Ultra is back with its mega decibels, and downtown Miamians are fleeing

The stages are set on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 as final preparations are done for the weekend’s Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami.
The stages are set on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 as final preparations are done for the weekend’s Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Architect Bernard Zyscovich and his staff were at work in their offices overlooking Bayfront Park in downtown Miami on Tuesday afternoon when they were startled out of their seats by a loud boom! followed by flames shooting up into the sky.

A look out of the panoramic office windows quickly made it clear this was only the latest nuisance from the Ultra Music Festival: Crews were readying a pyrotechnics cannon in the park for the Friday afternoon start of this year’s edition of the mega-decibel electronic-music blowout.

It’s not, to put it mildly, an event that many who live or work downtown much relish.

“I’m leaving Friday morning,” said Zyscovich, adding that he encourages his 100 associates and staff to do the same if, as often happens, sound checks that are supposed to take place only during limited evening slots spill over into working hours. “When they’re practicing, the glass in the windows rattles and the mullions in the windows rattle. It’s so loud you can’t hear yourself think inside your own head.

“It’s a great event for the city, but not so much if you work downtown. I wish they had a better venue.”

The pain is not limited to festival weekend, either, downtown denizens say. It’s also the weeks of leadup, starting with the closing of Bayfront Park and the parking lots in the middle of Biscayne Boulevard, and followed by construction noise from work on the massive temporary venue and its multiple stages, the grinding of trucks delivering materials night and day, and the resulting traffic congestion that can drive the most hardened downtown resident around the bend.

“It’s five weeks of disruption for everyone who lives for blocks around it,” said Raul Guerrero, a resident of the Loft 2 condo tower on Northeast Second Avenue, where he says the windows also rattle when the music’s pounding a full two blocks away. “Many people just leave for the weekend. We’re going to the beach somewhere far away.”

To be sure, even the event’s many non-fans downtown acknowledge that Ultra’s on balance good for Miami, attracting worldwide notice and drawing tens of thousands of mostly well-heeled young attendees — tickets, mind you, start at $300 and top out at $1,250 at the VIP level — to the always sold-out festival and downtown Miami.

Guerrero, who is media rep for the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, a residents’ group that has been critical of Ultra, acknowledges that some downtowners are fans.

“There are some mixed feelings,” he said. “Some of the younger residents throughout downtown, they enjoy the festival. Just not the great majority.”

Hotel operators, in particular, embrace it. Ultra weekend blesses them with the highest rates of the winter high season, said Tim Schmand, executive director of the trust that runs Bayfront Park for the city and leases it out to Ultra’s promoters. The park gets no city money and depends on Ultra and other paid events to pay its bills.


“This is a high-end event,” Schmand said. “Hoteliers love it. Restaurants love it. This is their Christmas season.”

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But some downtowners just wish it would go somewhere else.

“The idea of putting something like this in middle of the financial district of the city is kind of questionable,” said Zyscovich, suggesting that rural Redland might be a better setting, just as a field was good enough for Woodstock in 1969.

Festival-goers’ reputation for rampant drug use and misbehavior, which in some years led to dozens of arrests, hasn’t helped. Problems with crowd control culminated during the 2014 festival when a security guard was seriously injured as gate-crashers pushed over a perimeter fence. The guard, Ericka Mack, has filed a $10 million lawsuit against the festival and the city.

City commissioners briefly debated pushing the festival out but ultimately concluded that the prestige and income it generates are worth the hassles.

Since then, security improvements instituted by the promoters, including stronger fencing and the banning of attendees under 18, have resulted in better-behaved crowds. Arrests dropped to 67 last year after reaching a high of 109 in 2013, Miami police say.

But residents bear much of the brunt of the event, critics say. The avalanche of attendees, many under the influence of party drugs, forces Guerrero’s building, where he heads the condo board security committee, to ante up $5,000 to $10,000 every Ultra weekend for additional security — as do other buildings downtown.

Meanwhile, the closure of Biscayne Boulevard’s northbound lanes — which become part of the Ultra grounds — forces traffic to be re-routed through downtown’s narrower streets starting Thursday night, rendering much of the area impassable, he complained.

Bayfront Park’s Schmand, who has attended 17 Ultras even though booming electronica’s hardly his thing — he wears earplugs, he said — conceded that Friday afternoon traffic is “a challenge” as office workers leave but said everything flows smoothly after that. He suggested that by now most downtowners take Ultra in stride. If not, there’s free yoga classes this weekend in nearby Museum Park, where he insists you won’t hear a sound from Ultra.

“Don’t,” he said, “let the fact that Ultra happens stress you out.”

We asked seniors to respond to the annual craziness at Miami's Ultra Music Festival.

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.