Downtown Miami

Miami police downplay reports of Art Basel week terrorism concerns

A young crowd gathers on Northwest Second Avenue in Wynwood, where business boosters and police are pushing back against reports of a terrorist threat during art week.
A young crowd gathers on Northwest Second Avenue in Wynwood, where business boosters and police are pushing back against reports of a terrorist threat during art week. MIAMI HERALD

Miami police and business leaders are scrambling ahead one of the biggest events of the year to downplay concerns that a possible terrorist threat is leading to increased security measures during Miami Art Week.

Reacting to reports that police are closing streets in Wynwood to help prevent the type of vehicular attacks that have killed pedestrians in London, New York City and Paris, police officials and business leaders in the converted warehouse district stressed Wednesday that they’ve received no intelligence of any planned assaults during the first week in December, when Art Basel and its many satellite fairs will descend on South Florida.

“We don’t have any credible information that we’re acting on,” Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes told the Miami Herald. “There is reason to be concerned based on world events. There’s no specific information to concern us about this particular event.”

The concerns raised Wednesday — the kind that could have a dramatic impact on an international art spectacle and massively important money-maker — spun out of a report on a Nov. 8 meeting of the publicly funded Wynwood Business Improvement District. During the meeting, police Cmdr. Albert Guerra was quoted by Miami Today discussing the closing of the area’s main drag and other streets amid US Homeland Security reports and “chatter culled from social media that a terrorist event may be brewing.”

“The closure map is still a rough draft. But do we want Second Avenue to be the way it is today, vibrant and alive, or do we want to have a memorial there, where 60 people were killed?” Guerra was quoted as saying.

Not exactly the kind of news businesses want breaking as travelers are beginning to pack their bags.

After the story went online and began to gain traction, Guerra and business leaders in Wynwood stressed that while Miami routinely receives intelligence reports, they’d received no terrorism intelligence specific to Miami Art Week. Police in Miami and Miami Beach said the same, as did the organizers of Art Miami, hosted this year in tents at the old Miami Herald site on Biscayne Bay.

In Wynwood, an epicenter of partying during the weekend of the Basel fair in Miami Beach, business district leaders said their plan to close the commercial heart of the district has been in the works for months. That decision stems from events during Art Basel weekend last year, when the street became so thronged with people on foot that police had to shut it off to auto traffic for safety, BID vice-chairman Albert Garcia and Cdr. Guerra said.

With narrow sidewalks and crowds thousands strong spilling into the street and gawking at artists painting new graffiti murals on buildings along the avenue, one obvious concern, Guerra said, is that a motorist or terrorist could drive through the crowd intentionally. But he stressed that’s a general concern and not motivated by any specific information that attackers have zeroed in on Wynwood.

“We’re only taking preventive measures,” Guerra said. “Has there been any threat specific to Wynwood? The answer is no.”

The intention to close the street to cars to make it a safer and better experience for pedestrians is akin to Lincoln Road Mall for the weekend of Dec. 8 to Dec. 10, Garcia said. The shutdown will extend from Northwest 22nd Street to 29th Street and will start after 4 p.m. on all three days.

“The traffic getting in and out of the area during Basel has only gotten denser,” Garcia said. “We talked about ways to improve flow and safety. It’s really more about being smart and being safe.”

Garcia said the Business Improvement District asked Miami Today to issue a clarification. But Publisher Michael Lewis said the business publication stands by its reporting.

“The story doesn’t say there’s a direct threat. We only said what they said,” Lewis said in an interview. “The problem is, they brought up the issues of Homeland Security and social media chatter. You bring those up in the context of ‘We’re going to close the street,’ and it’s fair to say there's some concern about terrorism.”