A pair of fatal shootings over the weekend has forced Miami Beach to confront the question of what it wants its identity to be.
Party central where tourists can revel? Seaside city for year-round residents and snowbirds? A balance of both?
The identity crisis is playing out as residents, business owners and politicians are reeling from the shooting death of a man in South Beach during an argument over a parking space Sunday night. Police officers later killed someone in the car with the suspected shooter during a confrontation.
This familiar conversation centers on Ocean Drive, an entertainment hub that draws massive crowds on holiday weekends such as Memorial Day weekend.
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Two days after the killings, Mayor Philip Levine on Tuesday revived old proposals to ban alcohol sales after 2 a.m. and reduce noise on Ocean Drive. The controversial ideas were instantly met with resistance from members of the hospitality industry on Ocean Drive, who pointed out that their businesses generate tax revenue.
Levine, who was away vacationing Sunday night and has spent many days this year touring Florida as he mulls a bid for governor, convened an emergency press conference Tuesday to announce his proposal.
He has failed to win support from other commissioners on these the policies in the past. But less than 48 hours after a fatal shooting that took place several blocks south of South Beach’s main entertainment hub at around 10:30 p.m. — well before the proposed 2 a.m. ban — Levine said his measures would “clean up” Ocean Drive.
Although it is unknown whether the 19-year-old suspect visited any of the street’s establishments, Levine insisted that a quieter Ocean Drive with no alcohol sales after 2 a.m. would reduce crime.
“Now there are those who will say to you if you close the liquor at 2 a.m. it won’t make a difference. Well, let me tell you something folks: It will,” Levine said. He added that Coconut Grove has been successful in improving residents’ quality of life after rolling back the hours when alcohol can be sold.
Now there are those who will say to you if close the liquor at 2 a.m. it won’t make a difference. Well, let me tell you something folks: It will.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine
Local businesses leaders objected, saying their clubs and bars are not to blame for violence in South Beach and shouldn’t be punished. They made the case that the Beach’s relationship with Ocean Drive businesses is symbiotic because they generate resort taxes that feed city coffers.
One owner got into a shouting match with Levine as the mayor disparaged Ocean Drive bars.
“You’re talking about businesses that created the label ‘Miami Beach,’ ” shouted David Wallack, owner of Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive.
Levine responded by insulting Wallack.
“You know what you did? You inherited a business. Go get a job. Go build a company. And go tell me when you build something,” snapped Levine.
Wallack founded Mango’s, among the top-grossing nightclubs in the U.S., in the 1990s. Before opening Mango’s, Wallack relocated an existing assisted living facility he’d founded in the building on Ocean Drive, which he inherited from his father.
When pressed for a clear vision of what he wants Ocean Drive’s atmosphere to be, Levine spoke in generalities, saying he wants it to be a place “where everybody can come every weekend, during the week.”
“They can go to great restaurants. They can bring their kids. They can bring their families,” he said. “I want Ocean Drive to become more of what we see Coconut Grove and Fort Lauderdale have become today.”
Mike Palma, executive vice president of hospitality for the company that owns the Clevelander, said the mayor is using the Ocean Drive bars as scapegoats.
“The mayor wants to punish businesses,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
I think that’s wack. Y’all are going to have Vegas take over. Y’all have got competition.
Kamal Ali, tourist visiting from Maryland
The debate was sparked by the killing of Ladarian Tyrell Phillips, 30, of Homestead. He died Sunday night when police say 19-year-old Jeffery Alexander from Brooklyn shot him during an argument over a parking space. Following a police chase to the west side of the island, police shot and killed a man who was in the same vehicle as Alexander.
In calling for the year-round changes, Levine also said that Memorial Day weekend is not the only time of the year when the Ocean Drive corridor has issues. Commissioner Michael Grieco, who on Monday called for an end to Urban Beach Week, disagreed.
He called Levine an “absentee” mayor who was creating a distraction from the increased crime associated specifically with Urban Beach Week.
Grieco’s suggestion is targeted and more drastic. He suggests working with clubs “coupled with a possible cutoff of alcohol sales during the last two weekends of May to as early as 10 p.m., all while expanding the footprint of the Air and Sea Show.”
The question of public safety during busy tourist weekends has dogged Miami Beach City Hall for years as leaders seek to balance the needs of residents and the needs of tourists. The debate is often framed in the context of Urban Beach Week, which spurs the uncomfortable conversation about race because the majority of visitors who attend Urban Beach Week events are African American.
But the reality is crowd-control issues have grown for non-Memorial Day weekends purely because of the Beach’s popularity. In March 2016, for example, a 20-year-old man in town for Spring Break was fatally shot in the chest after a fistfight broke out on a crowded Ocean Drive.
Yet Miami Beach has remained a popular destination and a juggernaut revenue-generator for the local tourism economy, and Memorial Day weekend plays a significant role. Although hotel statistics will not be available until later this week, the popularity of Urban Beach Weekend has been trending up for the past five years.
Demand for travel to the Beach during the three busiest days of Memorial Day weekend, Friday to Sunday, increased almost 23 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to data analytics firm STR.
On average, hotels were 6.5 percent more full last year from Friday to Sunday on Memorial Day Weekend compared to the same time in 2012.
And hotels have made more money off the weekend in recent years. Looking at the same three days, the average daily rate hotels have commanded on the Beach increased almost 8 percent from 2012 to 2016, by about $20 a night. That led to a whopping 32 percent increase in revenue for area hotels during the same time period.
On Tuesday, tourists who spoke with the Miami Herald on Ocean Drive had mixed reactions to the mayor’s announcement.
“I think that’s wack,” said Kamal Ali, a tourist from Maryland who has been coming to Miami on Memorial Day weekend for the last eight years. “Y’all are going to have Vegas take over. Y’all have got competition.”
Ali said he was already unhappy with Miami Beach’s decision to host the Air and Sea Show on the same weekend as Urban Beach Week. He said noise from the planes woke him up every morning. After hearing about the mayor’s plans, Ali said that next year he plans to go to Las Vegas instead.
Others said the noise and liquor ordinances would do little to improve security.
Visitor Eric Paul Leue said that if safety is an issue, he thinks Miami Beach would be better served by instituting tougher gun control measures.
“I think that’s a strange decision to make,” he said of the mayor’s plans to cut off alcohol sales after 2 a.m. “Maybe we should talk about gun control and not liquor control.”
Lorena Cuñago and Carlos Haring from Madrid, Spain, were visiting with their two young children, ages 3 and 5. They said the proposed restrictions sounded sensible.
“If people can’t control themselves with alcohol then there’s a need for restrictions,” Cuñago said in Spanish.