Miami-Dade County

Will Ultra return to Virginia Key? Organizers want to, but Miami could say no

Ultra Music Festival turned 21 this year, and it’s got a bit of a hangover.

In the days following the electronic dance music event’s bumpy first year on Virginia Key, festival organizers say they want to come back in 2020.

Whether that happens is up to the city of Miami, which gave Ultra a revocable licensing agreement that allows organizers or the city to cancel the deal within about two months after the event. The City Commission, with only Ken Russell opposing, approved the Virginia Key agreement in November after rejecting an earlier contract to keep Ultra at its longtime home in Bayfront Park.

The reaction to Ultra’s debut on the island was decidedly mixed after problems with the event’s bus shuttles on Friday drew fierce criticism from concert goers, the loud music spurred noise complaints from Miamians and traffic snarls aggravated Key Biscayne residents — gripes that were balanced by kinder reviews from Ultra fans who had a fun experience at a lush new venue and the economic activity that comes with an internationally renowned event that attracts thousands of tourists.

Ray Martinez, Ultra’s chief of security, addressed reporters on the island Monday morning as crews began to tear down the stages. He told reporters that festival organizers hope to return to the key with a well-oiled production.

“It was a great event in a beautiful location, and we look forward to being here next year and producing — and even improving on — our event and our festival,” he said.

Mayor Francis Suarez, City Manager Emilio Gonzalez and other administrators will meet with Ultra representatives this week to review what went wrong and what worked during the three-day event that attracted more than 55,000 people each day.

An almost certain topic of discussion: the chaotic end to the event’s opening day Friday. Ultra’s shuttle bus system was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of people leaving the concert after the final performance, creating a morass of frustrated revelers shoving their way onto buses or walking nearly three miles across the William Powell Bridge to catch rideshares in Brickell. Services such as Lyft and Uber were banned from making pickups on the island.

Ultra smoothed out the worst of the shuttle system’s problems by Saturday night, when the the festival organized bus lines better, put up clear signs at bus stops and adjusted traffic patterns to allow an easier departure. Lines at the exits remained long, although more orderly.

“We were able to make those adjustments on the fly,” Martinez said on Monday. “We learned. We learned some things from day one, and we moved on to day two, and we made further adjustments on day three.”

Other concerns remain, issues that will be central to the city’s appraisal of the three-day event and Ultra’s future on Virginia Key. On Monday, Suarez told the Miami Herald he received nearly 20 emails from Miami residents complaining about the volume of the festival’s music, particularly the booming bass, which was heard and felt by residents in Brickell, The Roads and Coconut Grove. He said the noise and transportation problems might be improved if the festival, which went on until about 2 a.m., closed earlier in the evening.

“I’m still concerned about the bass. I’m still concerned about the time,” he said. “There are still some [exiting] issues.”

After some of the complaints, Suarez said he asked Ultra’s staff to turn down the music. Gonzalez said he could hear Ultra’s music from the living room of his home in The Roads on Friday and Saturday, but not on Sunday. The city manager said the festival’s transit issues were not unusual for a large-scale event in its first year at a challenging venue — Virginia Key is connected to mainland Miami by only one roadway: The Rickenbacker Causeway.

Gonzalez said Ultra responded to issues quickly, giving him confidence that the logistical problems could be solved so the festival could remain at the two venues on the island, Miami Marine Stadium and Virginia Key Beach Park. Neither he nor Suarez definitively said Ultra should stay on Virginia Key, though the city manager cited the economic impact of Ultra, a festival that draws thousands of visitors from around the county and world, as a major reason he considers the event a boon for Miami.

“It’s a net benefit for the city,” he said.

Miles Church, 26, from California, dances to the music during the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Friday, March 29, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

From the opposite side of the island, Key Biscayne Mayor Mike Davey saw it quite differently.

“I took at as a net negative for Key Biscayne,” he said Monday. “They did the best they could, but it’s just not the right place.”

