Ultra Music Festival: the history of the controversy
Ultra Music Festival will return to downtown Miami, a remarkable development just two months after the homegrown event seemed destined to move out of the city, far from its longtime home on the waterfront.
Commissioners on Thursday approved an agreement to allow the three-day electronic dance music event to return to Bayfront Park for a weekend in March 2020, a vote that reverses a unanimous September 2018 decision to boot Ultra from the park. In Thursday’s 3-2 vote, Commissioners Ken Russell and Joe Carollo opposed; Commissioners Keon Hardemon, Manolo Reyes and Wifredo “Willy” Gort voted in favor.
The vote provided another sharp turn in a yearlong roller coaster ride for Ultra’s organizers and fans, downtown residents who vehemently oppose the festival’s presence in their backyard and a business community that felt the positive economic impact when Ultra was in downtown.
This time, the anti-Ultra argument was framed by suggestions of political favors — multiple commissioners have received campaign contributions from Ultra — as well as accusations of poor deal making and the contention that the city was allowing special exceptions to its laws just to accommodate the festival.
Carollo noted that Ultra still owes the city for police and fire costs associated with this year’s festival on Virginia Key — a $475,000 sum the festival disputes. In negotiations Wednesday night that involved Ultra, Reyes and city administrators, that number was reduced to $308,000, to be paid in installments.
Carollo argued that Ultra should still pay the full amount up front.
“This was a political decision,” Carollo said, summing up several hours of objections during which he accused city administrators of disregarding Miami’s residents in order to bend to Ultra’s will. At one point, he hollered at Deputy City Manager Joe Napoli during the tense afternoon.
“You’re not negotiating for the city of Miami,” Carollo snapped at Napoli. “You’re negotiating for Ultra.”
“We always work in the best interest of the city,” Napoli responded. The men loudly talked over each other until Russell, the commission chairman, stopped the back-and-forth.
“You’re a disgrace, sir,” Carollo bellowed at Napoli afterward.
The exchange reflected the bitter divide between residents of downtown towers and Ultra’s supporters, a disagreement that played out in what has become a repetitive string of arguments for and against the festival’s presence in Miami.
After a heated debate in summer 2018, the commission unanimously voted in September to reject a new deal to let Ultra stay in Bayfront Park. With ticket sales under way and no home for the festival, Ultra organizers found a sympathetic commissioner in Hardemon, who proposed the festival move to Virginia Key. The move was approved in November.
This year’s Ultra, organized hastily, was an uneven affair. Logistical issues caused a messy exit on the first night, and noise complaints came in from new neighbors in Coconut Grove, the Roads and Brickell. The criticism was such that Ultra voluntarily backed out in May before commissioners could even weigh whether to put the festival on the key for another year.
As the festival courted interest from other venues outside the city, the same commissioners who booted Ultra publicly discussed having second thoughts. By June, administrators and Ultra representatives drew up a new deal for Bayfront Park — again incensing downtown neighbors.
The festival, which grew up on the downtown waterfront, has faced mounting criticism from an increasingly vocal group of downtown residents who argue that Ultra is a legitimate nuisance. Several neighbors point to studies that show the festival blasts unhealthy levels of sound at residences across the street, rattling their cabinets and disrupting their quality of life.
“I love music, but what I have to live through is NOT music,” said Sara Arroyo, who lives across from Bayfront Park. “It’s a nerve-wracking noise that becomes Chinese torture after hours.”
Other downtown residents feel Ultra brings a level of energy and entertainment to the urban core. They echo tourism boosters who tout the value of Ultra’s international audience.
“If I wanted peace and quiet, I would’ve moved to Pinecrest or Boca,” said downtown resident Julie Kim.
Before the commission voted, Hardemon addressed critics who have pointed to contributions made to his county commission campaign account and an electioneering committee run by his aunt, Barbara Hardemon — who has lobbied for Ultra in the past.
“The comment that someone is voting for something because they have a campaign contribution is hogwash,” Hardemon said.
In the days before the vote, Reyes and Mayor Francis Suarez arranged multiple meetings with Ultra’s principals and residents to try to reach a compromise. Ultra agreed to tweak the agreement’s details to appease residents, from reducing the amount of days Ultra will close the park to lowering the maximum decibel level for the music.
Sam Dubbin, an attorney representing the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, resisted attempts to negotiate. He said that the neighbors alliance expected Ultra to strictly adhere to Bayfront Park’s rules for hours of operations and sound levels. In approving the license agreement, commissioners gave Ultra an exception from those rules.
Dubbin also argued that the city improperly changed the number of commission votes required to pass the deal from four to three. The commission has five voting members; the mayor doesn’t have a vote.
“This change is directly contrary to the city’s precedent,” Dubbin said.
City Attorney Victoria Méndez said she used a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit against the city over the Virginia Key agreement to determine that the city did not lease public land on the key to Ultra; it approved a licensing agreement to allow it to use the land.
Méndez said the judge’s comments established that such an agreement does not trigger the city’s competitive bidding requirements, therefore the commission does not have to waive bidding with a four-fifths vote.
“Because the City Commission is not waiving any bidding procedure required by law, which waiver requires a 4/5 affirmative vote, it may lawfully approve an Ultra revocable license agreement by a majority vote,” Méndez wrote in a memo sent to commissioners Thursday.
The attorney in that previous lawsuit, David Winker, joined Dubbin in saying the judge’s findings had nothing to do with how many votes are needed for approval.
“And no decision on the merits of that case has been made yet — that was a preliminary motion,” wrote Winker in an email. “We have a new judge and the case continues on my claims that the license agreement is illegal under the city charter.”
Legal challenges could result, as they often do on controversial commission votes in Miami. For now, Ultra has a deal to “come back home,” as a celebratory tweet from the festival read.