For Electronic Dance Music fans, the three-day feast of sound known as the Ultra Music Festival is the ultra destination for enjoying ultra performers, ultra partying and ultra drugs in the ultra sunshine of Miami.
But for the people who live downtown the other 362 days of the year, Ultra is ultra deafening, ultra intrusive, ultra disruptive. Ultra, which attracts 40,000 fans per day, is out of place in Bayfront Park, which has evolved into the hub of a residential neighborhood where people like to walk their dogs, take their kids to the playground and exercise by the water. They like to sleep, too, without listening to their windows rattle, or eat a meal without having to watch the peas on their plate bounce to a deep bass beat that permeates the skull.
While Ultra attendees will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the world-famous fest on Friday, Saturday and Sunday while grooving to Marshmello, Infected Mushroom and Flosstradamus, downtown residents are breaking out the earplugs. Or planning to flee.
“I’m going to Davie this year,” said Amal Solh Kabbani, who has hunkered down and suffered in her condo at 50 Biscayne Blvd. for the past eight Ultras. “The vast majority of people leave. If you stay, it’s like living in a nightclub.”
While Ultra attendees are abuzz about whether Swedish House Mafia will return this weekend, downtown residents hope the gigantic flame-throwing spider won’t.
Former Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who tried to kill Ultra seven years ago, has learned to tolerate it. He works in an office building at 200 Biscayne Blvd. and, like most downtown employees, he departs early Friday afternoon to avoid traffic jams caused by lane closures.
“Ultra is our Mardi Gras,” said Sarnoff, who used to live in New Orleans. “On my 16th Mardi Gras, I went skiing in Aspen. Inevitably, you get tired of it. The survival guide for Ultra is just don’t go near it.”
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez calls Ultra “the Art Basel of music festivals.”
“It’s been here 20 years and it’s part of our DNA now, it puts us on the world map,” he said while conceding that Ultra is a huge hassle for downtown dwellers. He himself is not a fancier of EDM but likes to listen to it when he’s working out. “I don’t want to say people are accustomed to Ultra but there’s a kind of acceptance. Like the boat show and the Miami Open, it’s part of life here and you learn to live with it.”
Suarez and Sarnoff said the chaos and debauchery of Ultra have been tamed. The festival’s problems with large crowds spun out of control in 2014 when a security guard was seriously injured as gate crashers pushed over a perimeter fence. Since then, organizers have banned attendees under age 18, cracked down on alcohol and drug use and built stronger fencing. Arrests dropped from a peak of 109 in 2013 to 35 last year (with 59 people taken to hospitals).
“Each year, they get better,” Sarnoff said. “I tried to get rid of it and I think they listened. Their safety measures have improved. They used to do very loud sound testing very early in the week. Last year it was only on Friday.”
Nevertheless, residents feel like prisoners in their own homes. Condos are forced to wrap their ground floors in fencing to prevent festival-goers from wandering into their lobbies looking for a place to crash or go to the bathroom. Wasted attendees covered in glitter have also been seen humping trees and parking meters in the past.
“I’m not against Ultra; it has its followers and my daughter even went one year,” said Kabbani, former president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance (DNA) and vice president of the board at her condo. “But it’s not appropriate to force it upon people who live downtown.
“The fans drink a lot of alcohol, take a lot of party drugs, and a lot of unwelcome things are happening right in front of us, like sexual encounters. You can act stupid when you’re under the influence. The dress code includes naked.”
The DNA, which led a petition drive last year seeking the removal of Ultra and also the Rolling Loud festival — which has relocated to Hard Rock Stadium — has hired a sound engineer to conduct tests over the weekend and measure decibel levels.
“There’s a constant debate about how loud the music is and whether the noise is excessive, so we want to collect information,” she said.
The DNA is also lobbying the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which was formed to run the park independent of the city, to double what it charges Ultra organizers to lease the park to $2.5 million. The trust relies heavily on Ultra to fund its maintenance budget. More revenue from Ultra should enable the trust to reduce the number of other events held at the park, which has turned into a revolving event space, Kabbani said.
“If they’re not going to move Ultra, they need to take better advantage of it financially because right now it is too much disruption for too little value,” Kabbani said. “They shut down major portions of the park from March 1 to late April for the setup and taking down of Ultra. That is prime time to be outside in our green space. If you could see how that poor park is abused, you would cry.”
Suarez agrees that the trust should get the most buck for the bang. He’s opposed to a proliferation of money-making events in public spaces.
“In all our parks, we have to look closely at entertainment for profit versus passive enjoyment,” he said. “The key is finding the right balance.”