For many Key Biscayne residents who had ardently opposed the relocation of the festival to Virginia Key, Ultra was more than merely a hassle. Some fled for the weekend, others hunkered down in their homes and decided not to leave the island until Monday.

“The village had the feeling of a ghost town,” said Taima Hervas, a longtime islander.

The main complaint was gridlock on the Rickenbacker Causeway. People said it took one to two hours to get from the toll booth to their homes in the evenings, when police shunted traffic into one eastbound lane.

“Trying to merge was ugly because the bus drivers were super aggressive cowboys. One missed us by an inch,” Hervas said. “Cars were stacked well past the tennis center. Four fire-rescue vehicles passed us with sirens blaring. Buses were idling and spewing diesel fumes for hours. The snaking line of taillights, pulsing sound, flames, lasers, fencing, police, people walking back and forth across traffic — the causeway was transformed into a concert venue.”

Davey said he felt Ultra “did the best they could,” but that the island simply isn’t a suitable location for such a large festival. Members of the Key Biscayne Village Council will likely discuss their position on the festival at an April 9 meeting. The council could pass a resolution asking Miami to boot Ultra from Virginia Key.

They wouldn’t be the only politicians to do so.

“I think putting 50,000 people in Virginia Key is not a good idea,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Monday. “There’s only one way in and one way out. I think they need to find a better place for it.”

Festival goers make their way toward shuttle buses after attending the second day of the 2019 Ultra Music Festival in Virginia Key, Florida on Sunday, March 31, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Ultra has added to the disruption caused by February’s Miami Boat Show, which was moved to Virginia Key from its previous base in Miami Beach.

“From November to April — the entire winter — the area around Miami Marine Stadium, which was supposed to be made into a waterfront park, is closed to the public and turned into a construction and deconstruction site for these cash cow events,” Hervas said.

Ultra noise was not a significant problem for Key Biscayne residents or beachgoers at Crandon or Bill Baggs parks. Instead, the loud sounds of electronic dance music and its deep bass beat carried across the bay to downtown Miami, Brickell and Coconut Grove, where one man walking his dog at 11 p.m. Friday said it was as if the concert was being staged a block away.

Downtown residents who thought they were rid of Ultra after its move from Bayfront Park were sorely disappointed. Their windows shook. Their floors vibrated. Beams of light flashed into their living rooms. Some said they couldn’t sleep.

“The entire weekend was ruined by the noise, intense strobe lights, traffic and unseemly festival attendees,” said Michelle Comer, who lives at the Met 1 building at 300 S. Biscayne Blvd. Her sister was making a long-anticipated visit from California, and Comer was an “embarrassed” host.

Luli Antelo said concert goers used her neighborhood in the Roads as a parking lot. They littered the area with beer bottles and plastic cups.

Ray Martinez, chief of security and spokesman for Ultra Music Festival, gives a wrap-up and takes questions regarding the three-day festival during a press conference Monday. Carl Juste

Complaints about penetrating noise for 12 hours straight each day for three days, wild pop-up parties, loud boat passengers, high festival goers and traffic that reflected “disgust and fury” packed the email inbox of Amal Kabbani, president of the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, who said Ultra had a ripple effect far beyond Virginia Key.

Ultra cannot be hosted downtown nor anywhere else with proximity to residential areas,” she said.

On the other hand, a couple of Silver Bluff residents interviewed by the Herald on Sunday didn’t mind hearing the music from miles away. One resident of Brickell Biscayne condominium, which is right near the west end of the Rickenbacker Causeway, said she picked up only occasional vibrations.

Miami Rowing Club members and dragon boaters couldn’t use the marine stadium lagoon during Ultra. They are among those concerned about Ultra’s impact on the Key’s fragile wildlife preserve.

“Power boat races, the Boat Show and now Ultra. Virginia Key doesn’t stand a chance,” said Sunny McLean, co-founder of the Virginia Key Alliance and a rower. “If downtown residents couldn’t stand the Ultra impact, can you imagine how fish, birds, sea plants and the Key’s natural environment will hold up?”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Rob Wile contributed to this report.