Washington Avenue is on the edge, physically and aspirationally. The once vibrant street, which borders Miami Beach’s South Beach Entertainment District, experienced a severe downturn that it is finally starting to come out of. Now, after a master planning process, development incentives, and the establishment of a Business Improvement District (BID), the street is poised for a comeback. Depending on who you talk to, it’s still on the edge between where it was and where it wants to go.
Troy Wright is the Executive Director of the two-year-old Washington Avenue BID which covers Washington Avenue from 5th to 17th Streets. Under a BID, property owners agree to tax themselves more to provide funding for marketing, promotion, and other initiatives to improve the area. The BID followed approval of the Washington Avenue Overlay in 2016 which increased allowable height to 75 feet for properties with more than 200 feet of frontage on Washington Avenue, reduced minimum hotel room sizes for new hotels and conversions, allowed for co-living or micro residential units, and eliminated parking requirements for hotels.
Since then, the Kimpton Anglers Hotel opened a new addition, a new Moxy Hotel has opened and the Good Time Hotel will open soon. Approved or under construction, a new hotel at 1685 Washington Avenue and Urbin Retreat in the 1200 block.
One of Washington Avenue’s appeals is that it is close to the sand and the action of South Beach but that is also one of its downsides given the current issues in the Entertainment District. The street sits just outside the Entertainment District which runs from 5th to 16th Streets on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.
From a perception standpoint, Wright said, “I think it’s impacting all of us because there doesn’t seem to be a separation being made between, for example Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue and there’s a big difference. We have museums, we have clubs, we have retail, we have historical buildings. We have a lot more to offer.”
Washington Avenue isn’t immune, however, from the chaos and criminal behavior. On February 1, a triple shooting took place in front of The Licking Restaurant at 754 Washington Avenue. “The shooting was horrifying,” Wright said. “I couldn’t sleep for a couple of days. I was sick to my stomach.”
Despite the Spring Break issues, he said Washington Avenue is an example of how to turn an avenue around “and make it attractive again.”
In addition to the Moxy and Good Time Hotels, Wright said, “We have a lot of businesses that are moving onto Washington Avenue,” highlighting the reopening of Jazid, with “an entirely different look. It’s French burlesque at its best, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen here not just in Miami Beach but South Florida. The investment there is incredible.”
Wright said the new bicycle lanes have helped, too. They “opened up the opportunity for locals to take advantage of Washington Avenue without having to park.”
The “parklets” which allowed restaurants to extend sidewalk cafés into the streets to help them during COVID restrictions on indoor dining “saved Washington Avenue.” Businesses that have taken advantage of the opportunity are “doing over 30% better” than those who do not have the extra outdoor seating, he said.
“We may have lost one, maybe two” businesses during COVID, he said, but that’s a result of the willingness of landlords to work with tenants to keep them. “I know property owners get a bad name a lot of times but most of the property owners were willing to work with the businesses.”
Wright said he gets calls from businesses on Lincoln Road saying they’re considering a possible move there. “It’s a testament to what’s really going on,” though he added, “It’s difficult to find a place on Washington Avenue right now.”
“We have a plan and I think that it’s not just a plan for instant gratification, the BID has a ten year plan for Washington Avenue,” Wright said. “It’s a plan to slowly transform the avenue and give people what they’re looking for when they get here.”
“Now, it’s not necessarily where we want it to be two years from now,” but the BID is continuing to work its plan. “It’s not going to change today. The key is you have to lay out a plan for what people want versus what’s going on right now,” Wright said.
This week, as part of a push for more art and culture, the BID unveiled a new mural on the side of a building at 15th and Washington by Ignacio Marino Larrique called "WAVE to the Past" which "honors legends Jackie Gleason, Muhammad Ali, Gianni Versace, Jayne Mansfield, and Prince who owned, created or played Washington Avenue."
Part of any plan, Wright cautions, is “understanding that people and generations change… If you’re expecting the youth to act the same way as you did as a child, that’s not going to happen.” Plans have to include “measures for change,” he says.
Wright, a veteran of the music industry, said in that business, “Things change every three to five years – the mindset, the youth, things in society change every three to five years. No one has a crystal ball, but you have to at least prepare for the change. If you didn’t prepare for the changes then we didn’t do our jobs.”
Wright doesn’t shy away from talking about the issues facing Washington Avenue. Addressing the sometimes rowdy crowds at The Licking, he said, “I think The Licking is a victim of their own success. The place is not that large. They have entirely too many people that want to go in… You’re cursed with a blessing, everyone would love to have lines outside the door… but they don’t have a way to manage it.” If they had a parklet set up, Wright said, “that would have probably given them at least another 20 seats… Would it have prevented the issues? I don’t know but I think that would have at least let some of the air out of the balloon… We’re talking to the owners to make sure they follow the policies… I think they do a pretty good job of doing it, I just think that they’re outnumbered,” he said.
