The Palace has been a Miami Beach fixture for more than three decades, attracting a global audience for its popular drag shows. Despite COVID, owner Tom Donall has managed to keep the business going and now wants to expand into the restaurant space to the north, but a new ordinance proposed as part of an effort to clean up Ocean Drive could put him out of business.
In July, Mayor Dan Gelber proposed a series of ideas to get the City’s entertainment district (MXE) in South Beach under control including implementing an annual approval process for businesses to serve alcohol after midnight and establishment of a new Alcohol Control Board. When he made his initial proposals, Gelber challenged the City Administration to take a comprehensive look at ways to improve the district including incentives to encourage investment by high-end hotels and other businesses.
At a Commission workshop in September, City staff came back with a package of proposals including an ordinance that would remove the noise exemption to the east for the blocks between 9th and 11th Streets on Ocean Drive. Four businesses would be impacted: The Palace, Mango’s, the Clevelander, and Ocean’s 10. All were granted Certificate of Use Permits (CUPs) by the Planning Board to have music above ambient levels to the east of their properties. They, like the other businesses on Ocean Drive, must abide by ambient levels to the north, south, and west.
For the Palace, where performances take place primarily outdoors, removing the exemption would be a death knell according to Donall and attorney Alex Tachmes of Shutts & Bowen who is representing three of the four impacted businesses.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do my show” if the noise ordinance passes, Donall said.
At a recent meeting of the Commission’s Land Use and Sustainability Committee, the vote was 2-1 to send the noise proposal back to the Commission with an unfavorable recommendation though the full Commission will still take it up and could approve it.
In the meantime, Donall is getting ready to go before the Planning Board for approval to take over the adjacent space vacated by Margarita Beach Club, previously La Baguette, a restaurant shut down by the City for serving alcohol to minors. Margarita Beach Club had its own issues with violations of the City’s new Code of Conduct for operators including hawking.
“We’re expanding because the Palace has been growing,” he said. “It’s a big chance to take in the middle of COVID but the landlord helped me out and we plan on doing a lot of different things.” The property owner is Nakash Strand LLC. The Nakash family, founders of Jordache Enterprises clothing company, owns a number of properties in Miami Beach including the Versace Mansion and the Victor Hotel on Ocean Drive as well as 1052 Ocean where the Palace is located.
Donall’s thoughts for the new space include having different DJs, maybe Friday happy hours, and corporate parties. He’d also like to do occasional shows on the roof of his current space for special events like birthdays.
The expansion also takes out “the bad operator” in the space to the north. “The business next to me was too close to me and they were not a good operator,” Donall said. “We took the bad operator out.”
The “good operator, bad operator” theme is one frequently raised when discussing the out of control behavior in the MXE.
“I’m just looking to find a way to better control the district and to deal with the bad actors who, unfortunately, have dragged everybody down with them,” Gelber said at the workshop with regard to having “sticks” that include cutting back hours of alcohol service for not complying with the City’s rules.
“I know people are worried, but if you’re a good operator don’t worry. If you’re a bad operator, you ought to be squealing. It’s that simple,” Gelber said. He noted at the time, that he was glad to see the “a full complement of ideas” from the Administration. “I’ve seen a lot of these ideas grow… We need to include as much as possible” in a final plan. “We need to do something more dramatic than we’ve done and it’s not simply a policing issue.”
Beach Planning Director Tom Mooney told the Land Use Committee last week the proposal to remove the noise exemption is part of a “multi-faceted approach” to improving Ocean Drive. Its purpose is to “take the party off of the street and keep it on private property.” The problem with the music in the street between 9th and 11th Streets is that “it tends to spill to the north of 11th Street and south of 9th Street because those property owners have to compensate for that and it ends up being kind of a snowball effect,” he said.
With the recommendation to pedestrianize the street, Mooney said, “There is an opportunity to really change the face of Ocean Drive,” but while pedestrian congregation now is confined to the sidewalk, with the closure of the street, people can congregate in a larger area for longer periods of time. Controlling the noise, would “assist with public safety,” he said.
