What's Next for Ocean Drive?

Ocean Drive

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

What's Next for Ocean Drive?:

Business Improvement District, G.O. Bond money, and a new task force

Ocean Drive, one of the City’s best-known destinations, has seen its share of ups and downs. Most recently, it has been the subject of a Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel, a 10 Point Plan for improvements, and then an unsuccessful attempt to roll back the hours of outdoor alcohol service from 5 am to 2 am.

Now, Ocean Drive business leaders are looking to the future, one where entertainment, arts and culture, and family friendly activities co-exist.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the current Board of Directors of the Ocean Drive Association (ODA).  Mike Palma, Executive Vice President South East US for Jesta Hotels and Resorts is the group’s Chairman. The Clevelander at 1020 Ocean Drive where Palma has been the Managing Partner was recently purchased by Jesta.
Over the past year, since the failed referendum to reduce the hours of alcohol sales, the ODA has highlighted the investment owners have made in recent years to improve their properties. A PowerPoint presentation put together by ODA Executive Director Ceci Velasco indicated more than $500 million has been invested, from sprucing up efforts to gut rehabs. The bright spots include:
  • The Betsy at 1440 Ocean Drive, recipient of the 2017 Conde Nast Traveler Gold List Award for being “one of the great hotels in the world.”
  • The Cardozo, 1300 Ocean Drive, reopening in the Spring.
  • The Tides Hotel “being restored and remastered” with renovations to the original structure which was damaged during Hurricane Irma and a new building connected to the old hotel through a fully enclosed glass bridge. Target date for opening: January.
  • The Palace reopened at 1052 Ocean Drive in an expanded footprint after losing its space at 1200 Ocean.
  • The Clevelander, 1020 Ocean, invested more than $50 million in a complete gut rehab of its entire hotel facility and other property amenities including new bars and pool patio.
  • The Breakwater/Edison which has undergone extensive renovations.
  • Larios on the Beach which has undergone a remodel of its first floor restaurant and complete gutting of its upper floors.
  • 728 Ocean, a MiMo design building, which underwent a $5 million plus renovation. It now houses a CVS.
The most anticipated opening is the Celino Hotel (below), a massive project in the 600 block that involves renovation of three historic buildings and the construction of a new one. The property spans over 275 feet on Ocean Drive. It is expected to open in February.

