Miami Beach

A little less frat party, a little more class for South Beach’s Ocean Drive

Miami Beach has plans for revamping the look and feel of Ocean Drive.
Miami Beach has plans for revamping the look and feel of Ocean Drive. Miami Herald file

Imagine a calmer Ocean Drive that’s a little less frat party and a little more dinner soiree.

Or at least one where you don’t get slammed with an unexpectedly expensive bill for what you thought was a daily special.

Picture sidewalk cafe tables with uniformly designed umbrellas, short enough to allow people to see Art Deco facades, bunched against hotels fronts so that a five-foot path is cleared along the sidewalk. Music blaring from speakers in front of T-shirt shops and from golf carts rolling by is silenced. More private security and police officers roam from block to block.

A new look and feel of Ocean Drive could start to materialize during the next few years as Miami Beach implements a suite of changes to the street, which serves a postcard-ready image that defines South Beach.

Beach elected officials and business owners have talked about revamping the strip for a few years now, pointing to a few highly-publicized crimes and a carnival-like atmosphere. Mayor Philip Levine has compared it to Bourbon Street and proposed shortening hours when alcohol could be served.

Criticisms of the street’s party vibe were echoed by a task force of local businesses and residents that last year came up with a sweeping set of 29 recommendations to overhaul Ocean Drive. This summer, Commissioner Ricky Arriola brokered a 10-point plan that prioritizes recommendations from that list.

“Ocean Drive has been in steady decline for twenty years, and this plan is the first step to restoring Miami Beach’s iconic street as a destination for locals and visitors alike,” said Arriola, before commissioners approved the plan this week.

The November straw ballot on whether Miami Beach should ban alcohol sales on Miami Beach after 2 a.m. is no longer valid. The question will appear on the ballot, but votes will not count.

The beachside strip of Deco hotels with shops and restaurants on the ground floor still draws big crowds, but it’s not known for being a hangout for locals and their families. Officials worry that even among tourists, the place’s reputation has suffered with the persistent din of music and recent well-publicized crimes.

Earlier in the summer, Levine had proposed a more dramatic change — rolling back last call from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. for most establishments on Ocean Drive from Fifth to 15th streets. Fellow commissioners and Ocean Drive businesses and employees called the proposal an overreach, and Arriola said he would work with owners on a compromise.

When his 2 a.m. alcohol ban didn’t get support, Levine successfully pushed to get a non-binding question on November’s ballot asking Beach voters if they support the earlier last call. The decision to move forward on the recommendations renders the straw ballot question moot. The question will appear on the ballot, which was sent to the printer two weeks ago, but votes will not count.

Some changes in the 10-point plan are already in motion.

Lighting is already getting updated on some side streets, and the commission approved spending $52,500 to install brighter LED lights on Ocean Court, the alley behind Ocean Drive businesses. The city is in the process of developing guidelines for the design and height of cafe umbrellas.

The city has already budgeted for 12 new police officers who will patrol in a newly created district that covers the heart of the Beach’s entertainment scene along Washington Avenue, Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive. Five of those officers will be dedicated to Ocean Drive.

Police don’t expect to have all the new officers trained and on the street until summer 2017, so in the meantime, business owners have agreed to pay for more private security, with two officers every other block between Fifth and 15th streets.

Most of the plan’s provisions will require the City Commission to debate and pass ordinances and resolutions, opening the discussion to the public. This includes forcing business to move their outside tables toward the front of the buildings to create a clear five-foot path along the sidewalk and prohibiting new chain restaurants (existing chains would be grandfathered in).

There’s a fine line between a fast food joint and, say, a Hillstone.

Commissioner Michael Grieco, on hashing out details for regulating chains on Ocean Drive

Some commissioners have noted that the little details will be crucial in new legislation, such as how to accommodate a five-foot walking path with tables and valet stands.

“We just have to do the arithmetic,” said Commissioner Joy Malakoff.

Also among the long-term plans: Creating a business improvement district, or a section of property owners who agree to tax themselves to pay for common initiatives.

This district would take at least nine months to form, so in the meantime, the Ocean Drive Association is employing a “street manager” to act as liaison between businesses and the city while ensuring the street stays clean and existing codes are followed.

Mike Palma, an executive at the Clevelander and officer of the Ocean Drive Association, told commissioners one of the details that needs to get ironed out is how the group of businesses will regulate itself to make sure everyone is following the rules. One of the biggest problems is what critics call the bait-and-switch when restaurants advertise specials without prices and then hit diners with an exorbitant bill at the end of the meal.

He suggested putting businesses that do this on notice, and if they remain in poor standing with the association, the city could punish them by limiting the number of tables they have on the sidewalk.

“We have to have some kind of way to hold these cafes accountable for their behavior that takes away their real estate, which is where they make their money,” he said.

Hashing out the specifics of each piece of legislation will take time.

This story has been changed to reflect Mike Palma’s correct title.

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech