Facing legal challenges from business operators and concerns over the “street party” on Ocean Drive, City Commissioners voted 5-2 this week to reopen the street to one lane of traffic flowing southbound. It won’t be immediate, though. Miami Beach City Manager Alina Hudak said the plan will take 45 days to implement.
The full closure was implemented last spring to give residents a place for socially distanced activities during the pandemic and then for restaurants to have outdoor dining options as part of a COVID business recovery program. Since then, two lawsuits have been filed – one by the Clevelander and a second on behalf of numerous properties owned by the Nakash family – seeking a reopening of Ocean Drive. The closures, according to the operators, negatively impact hotel guests by forcing them to be dropped off on a side street and having to cart their own luggage to hotel entrances, resulting in lost business for the hotels.
As the City is currently operating under an expired Miami-Dade County permit to keep the street closed and with a Court hearing scheduled for November 10 in the Clevelander’s suit, Commissioners had to consider their options after City Manager Alina Hudak and City Attorney Rafael Paz said there is a possibility that a judge could force the City to reopen Ocean Drive completely, meaning two lanes of traffic in both directions. While County Commissioner Eileen Higgins said the County would look to support the City in what it wanted to do with Ocean Drive, Hudak said what the Court might do is unpredictable.
With $20M in General Obligation (G.O.) bond funding, the City is going through a master planning process that would prioritize the pedestrian experience. Since the pandemic closure, Commissioners have debated what to do with Ocean Drive short-term after concerns were raised about the “street party” atmosphere.
This week’s meeting was the last for Commissioners Micky Steinberg and Michael Góngora who are term limited. Facing the Court hearing and with two new Commissioners in the coming month, the Mayor and a majority of Commissioners decided it was better to take the action to reopen to one lane of traffic flowing southbound.
Commissioner David Richardson has repeatedly expressed concerns about “closing the street without a plan.” Until the long-term vision is agreed upon, he said, “I’m very concerned about, in the interim, these large open areas that are left here that I think are creating a big public safety issue” with people gathering in the street.
The Administration’s proposal would allow for some expanded restaurant seating on the west side in so-called parklets but those would have to follow new guidelines for quality and standardization, valet and freight loading zones on the west side where no parklets exist, and two-way buffered bike lanes on the east side. It does not include Commissioners’ preferred option for Freebee service in lieu of vehicles proposed by the Ocean Drive Association. Hudak said the estimated set-up cost of $1M was not in the City’s budget and, at this point, there is no agreement with business operators or sponsors to pay for it. However, she said, the Administration’s proposed option is easily convertible to utilize the Freebee service in the future on the one open lane.
Steinberg emphasized, “This would be an Interim plan because there is a future more comprehensive plan that we’re trying to gear towards at some point.” In the short term, she said, “This would be a mechanism to get us there because what’s there today isn’t working.”
After Police Chief Rick Clements responded to her question about his thoughts by saying he supported the Administration’s plan to open to one-way traffic, Steinberg said, “I don’t think we can punt this any longer. At this point what we do tonight is going to be interim anyway. We still have a lot to work through there. There’s still a lot that we have to do. So, with an eye toward pedestrian and bicycle friendly, which I think is the priority, I think it behooves us to strongly consider opening it up with the one way only [option].”
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said he was not in favor of opening up to traffic but, instead, preferred the Freebee option. “What we’re going to end up getting is what we used to have which is the cruising phenomenon, people driving up and down the street, and I think that’s a real public safety issue, especially in these days and times,” he said. “I think we’re setting ourselves up for potentially some horrific confrontations if we have cars on Ocean Drive so I would strongly advocate that we address the concerns of the hotels and the restaurants by having a very nice Freebee-type cart driving up and down the street moving passengers and guests to and from their destinations.”
The potential for slingshots and scooters being allowed on the street, “is a really big concern,” Commissioner Mark Samuelian said, also indicating he continued to support the Freebee option.
“Cars bring noise. Cars can bring danger,” he said. “Let’s just not talk about cars, let’s talk about slingshots. Let’s talk about scooters. I know we may not love everything that’s happening out there [but] sticking one lane of traffic in the middle of that, is that really the solution? All across the world, cities are giving space to people. They’re allowing people to enjoy the street. They’re putting people over slingshots and over cars, so I firmly land in the Freebee option.”
Samuelian added, that “We can speak to the certainty of this group, but no one can speak with certainty for the new body [that will be in place after the election] and we’ve got to really be careful if we go down one path and it is the will of another body to go another path.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora, the sponsor of the original resolution to close Ocean Drive said, “Ocean Drive is one of the most successful streets in the world, certainly one of the most well-known streets in the world and I think we spend too much time on this Commission speaking negatively about our street. We weren’t having the problems that we’re having today before the pandemic. Yes, we had issues during Spring Break and Memorial Day but it wasn’t a constant issue as it became during the pandemic.”
The resolution to close the street “wasn’t a permanent solution,” he said. “It was done for two reasons. It was done to allow people to have a more expansive place to walk and bicycle and it was done to allow our restaurants and cafes who weren’t allowed to open inside in full capacity to expand and be able to make some money and have some business. And it worked. It worked great for a while. In 2020, it worked great. Unfortunately, what happened as the pandemic progressed, people started coming here and we had a bad year in the press.”
“Whether we had an increase in crime or not – I hear different statistics – but we had a number of high-profile negative stories that were caused from people coming here and partying in the streets and bringing weapons in our street and shooting in the street and jumping on the police cars and twerking in the street at all hours of the day and night and the street became a problem,” Góngora said.
“We say we want to hire competent professionals and applaud them and pay them well and trust them and that we are part-time legislators, but that’s only if they agree with us because they’ve been telling us for a while – our Administration has been telling us for a while – that we should open it up to some level of traffic,” he continued. “Our legal department has been telling us, our police chief has been telling us that they think that is the way to go, but we haven’t done it. And I’m not really sure why. I’m not sure why the people that are so hesitant are so tied to that issue. I think that social media drives our decisions sometimes and we have to focus on the facts and the analysis from the paid people that represent us and do what we think is right.”
“I have been consistent in my position that I think it’s right from a crime and safety perspective to open up one lane of traffic,” an opinion, he said, that has made him unpopular with some on social media.
“The business angle is a second angle,” Góngora said. “The businesses can’t get their people to their hotels, they can’t valet their cars.” He said he believes “ultimately the Court is going to agree with them, just like they agreed with them that we couldn’t close them down at 2:00 in the morning.”
“I hear the concerns from some of my colleagues about the slingshots and the cruising,” Góngora said. “Well guess what? It was there before. We weren’t so concerned about it last year or the year before. It’s now that the street is closed to traffic, we’re looking for some reason to try to keep it closed.” He did note he was concerned about cruising. “That’s the only hesitation I have in my mind is that I don’t want it to become a situation where it’s slingshot after slingshot but, you know what? It’s better than people walking down the street with a gun and shooting people. It’s better than the open-air parties that we’ve seen occur there and it’s easier to police, quite frankly. So, I think it’s time for us to stop talking. We’ve talked this issue to death,” he said indicating he was in favor of the one-lane of traffic recommendation from the Administration.
Mayor Dan Gelber said he believed there were “lots of issues in this area” before the pandemic adding, “I’m just not convinced that what we’re doing now isn’t exacerbating it.” The Administration’s proposal would easily convert to Freebees in the future if there are issues with the cars but, given the lack of funding, Gelber said, the Freebee option is “not viable” at the current time.
“I’m okay with following the Administration’s proposal because I think it’s the most flexible proposal and I think it’s a change that could help,” he said.
Gelber did ask the Administration to explore the option of a pedestrian promenade on the block from 14th to 15th Streets and beginning the traffic pattern at 14th given the high concentration of residents there.
Arriola said while he didn’t support opening to traffic, he did support exploring a 14th Street promenade. Both he and Samuelian opposed the plan while Gelber, Góngora, Meiner, Richardson, and Steinberg voted in favor.
The City will now go back to the County to seek a permit for one lane of traffic and begin the process of implementing the new parklet program for restaurants.
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