Celino Hotel rendering courtesy S4Architecture

Palma said The Celino’s owner, Ricardo Tabet, is “trying to elevate and put a luxury product on Ocean Drive. Jonathan Plutzik [owner of The Betsy] is the only one who’s done that. It takes that south side of Ocean Drive and brings a whole new consumer and vision.”
“That area has been dead for a long time and it needs that life,” Palma added. "I think The Celino will do for the south of Ocean Drive what the Betsy did for the north end of Ocean Drive.” In between, he said, there are “other types of experiences” in the “cabaret district” which is “more active” with more energy.
The cabaret atmosphere is what some say has created Ocean Drive’s problems. After the failure of the alcohol restrictions championed by former Mayor Philip Levine, incoming Mayor Dan Gelber promised to establish a new task force to look at the street’s issues. At the time, he said, “I don’t want Ocean Drive to feel that we’ve forgotten about the issues that exist there and I certainly don’t want members of the public to think that we’re overlooking that.” Last month he finally named the group.  
Gelber told RE:MiamiBeach after announcing the new panel, “The City – and Ocean Drive itself – has started to make some real movement in reestablishing Ocean Drive as a place for everyone. From time to time it does feel like it’s a place that people go to do things that they would never do at home and that’s not what we want. People are going to enjoy themselves there but it cannot be an ‘anything goes’ street. We’ve got to figure that out.”
He pointed to increased code enforcement, the closing of La Baguette and the Columbus Restaurant’s loss of its sidewalk café permit for violations, an ordinance to reduce the noise coming from businesses on some stretches of Ocean Drive, and increased police protection.
“I really want two things to happen,” Gelber said. “I want to activate it culturally in a way that will attract the kind of tourists that come to our city looking for a cultural experience.” The second is to bring together “the different voices on how policing should occur and what the structure of the street should be, whether it should be closed down on weekends, whether we have limited parking on the east and west side, how it’s controlled and things like that.” The new panel has two subgroups, one on Business and Culture Practice chaired by Jonathan Plutzik and one on Security, Safety, and Infrastructure Chaired by Jon Freidin.
Gelber said he waited a year to appoint the group because he wanted to “take care of some ordinances like the noise ordinance, work on policing to see what’s working and what isn’t… I wanted also to see if the G.O. bond passed. There’s a significant amount of money for Ocean Drive and Lummus Park and I wanted to see if that was going to be part of the discussion and it will.” The G.O. Bond program approved by Miami Beach voters last month includes $20 million to "Pedestrianize Ocean Drive from 5 to 15 Streets by eliminating the sidewalks and curbs to create an 'at grade' profile with pavers and decorative design patterns."
“The process for addressing [the issues] is not unlike the street itself,” Gelber said. “It’s pretty organic. These [sub]committees are really not going to come back and give us 20 recommendations. I want them to be action committees. I want them just to do things. Some of them won’t require Commission actions… farmers markets, jazz recitals, or if they want to do things… I want them to just do them without a 6 month process, a report and then a two year implementation. I want them to just be able to do things to help move that street where it needs to be rather than this laborious and often ineffective process, years to make recommendations and an infinite number of meetings to implement. I want them to be an action group, not a report writing group.”
The new Ocean Drive panel includes two Commissioners, members of the business community, residents, and community activists. It does not include Mike Palma, the Chairman of the Ocean Drive Association, though Plutzik is the Association’s Vice Chair.
Gelber said he considered appointing Palma but “decided I’d rather they be able to advocate with each of the committee members,” something he could not have done due to the Sunshine Law which prohibits members of committees from discussing committee business outside of public meetings. Gelber said he wants the Ocean Drive businesses to have a voice. “I want them to be very involved.”
Palma said, “The Ocean Drive Association is the vital organ of Ocean Drive and we are hoping that each member of the Task Force is willing to work hand in hand to achieve these goals together. Otherwise it’s a waste of time. It has to be a collaboration.”
The effort to improve the street “takes a public private partnership.” Palma said. “Ocean Drive is a development experiment and it’s unique that way. You don’t want it all picture perfect. You need to think about it very carefully. It all can work if everybody accepts it and makes it the best it can be.”
“The Ocean Drive Association and business leadership can make the changes Ocean Drive needs,” he said. “It can’t be done by the City. It can’t be done by a task force. Businesses need to invest.”
“Can we make it better? We’re going to,” Palma said. 
Ocean Drive business owners have the same goals as residents: an active, safe, clean street, he added. “We want them back. We want the residents back.”
Velasco said, “We need to clean it up. We’re on the cusp of getting Ocean Drive to the point the City will be proud of.”
It won’t be an overnight transition, Palma said, rather one that could take up to five years. “Ocean Drive wasn’t built in three years. It was built in 30 years. When it goes the other way, you have to give it time and people have to be patient.”
An effort to establish a Business Improvement District (BID) for Ocean Drive and the portions of Collins Ave from 6th Street to 16th is now underway. Through a BID, businesses agree to tax themselves to provide marketing and other needed services. What Palma calls “an initial funding group” of business owners put up the money for legal fees and the hiring of an urbanist to help lay out a vision of what Ocean Drive can become. This group, he says, “is risking money to see if we can get this across the finish line.” Palma expects a vote among property owners within 18 months.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