The four businesses impacted argue they’ve been around the longest because of what they bring to the Ocean Drive experience and because they’ve followed the rules – keeping sound ambient to the north, south, and west and playing louder music to the east according to the CUPs granted to them by the City toward the open Lummus Park where there are no residential buildings. Turning off their music isn’t the solution, enforcement on the businesses who are violating the noise ordinance is, they say.
Tachmes who represents the Palace, Clevelander, and Ocean’s Ten pointed out the exemption was first put in place to allow music to the east in those two blocks because “the desire of the Commission was to cultivate the outdoor entertainment establishments between 9th and 11th. Removing it, would make it “basically impossible for the Palace Bar to have its outdoor entertainment on the sidewalk and close to the sidewalk with microphones like it has done for many years and have the music not be heard east of the establishment.”
“It’s an iconic bar, iconic establishment,” Tachmes said. “If you remove the exemption going eastward, it will basically kill the Palace Bar and their ability to have outdoor entertainment.”
“But the other reason why this exemption was put in place,” he said, is that “it harms no one. East of the properties there was no apartment [building], there was no hotel… [The exemption] has a minimal effect on people and it’s essential for the operation of these establishments.”
Daniel Ciraldo, Executive Director of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), disagreed. He said the group’s offices and the Art Deco Welcome Center which it manages at 10th and Ocean in the middle of the exempted blocks “have experienced noise at all times of the day that comes and emanates to the east from some of these properties.”
“It shakes our windows, he said. “We have complaints from visitors that they just can’t even hear as they’re walking down the street on Ocean Drive. It’s tough to, frankly, have a conversation when you’re walking along and trying to enjoy the scenery, our beautiful Art Deco buildings.” Ciraldo suggested the four properties could turn their speakers inward instead of to the east.
Attorney Monika Entin, representing Mango’s Café, said the businesses Mooney mentioned south of 9th and north of 11th “for many years have continued to play their music and have music that’s louder than ambient noise,” the level at which they are required to play it.
“That is the noise you are listening to and if we enforce the regulations on those properties,” Entin said, “then the issue of noise would be resolved.”
“We believe the noise exemption if applied and enforced properly would be sufficient to control the noise issues that are on Ocean Drive and it would still respect the rights of those properties that have done everything necessary to get the exemption to work on their properties,” Entin said. She noted Ciraldo’s suggestion to turn the speakers inward would violate the noise ordinance in effect for the north, south, and west.
Frank Del Vecchio, a 25-year resident of Ocean Drive south of 5th Street spoke as a board member of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association indicating the group’s support for repealing the exemption.
Henry Stolar, another Ocean Drive resident is on the other side of the argument. Stolar said he and his wife Suzanne moved to 15th and Ocean Drive 16 years ago “attracted by the overall tolerant live and let live atmosphere here.” He spoke about the three businesses that will be most impacted – the Palace, Clevelander, and Ocean’s Ten. “Overwhelmingly outdoor entertainment is the heart and soul of what they do. Requiring that their sound stop at their east property line is almost surely a death sentence for all three. Please consider whether capital punishment is appropriate for these three boxed-in longstanding establishments as a means of ‘creating… an elevated cultural experience.’”
“Secondly, closing the Palace is a direct slap in the face to our LGBTQ community,” Stolar said. Indicating he knew the Commissioners “have strong records of being supportive of the LGBTQ community, so there’s no intent on your part to harm that community," he added, “But legislation must be considered not just in light of its intent, it must also be considered in light of its effect, and in light of the perception of that effect. And make no mistake, please, the reputation of all that we have become as an exemplar of LGBTQ inclusiveness goes down the drain with the likely closing of the Palace… It is going to be a giant global black eye to our city if an institution to the LGBTQ community, as longstanding and well-known as the Palace, is forced to close.”
During Committee discussion, Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “There’s no doubt that there are problems with certain businesses with noise and I am empathetic and sympathetic and I want to go after those operators… I’ve always thought we had an enforcement problem and I don’t think the answer to the problems on Ocean Drive is more legislation. I think they’re better enforcement and I would like to see how those issues are resolved along with this.”
Góngora noted the master planning process that is just beginning for the MXE will include recommendations for addressing many of the issues and he said he objected to the piecemeal approach of considering the various ordinances that have been proposed and are now making their way through the Committees separately.
