred at the Monday Commission meeting,” Morales wrote. In the absence of any scheduled meetings prior to the holiday weekend, he said, “I did what I normally do in between meetings, which is send nightly COVID-19 email updates and occasional emails as needed during the day.”

Among the emails sent was one on July 2 at 10:30 am. “I emailed the Commission informing them of the work being done with respect to Ocean Drive, the Zoom meetings that had been held with PD and the ODA, and the work done by Transportation staff in laying out a safe way to create one lane of vehicular traffic while preserving a pedestrian path (a schematic of such layout was attached to the email). The email indicated that the goal was to implement the plan for the holiday weekend if we could complete the logistics in time. I received no response,” Morales wrote.

“On July 3, at 11:47 a.m., I emailed the Commission to update them on the weekend plans, indicating that we had obtained the necessary barricades and barriers, and therefore would be able to begin implementing the Ocean Drive plan that evening,” he said.

“The idea is to try this out for two weeks and see how it works,” Morales wrote in the July 3 email. “Both Police and the ODA feel that this will make a difference.”

In his letter to Commissioners, he said, “It is quite possible that some of the Commissioners may not have read the emails until a later date. We are all so busy responding to issues during this pandemic, and we all receive many, many emails each day. But I do know that I communicated with the Mayor and Commissioners in a manner consistent with what I have been doing throughout the pandemic.”

Morales said, he too, wants to discuss the configuration for Ocean Drive at the upcoming Commission meeting on July 17. 

With only outdoor dining permitted for now, Morales said the need will continue to have expanded sidewalk café seating. “We clearly need to provide the restaurants the ability to expand their seating onto the street as was the case before. We anticipate that more restaurants will now want to take advantage of this program.”

“We also understand that many in the community were disappointed to see the reduced space available for pedestrians and bicyclists under the configuration adopted for the 4th of July weekend,” he continued. “In conversations with Police, the ODA and other stakeholders, we think that there is an opportunity to implement a hybrid approach…”

The hybrid approach which may be tested this weekend, involves closing the street entirely to vehicular traffic Monday through Thursday and reopening one lane to vehicular traffic at night Friday through Sunday “when public safety concerns are most serious,” Morales said. The barricades would be used to create separate pedestrian and bicycle lanes when the road is closed to vehicular traffic.

“My intention is to bring a discussion to the July 17th Special Commission meeting about the short and medium-term configuration of Ocean Drive. Given the current resurgence of the virus, the need for expanded outdoor dining is likely to last for weeks, if not months. Options include (i) one lane of vehicular traffic, (ii) fully closing the street for only pedestrian and bicycles, (iii) keeping the barricades in place and having separate lanes for pedestrians and bicyclists, and (iv) a hybrid version that keeps the road closed to vehicular traffic, except for nighttime and/or high impact weekends. We hopefully will have some lessons from the experiences of the different approaches tried during the pandemic that can inform the discussion,” he said.

Matthew Gultanoff, activist and founder of Better Streets Miami Beach, reacted to Morales’ letter. “The goal should be to reduce cruising throughout South Beach, not to shift from one street to another,” he said responding to Morales’ comments about taking the burden from Collins Avenue and spreading it to Ocean Drive. “Our streets are covered in rubber left by drivers performing stunts, many times at night waking up residents. Never mind these drivers pose safety risks to pedestrians and those on bicycles.”

Like the Commissioners, Gultanoff said, “It would have been nice if the Administration reached out to bicycle advocates prior to this change. We could have provided useful feedback, especially since we are the ones using it.”

“The current configuration, sprung on us at the last minute” accomplishes the opposite of its intended effect, he added. "It’s reduced the amount of usable space by more than half and led to extreme crowding.”

“Ocean Drive was meant to be the starting point of pedestrian and bicycle improvements citywide in response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Gultanoff lamented. “To their credit, City staff have made many plans throughout the City. We hope to see these implemented this summer. But we’ve been bogged down needlessly by Ocean Drive.”

 
Ocean Drive when it was completely closed to vehicle traffic with sidewalk café expansions into the street



Photo at top of article from video posted by Matthew Gultanoff on twitter

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