The importance of the area that would make up the BID is hard to overstate. Ocean Drive is the most photographed street, used to illustrate many stories about Miami Beach and, indeed Miami. Economically, the street contributes 4.4% of the City’s property tax revenue assessed on taxable property values of more than $1.7 billion. Collins Avenue from 5th to 15th Streets contributes 1.8% of the City’s property tax revenue on assessed value of more than $699 million.
Combined, the two areas make up the MXE (Mixed Use Entertainment) District. Total resort taxes – 2% collected on hotel rooms, food and beverage sales – from the District in the last fiscal year totaled $11,935,485 ($6,756,506 on rooms which was a seven year high and $5,937,743, just $2,000 shy of the seven year high in Fiscal Year 2015-16. The City’s fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30.)
The BID steering committee engaged urban planner Jerome Barth of Town Square to develop ideas that address everything from the day to day tasks of sanitation, maintenance, and security to the visionary: activating the 10-block alley known as Ocean Court through retail uses, maybe artist studios. String lighting overhead and murals painted on the road could make the alley a social media hotspot, further enhancing the Ocean Drive brand and creating a new magnet for residents and visitors.
Barth’s bona fides come from, among other things, his work on New York City’s Bryant Park and the High Line. “He has an activation mindset. This is what you can do mindset,” Palma told RE:MiamiBeach. Barth is helping to develop a “wish list” and a budget. “Ultimately, it’s a ten-year commitment” for property owners, Palma said.
First, the BID has to pass with 50 percent plus one of all 200 lot owners within the affected areas of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. An “absent” vote or non vote counts as a “no.” The steering committee is currently trying to determine how assessments will be measured, by linear square feet or total “and how to make it equitable,” Palma said. The Ocean Drive assessments will probably be a bit higher than Collins. 
The BID deliberately is not called the Ocean Drive BID but rather the South Beach BID because of the inclusion of Collins Avenue. The two streets have “different needs but we need to make this one holistic look and get it right,” Palma said. In addition, the group is working with the new Washington Avenue BID recognizing the ties between all three streets.
In a PowerPoint presentation by Town Square, Barth lays out a vision that pulls together Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Lummus Park into a cohesive district that continues to be an entertainment destination but which layers bike lanes and pedestrian friendly streets with arts and culture programming and “forward-thinking businesses.”
It starts not too far into the future with a Vision of 2024 and a description of “the perfectly-manicured beach” fronting Lummus Park at dawn as “the overnight cleaning crew is removing the last few items of last night’s revelry, all of which will be gone before the start of the early-morning yoga and exercise classes which take place daily in the park.” It includes a Saturday Art Fair, “a weekly presentation of arts, crafts, musical instruments, photography, painting and sculpture by Miami’s ever-burgeoning arts community…”
Back to 2018, the consultants says “the bones of the vision” are already in place:  the beach, the park, “a stunning palette of early to mid 20th century Art Deco buildings,” and “bright, sunny, weather,” with “plenty to do, see, and experience.”
“What we do see, however, is that the overall quality of those services and attractions can be greatly improved.”
The list of challenges, they say, is “fairly short—and manageable.” They include:
  • “[P]romoters who make a low standard interpretation of [tourists’] needs and wants”
  • A “disconnect between Collins Avenue and the beach” and “no district identity”
  • “Stores are either hawking cheap, mass produced wares, or are part of a shopping environment that needs improvement”
  • “Restaurants and Cafés are serving cheap, inelegantly-presented fare”
  • An “overly loud and vulgar” atmosphere with “overly aggressive businesses, inappropriate music blasting.” They note, “Vendors hawking goods and services” and the homeless population in Lummus Park and nearby “can be aggressive.”
  • “Long stretches and side streets with nothing interesting to look at”
  • “Traffic Flow, sidewalk size, and overall flow is not optimal”
  • Low-Level Drug Dealing that is occurring which is not appropriate for families and seniors
Ideas for change include a BID supplied cleaning crew to supplement the City’s sanitation team with additional emphasis on the weekends when the crowds – and the accumulations of trash – are larger. Also, a small maintenance crew paid for by the BID to supplement City personnel and take care of things like changing lightbulbs, conducting small repairs, re-hanging banners, and making other signage changes.
To provide additional security, Town Square suggested the BID employ 2-4 Public Safety Officers with an additional 2-4 officers on nights and weekends. The Public Safety Officers “should be visible, on the streets and in the park, at all times—which will, by their very presence, curb the small acts of lawlessness, drug dealing, and vandalism,” according to the PowerPoint presentation.