The BID has also been criticized on social media and, this past week, by Interim City Manager Raul Aguila for hosting an event called Barlooza. “They threw an alcohol-related event in the middle of Spring Break without letting us know and totally caught us by surprise,” Aguila told City Commissioners during a Spring Break discussion at their meeting last week.
The event, known as Barlooza, was called out on social media for sending the wrong message during Spring Break but, Wright said, the event is a national bartending competition that started two years ago. Bartenders compete in their own cities for the honor of competing against winning bartenders from other cities. “It’s a very upscale event. It’s not one of these drunken crazy events,” he said. “I think people, because of the fun name, they think it’s wild and crazy but this is the case where you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The event “went off without a hitch,” he said. It was ticketed and the BID hired a police officer to keep people from just coming in off the street. “We knew how many people would be there and it was social distanced. What threw people off was the name.”
We have a great relationship with the Police Department,” he added. “We talk to them, at least, a minimum of two or three times every single week,” walking the street with them, “alert[ing] them to things that are going on, concerns that we have. We do monitor the street for safety.”
In addition to the sidewalk cafés and parklets, the BID supported new lighting in the median on Washington Avenue. “You have to feel safe,” he said.
The first thing Wright did when he took the Executive Director job was to walk up and down the avenue and talk to each business owner. “It took me two hours to get one block because everyone had something to say.”
“The number one concern was safety,” he said. With the new lights, “More people walk the avenue and feel a little more safe.”
Without the BID, he said, “I don’t know what state Washington Avenue would be in… I’m not saying the City can’t do it, but they don’t have the resources to do it… When it’s property owners, they’re investing in themselves.”
“Having a positive attitude and having a plan… a great board like I do to make it happen has made a tremendous difference,” Wright said. “Miami Beach as a whole, I know we have issues… We’re smart enough to figure out the solutions, but let’s plan into the future and let’s be positive with it.”
Matthew Gultanoff, South of Fifth resident and founder of Better Streets Miami Beach spends a lot of timing biking around the City. “My observation is that Washington Avenue is once again full of life.” He said he’s not just referring to the post pandemic period, but believes Washington Avenue is back to where it was before COVID. “On Washington Avenue in the mornings there is life out there.”
Though he’s very pleased with the new bike lanes, he said, “There’s much more to it than that.”
With the restaurant expansions onto the street and some of the new venues, he’s seen more friends sitting outside. “There are places that locals will go to now… They are bringing locals back.”
Despite being a main thoroughfare, Gultanoff argues Washington Avenue shouldn’t be seen simply as “a bypass that allows cars to go as quickly as possible in the area.” He sees it as an opportunity to get people to slow down and visit the local businesses that line the street.
He’s concerned by conversations taking place now that could jeopardize the bicycle lane pilot program on Washington Avenue. The item is on the agenda for the City Commission’s Neighborhoods Committee meeting on Monday.
“We need more of what we have on Washington Avenue, not less,” he said. “We need more dedicated space, more protected space for bicyclists, people on skateboards, roller blades, scooters.”
According to the City, since the implementation of the pilot program, there are 538 more bicyclists per day and approximately 915 bicyclists total using the Washington Avenue corridor on a daily basis.
“If you want more people, customers, visitors to be on Washington Avenue, you need to make it inviting,” Gultanoff said.
On the other side of the Washington Avenue discussion is Mitch Novick, owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel, and an outspoken advocate for shutting down open-air entertainment. Novick said he didn’t think Washington Avenue was improving. “It looks terrible. It’s still a blighted slum. I’m not at all impressed with the incentives that the City has given these new operators.” He says the increase in hotel rooms is continuing to keep rates low, attracting the crowds of Spring Breakers.
Mayor Dan Gelber who has taken a “carrot and stick” approach to cleaning up the Entertainment District remembered what Washington Avenue used to be. “It had a pretty good mix of shopping and businesses and restaurants and I think it really has the potential to get back to that. It can be sort of the Fifth Avenue of the city. I think some of that’s happening now. You can see large swaths of it being developed. You see new businesses moving in and cultural activations.” He points to the planned expansion of the Wolfsonia-FIU facility on Washington Avenue approved by Miami Beach voters.
“That’s all good, assuming we can get out of the current moment which is not good,” Gelber said.
“The bones of Washington Avenue are mixed use,” he added. “You can have a lot of things on Washington that work together and define it as more of a live, work, play area. That’s what we need to have there.”
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