Miami Beach

‘Like I’m in The Twilight Zone.’ Debate rages over music in Miami Beach restaurants

Musicians play at Lagniappe in the city of Miami. Restaurants in Miami Beach typically have to get a special permit to host live music.
Musicians play at Lagniappe in the city of Miami. Restaurants in Miami Beach typically have to get a special permit to host live music. For El Nuevo Herald

Several years ago, restaurant owner Gerardo Cea wanted to have jazz musicians play at his Miami Beach restaurant.

But restaurants on the island typically can’t host any live entertainment, even at a low volume, without getting a special permit. When Cea, who owns Café Prima Pasta in North Beach, contacted City Hall he learned that the permit would cost roughly $5,000 and take months to obtain.

Cea quickly gave up on the idea. “Apart from being too expensive, there were too many obstacles,” he said.

Under Miami Beach law, businesses can play music on a stereo system at ambient level without a permit, but they can’t hire a violinist to perform during dinner, for example, or host a poetry reading.

“Even if you have a mime come into the restaurant to perform, that would be a violation,” said Robert Siegmann, owner of Icebox Cafe in Sunset Harbour.

Restaurateurs like Siegmann and Cea say the restrictions make it difficult to compete with businesses in other areas of Miami-Dade County that aren’t subject to the same rules.

“South Beach is no longer the only entertainment option in town as it was perhaps in the early 2000s,” Siegmann said. “Now, of course, with the development of Wynwood and Midtown and Brickell and others, all food and beverage operators need to compete on a much more aggressive and broader scale than we ever had to.”

Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán recently proposed changing the city’s legal definition of “entertainment establishment” to allow businesses to have ambient entertainment — low enough that it won’t interfere with a normal conversation — without applying for a permit.

But the proposal was met with fierce opposition from many South Beach residents, who worry that restaurants would take advantage of the looser restrictions to host loud entertainment that disturbs the neighbors. Residents in two neighborhoods in particular — South of Fifth and Sunset Harbour — say they have worked hard to keep these areas free of the party atmosphere seen in other parts of South Beach.

“This would be a disastrous reversal of direction if applied to South of Fifth, which thrives under the zoning prohibition on entertainment within its borders,” local activist Frank Del Vecchio said in an email. “Prohibiting entertainment has been the single most effective instrument in this success. The result is a true community, for the most part free of the disruption, congestion and need for extensive policing that plagues the Entertainment District.”

Alemán has scrapped her initial idea and is now proposing a one-year pilot program that would allow restaurants to apply for ambient entertainment permits, which would likely cost less than $100 to obtain. The music would have to be indoors and wouldn’t be allowed before 10 a.m. or after midnight.

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A woman stops to guest conduct as musicians from the New World Symphony hold an interactive concert on Lincoln Road. Miami Beach Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said she wants to bring more music to Miami Beach by allowing restaurants to more easily hire musicians. PATRICK FARRELL

Under the current system, businesses with entertainment permits can appeal code citations to a special master, which makes it harder for the city to stop bad behavior. But the ambient entertainment permits would be given at the discretion of the city manager, Alemán said, which would make it easier for the city to revoke them.

“If all the sudden the Rolling Stones start playing in there, well, we’ll take the permit away,” Alemán said. “But if they wanted to have one of the New World Symphony fellows come and play for brunch, they could do that.”

Using a decibel meter, the Miami Herald measured the volume levels on some common annoying noises in South Florida.

The pilot program would likely be limited to specific areas of the city and the number of permits would be capped, Alemán said. She has promised to exclude South of Fifth and Sunset Harbour from the pilot program because of resident opposition.

At a town hall meeting at the Normandy Shores Golf Course on Tuesday evening, Alemán pitched the idea to residents while a musician visiting for the Miami Classical Music Festival played viola in the background.

South of Fifth resident Steve Jacobson said he was concerned about the city’s ability to enforce the proposed rules because code enforcement officers aren’t equipped with decibel readers. His neighborhood has had problems with businesses violating existing noise ordinances, he said, and with drunk tourists spilling out of the entertainment district and into the neighborhood late at night.

“I think you need to set some objective noise level standards that are enforceable,” he said. “Ambient to you and ambient to me are two different things.”

North Beach resident Betsy Perez, who works in the music industry, said she thought the city’s current rules were ridiculous.

“I feel like I’m in The Twilight Zone,” she said. “I can’t believe that we live in a town where we cannot play music live at the same decibel as the music being played on the radio.”

A second town hall meeting to discuss the proposal will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Murano Grande Community Room at 400 Alton Rd. The proposal will be vetted by the city’s land use and development committee at the end of the month and, if approved, will go to the full commission for a vote.