For Thursday-Saturday nights, “supplemental Police Contractors (generally current or retired Miami Beach Police Officers) should be hired for situations that are beyond the purview of the BID’s own Public Safety Officers.”
To further improve security, Barth proposed an: “overall lighting scheme – for beach, park, streets, and buildings” that complements the Art Deco look of the area. “[T]he lighting itself can be a draw to the area, if it is executed with the proper level of aesthetic and functional precision.”
From an urban planning perspective, ideas include a protected bike lane for Collins Avenue that could be accomplished by removing one travel lane between 16th and 25th Streets “to start” and installation of “sun sail” style shades along the most walkable stretches toward the southern end of the BID. 
“More shading can also perhaps transform some businesses along Collins, providing the opportunity for coffee shops, cafés, and restaurants along the Avenue to create outdoor seating and bring life to the street,” according to Barth’s presentation.
For Ocean Drive, he proposed removing one lane of parking to create a wider sidewalk along the west side of the street where sidewalk café space and pedestrian walking areas compete. The lighting theme carries over from Collins to Ocean. 
In Lummus Park, Barth proposed permanent and temporary seating that would keep people in the park longer along with picnic and game tables. Concern over potentially dangerous groups hanging out in the park has been raised by the Crime Prevention and Awareness Group and has resulted in the removal of permanent areas to sit nearby. Barth addresses that concern by suggesting the BID “work with existing, or inspire the creation of, serious social service providers to help the local homeless population transition towards healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles.” That effort would include an understanding of the individuals involved and what led them to their current situations so they can transition into a positive future. 
Another idea for the park, a carousel that would run until 9 or 10 pm and attract “families, young singles, and even retirees.” The presentation describes the carousel as “a bit of visual fun” that would “provide its own lighting element, and move the entire BID closer to a family-focused aesthetic.”
Rounding out the ideas for Lummus Park: A sculpture program that would include rotating works with the most popular interactive and perhaps climbable sculptures becoming permanent; food vendors; games such as a giant chess board, mazes, and dominoes; sports and exercise activities; concerts and performances, festivals, and arts and cultural fairs.
“Great programming in a park or a neighborhood takes great planning, and a willingness to essentially throw ideas against the wall and to see what sticks… the more types of things we try, the quicker we’ll be able to determine what types of programs resound with the community,” according to the presentation.
Perhaps the biggest, most visionary concept is taking the 10-block Ocean Court and turning it into a destination. The alley runs between Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue and is currently a functional alley serving businesses on both streets. Flanking one end is the 14th Place Alley that has recently been successfully activated by The Betsy Hotel after connecting its Ocean Drive building with one on Collins via a giant orb (photo below). The alley now includes the Alley Pizzeria and Ventanita by celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel along with the Poetry Rail. 
The Betsy Hotel's orb crossing Ocean Court at the 14th Place Alley

Regarding Ocean Court, the presentation notes “There is a quirkiness to its narrowness that can be exploited” without losing the functionality the businesses require. “[T]here is the possibility that a curated collection of retail stores, perhaps pop-ups or shops that don’t have a large amount of foot traffic, or even artist studios with an Ocean Court-facing window, can operate either on the corners of the court, or even-midblock in certain circumstances.”
“String lighting overhead would create a warmth to the Alley that would draw people to walk down it at night” and road murals created by local artists would make the alley “a focal point of social media interaction,” one of those famous Instagrammable places.
Finally, Barth and Town Square suggest a robust data collection program to create a better awareness of rental rates, leases, and hotel occupancy and room rates to “help the BID to work in concert with property owners in terms of making sure that new leases are signed with forward-thinking businesses which align with the aesthetic that the BID is trying to project in the future.”
And the caveat, “Much of what this document contains are proposals that may or may not work within the BID itself, although they have been successful in other places, at other times. But we know that even failure can provide data, and possible solutions about what to try next.” 

Stay tuned. This experiment is just getting started.

**Corrected to indicate this is the first year of the current Board of the Ocean Drive Association, not the first year of the Association which is 30 years old.

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