“I have a real problem with this right now. I can’t support it,” he said. “I don’t think that doing something piecemeal that’s going to hurt the businesses is a good idea.”
“I can’t support something that’s potentially going to put the longstanding LGBTQ business, the Palace, out of business, which is one of the only things I think that is unique and interesting about the block anymore, so I am not supportive,” Góngora said.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “Most convincing to me in all of this is that we have had a perfect controlled experiment for the last seven months. The favorite boogeymen of many folks – the Clevelander, Mango’s, the Palace – have been closed for seven months, yet we see the exact same kind of behavior that I think drives most of our residents nuts where there’s sort of this reckless street party and so I’m trying to understand the causation between noise from businesses that have been closed for seven months and the behavior on the street.”
“I don’t want to do something that permanently puts longstanding iconic businesses out of business and not solve the problem,” Arriola said. “Someone’s got to explain to me what has been happening the last seven months while these businesses have been closed, while we’ve had curfew, while we have had strict lockdowns and all kinds of curtailments of people’s individual freedoms to move around. You can’t congregate, gather in large groups, etc., and yet we still see the same behavior. A lot of this, to Commissioner Góngora’s point is, I think, an enforcement issue. Whether it’s our Police or our Code [Enforcement], until I see a real plan, I’m not going to be very comfortable passing legislation that potentially puts our businesses out of business and doesn’t actually address the problem.”
Arriola said enforcement will be one of his top issues when interviewing City Manager candidates to replace outgoing City Manager Jimmy Morales. “I don’t think there’s been, frankly, the will to do it,” Arriola said. “We know there’s chronic violators and not the ones we just mentioned and yet they keep operating and violating our every rule, whether it’s hawking, whether it’s noise, whether it’s fraud, staying open past curfew and yet they stay open, and so until I see better enforcement I’m not going to be favorably disposed to legislation that I don’t think is going to make much of a difference.”
Mango’s owner David Wallack echoed the comments about enforcement. “If any businesses [to the north and south] are playing beyond ambient, it’s a violation. Why aren’t we enforcing our laws?” he asked. The businesses between 9th and 11th with permits to play music to the east “are the responsible businesses, quite frankly,” he said. “We know what the law is. We stay within our bounds and that is why we have been in business from 9th to 11th Street for 30 years. We are the ones that began the acceleration of South Beach, Ocean Drive becoming a world-famous icon and we didn’t do it by flaunting our laws.”
“The Palace is the most important of all of us,” Wallack added. “The freedom that it exhibits the love, the understanding, the art. Now we want to become a city of art and culture, what is more artistic?”
Wallack pointed to the new Code of Conduct and the City Manager’s ability to take away sidewalk café permits for any business that gets four violations “which would virtually put a bad operator out of business. We have the most powerful laws that are on the books that can be on the books right now. We need to enforce our laws.”
Commissioner Mark Samuelian, the lone Committee vote in favor of repealing the exemption, said, “We do have some wonderful businesses and I’m a big fan of them. I enjoy them. They’ve contributed so much to our environment. That said, we have a problem on our hands. We have a situation that in my understanding is really not in full control. We need to get better control of this environment.”
“Complex problems don’t usually have simple fixes and there’s usually not one thing you do that will fix it,” Samuelian said. “It’s a menu of solutions and I believe that the pedestrianization of Ocean Drive is an important element. I also believe that much greater enforcement is critical.” He said he was supportive of the new staffing plan recently implemented by the Police Department to put more officers on the street and at particular hours.
“I wish we were in an environment where it was in control and we didn’t have to consider these things. But, for me, the greater risk isn’t that we do too much, the risk is that we don’t do enough and don’t get control of this process so, somewhat reluctantly, I feel like we have to take all the measures that are on the table ‘til we get things back in control,” Samuelian said.
Though the Committee voted 2-1 to send an unfavorable recommendation on repealing the noise exemption to the full Commission, it could still pass.
Donall presents his expansion plans to the Planning Board November 17. “If any of this stuff passes before that,” he said, “it’s going to be a big issue.”
