Miami Beach is holding a referendum on the identity of one of its most picturesque promenades and essential tourist attractions.
Voters will decide the future of Ocean Drive’s late-night party atmosphere when they answer the ballot question of whether the city should end drinking at 2 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. on the street. If the measure is approved, all establishments on Ocean Drive, except indoor portions of bars that are completely enclosed and located entirely within hotels, would have to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m.
The referendum captures the classic struggle of any resort city between the resident and tourist, set against the neon glow of the street’s Art Deco facades. Locals want peace, quiet and a more relaxed, upscale ambience. Older South Beach lifers want to turn back the clock to a brief period following the Art Deco area’s resurgence when Ocean Drive was known for upscale restaurants and attracting the well-heeled.
But tourists come for the party, the music, the drink and — for some — the drugs. The tides of time have washed over the street to make it a home for tourists craving nightlife — a younger, racially diverse crowd with a taste for partying into the wee hours, twerking on the street and looking for sex.
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And while the referendum focuses solely on Ocean Drive, approval could signal a broader movement against nightlife in other parts of South Beach — residents in other neighborhoods who support the rollback see it as a stepping stone to reducing alcohol hours in their own backyards.
Will Ocean Drive get an earlier last call, which could signal radical change for a tourist hot spot? Or will voters keep the party alive?
Early voting begins Oct. 23. Election Day is Nov. 7.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Proponents of the rollback draw a direct line between alcohol and crime — even though the city’s own statistics show crime has gone down in recent years while clubs continue to thrive. Chief among the supporters of a more sober South Beach is Mayor Philip Levine, who first pitched the change last year as a way to make Ocean Drive less tacky. It was a less popular measure then, when fellow commissioners called it draconian.
But elected officials’ opinions changed following the death of Ladarian T. Phillips, who was killed in a shooting over a parking space on the eve of Memorial Day this year. Even though the killing occurred around 10:30 p.m. several blocks south of Ocean Drive’s entertainment hub, Levine renewed his call for scaled-back alcohol hours in the name of public safety.
In June, the commission voted to put the question on the ballot.
Some residents feel the rollback would be a significant step toward revamping the atmosphere on Ocean Drive.
“We don’t find it a pleasant, resident-friendly place,” said Frank Kruszewski, a resident of the Sunset Harbour neighborhood on the west side of South Beach.
Jo Manning has said she’s seen drunken buffoonery and general bad behavior in the last several years from her place on the north end of Ocean Drive at 15th Street. She thinks the business owners on the street are catering to a carnival-like atmosphere to the detriment of permanent residents.
“It’s very simple. I think that the owners of the bars have to get the message that the residents are sick and tired,” she said.
On the other side, Ocean Drive businesses consider the move heavy-handed and misleading. Owners of bars and clubs say more police will make the street safer. Also, they want to give a host of reforms negotiated last year — beautification, improved lighting and better noise control — more time to succeed. Limited alcohol sales, they argue, will deal a serious blow to the local tourism economy.
Mike Palma, executive vice president of hospitality for the company that owns the Clevelander, told the audience at a recent community forum hosted by civic group Miami Beach United that the referendum would dramatically hurt his business.
“At the Clevelander, we employ 450 people, 120 residents,” Palma said. “And the day this passes, 100 of them are going home.”
Ocean Drive business would certainly suffer losses, but Palma’s words may reflect an overstated prediction of economic fallout, a University of Florida economist not tied to either side said.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association commissioned an economic impact study from Henry Fishkind, a reputable Florida economist, that used sales data from three of the top five clubs on Ocean Drive to forecast a 25 percent loss in sales if the ban passes, or about $16 million annually. The study, paid for by the statewide pro-hospitality business group, outlines cascading impacts on the whole local tourism economy, including restaurants and hotels located near Ocean Drive, and predicts a loss of $11 million in resort taxes to the city each year.
Fishkind’s study differs from a chart produced by Levine, which concludes that the alcohol rollback would make a dent of only $619,000 in the city’s resort tax revenue.
Fishkind said he reverse-engineered Levine’s numbers and found the calculation assumes alcohol sales are spread out evenly across all hours of operation. In his analysis, businesses sell the most alcohol between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., with 13 percent of sales between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.
“The city’s analysis was, I believe, very incomplete,” he told the Miami Herald.
But Fishkind assumes that under the ban, people would stop buying drinks at 1 a.m., an hour before last call, and stop buying bottles at midnight.
Fishkind’s estimate seems high to Alan W. Hodges, director of economic impact analysis in the food and resource economics department at the University of Florida. After reviewing the study for the Herald, he concluded that the study’s methodology was sound, but some of the assumptions lead to high impact projections.
“The report is comprehensive and well-documented … though there are several assumptions that lead to very high estimates of economic impacts,” he said.
