URBAN BEACH WEEK

Miami Beach residents, businesses, police brace for Memorial Day crush

 

cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

Miami Beach is holding its collective breath through Monday, hoping to dodge the human stampedes, tear gas and deadly police shootings that have marred recent Memorial Day weekends.

The 2011 slaying of Raymond Herisse, who police shot 16 times about 4 a.m. on Memorial Day after police said he was driving erratically on Collins Avenue and refused orders to stop, changed the way the city handles the crush of traffic and crowds of up to a quarter-million strong that pour in during what’s known as Urban Beach Week.

Police will deploy a plan first rolled out last year that includes license-plate readers and DUI checkpoints on causeways, driving and parking restrictions south of 23rd Street, increased patrols, zero-tolerance enforcement of drug and trespassing laws, and more lighting along dark stretches of beach.

Miami Beach has become a Memorial Day playground for throngs of people from other cities and states who converge here. Started in 2001, Urban Beach Week has grown into a see-and-be-seen series of parties, concerts and people-watching.

Residents and business owners are divided about the stricter security plan and about the weekend in general.

Some people who live on the beach choose to leave town for Memorial Day weekend, while several who stay say the increased police presence makes it feel safer and easier to get around.

“We’ve been freed from being trapped in our houses,” said Frank Del Vecchio, an Ocean Drive resident who plans to stick around South Beach with his wife this weekend.

The Del Vecchios used to flee to the Northeast to visit family, after Memorial Day crowds swelled. But Del Vecchio said a new police traffic plan has eased parking and congestion nightmares in residential neighborhoods.

Starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, traffic will be squeezed on the MacArthur and Julia Tuttle causeways as police scan license plates and check for drunk drivers. Local traffic restrictions will close neighborhood streets to non-residents, and Ocean Drive will be closed to car traffic, from 7 a.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Tuesday. Collins and Washington Avenues will be converted to one-way thoroughfares.

But business owners say the traffic loop and blockades that residents applaud are literally driving away potential customers.

“We were expecting to have a great weekend” last Memorial Day, said Edoardo Di Iorio, general manager of Bamboo nightclub at 550 Washington Ave. “It was basically hell, because traffic was very intense, and people could take four or five hours” to arrive.

Austen’s Sports Bar at 1555 Washington Ave. lost business last Memorial Day weekend because a nearby garage was closed to the public, according to owner Christine Austen-Wilcox.

“My sales were 70 percent down,” she said. “That’s a large amount of money to get us through the summer months that are very slow. That’s money we were counting on.”

Police said parking at that garage won’t be restricted this year.

While residents and business owners brace, the ACLU will be on high alert. The group’s local leaders say Miami Beach’s increased security measures could be considered discriminatory.

“We wish the city of Miami Beach would welcome visitors to Urban Beach Week, who happen to be black, the same way it welcomes visitors to every other big event, like Art Basel or the boat show,” ACLU Miami president Jeff Borg wrote in an email. “Instead, city leaders have been working hard to suppress this one group.”

The ACLU has taken to the radio to explain people’s rights and to tell them to report possible complaints or problems on the ACLU’s Florida website. The group will have ambassadors roving the island all weekend.

The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau says hotel room occupancy is anticipated to be 77.2 percent, according to a preliminary survey. That’s an increase over last year, when, on the heels of the police shooting, occupancy was about 70 percent, according to the bureau.

“I think what it really comes down to is, as long as everybody is safe and happy and having a good time, then at the end of the day everybody should feel great about that result,” said Alan Lips, chairman of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Miami resident Alexander Gomez said locals like him who dislike crowds are wise to avoid the beach until next week.

“I mean, if you’re visiting from out of town, it’s got to be great, no? One big party,” Gomez said. “It’s just too packed with people. No matter what race or color, it’s just too crazy and swamped with revelers for my taste.”

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