“We’re not bothering anybody,” Donall added. “I haven’t had one person complain… We’re a crazy, fun place and nobody’s complaining. We don’t have residents right on top of us, around us, so it doesn’t make any sense.”
He’s still planning on how he can add to the experience including taking the food to a new level. “We’re talking about opening a bakery and providing a great breakfast for everybody,” he said. He has a new chef and sous chef who are preparing food that is “always fresh and never frozen… even our drinks now, we are making our own sauces, blueberry, raspberry, fresh watermelon drinks, everything is becoming fresh.”
“I’m doing a lot of what the City’s looking for in an operator on top of what I’ve already done,” Donall said. “It’s really bad timing and it’s really upsetting to have to go through all of this right now in the middle of COVID, trying to get open and save our business that I’ve worked more than 35 years [for].”
“We could all lose everything overnight and we don’t seem to get any kind of break,” Donall said. “I understand they want to clean up Ocean Drive. That’s good, but they have to be more aggressive on the laws they already have.” He’s noticed the increased police presence and the emphasis on zero tolerance, but he said, “They should have done that four years ago. People think they can do whatever they want to here and get away with it.”
“These are the things they need to worry about, not worry about the good operators and music. Do we want to be dead? We can’t do this. We just can’t,” Donall added. “Lincoln Road, they stopped any kind of music… You walk around. There’s no ambience. There’s nothing. Now with all this stuff, it’s just dying.”
He noted the booming scene in Wywood. “We’ve got to be something special… We can’t be going backwards. If they take all of us away, Mango’s, me, Clevelander, Ocean’s Ten, all of us away, what’s going to make people want to come? I’m a big draw around the world… We have a very good crowd. The LGBTQ community can’t be pushed out either… we helped start this place.”
“We’re not West Palm and we’re not going to ever be West Palm,” he added.
Donall said he does support the pedestrianization of Ocean Drive and believes regular temporary art in Lummus Park would be “great for artists and the park.” Music and live bands, “all kinds of different things” could be tried “to change the atmosphere,” he said, emphasizing as Góngora did a desire to wait for recommendations from the Master Plan from Bernard Zyscovich. Zyscovich, working with a team of experts, will conduct a land use, mobility, and economic development study of the South Beach MXE District from Washington Avenue to Ocean Drive, 5th to 17th Streets including Collins Avenue and the interior side streets. Some of Zyscovich’s notable urban planning and design projects include Brooklyn’s DUMBO Heights, Midtown Miami and Miami Beach’s Convention Center Redevelopment District. The company is headquartered in Miami.
“There are a lot of good things that maybe come at the end of all this, but the City needs to right now lay off the good operators, help us out, [ask] ‘What can we do to help you get through?’”
“I’m sticking my neck out to do great things here and I’ve almost lost this place,” Donall said. “It’s very, very stressful on top of the COVID. I just feel like we’re being attacked all the time. I’ll do anything to help, whatever we need to do to make this a better place… I’m more than willing to help… I think that they’re on the right direction, but they need to exempt us with the outdoor entertainment licenses,” rather than repeal the noise exemption.
While the Land Use Committee recommended against repealing the noise exemption, it did agree unanimously to send a recommendation to the Commission seeking a plan for more enforcement.
“We have known bad actors for many years and they stay in business,” Arriola said, “and I don’t really know why we can’t shut them down or make then conform to legislation.” He suggested “a real plan with real teeth and real deliverables that we review every 30-60-90 days.”
The Committee split again on a recommendation to “affirmatively reject” the proposal for the Alcohol Control Board. Arriola argued rather than continue it to a future meeting as requested by Gelber that, given the sentiment against it at the Commission workshop, it be rejected. Góngora joined Arriola in voting in favor of the resolution. Samuelian was opposed saying, while he doesn’t support a new alcohol board, he wants to keep the item on the Commission’s agenda so it could discuss other ideas.
Góngora said he supported the motion to reject the board but “If there are other ideas, I hope that they’re sent back… We need to do something about the Ocean Drive experience. I just don’t think this is the right idea.”
To see what the Palace is planning for its expansion, the item on the Planning Board’s November 17th agenda can be found here.
The Palace Wants to Expand on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive but a new Noise Proposal Could Put It Out of Business
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