“They also estimate a loss of 10-20 percent in sales of hotel rooms, and 10-15 percent for restaurants nearby, based on surveys of proprietors. Again, this seems high, though plausible,” he said, adding that Fishkind’s firm is highly reputable and its numbers should be taken seriously
Resort taxes pay for a number of services, including park rangers, free trolleys and cultural programs such as the Fourth of July fireworks display. In the entertainment district specifically, resort taxes help pay for sanitation and cops.
Miami Beach has contracted experts from Florida International University to conduct its own economic impact analysis.
START OF A MOVEMENT?
Residents who want to limit alcohol point to Fort Lauderdale’s crusade to end Spring Break debauchery in the 1980s and ’90s as a victory for a community under siege by the unwanted effects of being a tourist hub.
The referendum’s passage could galvanize other South Beach neighborhoods to push for the same rollback on their streets. Since the ballot question pertains only to Ocean Drive, other bars along Washington Avenue, in the Alton Road corridor and in Sunset Harbour that serve alcohol until 5 a.m. could experience a windfall if the referendum passes.
But some neighbors are already planning their response should that happen.
“I support the 2 a.m. rollback on Ocean Drive,” said Gayle Durham, president of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association. She added that if bars near her got rowdier, her association would push for its own rollback.
“I am not concerned that Ocean Drive party scene will move to the West Avenue neighborhood because if that happens it can be easily solved. The 2 a.m. alcohol curfew already exists in parts of our neighborhood, so we can just expand it to include our entire neighborhood. And we can remove the ten 5 a.m. grandfathered alcohol establishments.”
Residents in the rapidly gentrifying Sunset Harbour area just north of Durham’s neighborhood have similar feelings.
“We would look at a 2 a.m. rollback to set the stage to possibly making that happen in Sunset Harbour,” Kruszewski said.
REBRANDING SOUTH BEACH
Talk of reinventing Ocean Drive is nothing new.
A task force of residents and businesses formed in 2015 developed 29 recommendations, including rearranging sidewalk cafe tables to create a linear path up the east sidewalk, adding more lighting and more police.
Some of the upgrades are already in place. Lights have been installed on side streets. More police are patrolling the entertainment district. Tables have been shifted. Every couple of months, additional parts of the plan are considered. Earlier this year, T-shirt shops and other retail establishments were prohibited from blasting music from loudspeakers.
Ocean Drive businesses insist they need more time to implement the full plan, maintaining that restricting alcohol sales won’t change everything. They sued the city to stop the referendum, but a judge ruled last week that the question will remain on the ballot.
“I believe this is not a silver bullet,” said Palma, of the Clevelander, at a recent community panel discussion hosted by civic group Miami Beach United.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola, who helped the task force prioritize its recommendations, said he supports the referendum, but he would move to reverse it the moment it starts to affect the local economy adversely.
At the panel talk, Nancy Liebman, a noted preservationist, said she supported the alcohol restrictions. A longtime activist who had a hand in saving the architecture that defines Ocean Drive, she said it was young people with a vision who helped revive the street in the 1990s.
“The tourists that we have now don’t seem to be that sort of people,” she said.
Conversely, Ines Flax, an Ocean Drive resident, said she’s against the referendum. She says the noise and the number of people out there make her feel safer, and she’s never felt scared or in danger.
“The tourists, when they come, they want to have a good time,” she said.
Indeed, tourists who flock to the street late at night often find what they are looking for: a rambunctious cocktail of music and alcohol accented by an ocean breeze.
That Bacchanalian revelry is sometimes interrupted by incidents that can range from bar fights to petty theft to drug deals to a shooting. South Beach’s overall reputation hasn’t been helped by recent high-profile violent crimes. Just this past week, a tourist who came to the Beach to celebrate her 22nd birthday was killed by police after smashing into several cars and ramming an officer with her car.
But alcohol is not always involved, and crimes like this have happened in areas across the city — on the beach itself, on the paved walkway next to the beach, in other neighborhoods — at different times of day. This past week’s crash occurred at 6:30 p.m.
Police Chief Daniel Oates said the department has put more cops on the street with good results.
Ocean Drive draws a significant portion of the city’s policing services, but Oates pointed to statistics that show a decrease in crime in recent years that he attributes to reallocating cops to the entertainment district.
“We are as invested as we can be in keeping Ocean Drive safe,” he said.
No matter what, voters will be weighing in on the overall character of the street — an important decision not lost on either side.
At that community forum, Wanda Mouzon said she and her husband moved to Miami Beach from a small, dry town in rural Alabama. Its main street had less than 24 shops and at 6 o’clock, the stores close and the lights go out. They wanted to move somewhere with life and energy.
“I like the vitality, and I recognize and acknowledge that that vitality comes from the nightlife,” she said. “For that reason, I feel like we need to be very careful in how we address the issue.”