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Fight Over Miami Curfew Takes On Racial Tone, As Business Owners Blame Hip-Hop Culture

The Miami Beach City Commission on Wednesday voted 4-3 to roll back alcohol serving times from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. in the beachfront Entertainment District along famous Ocean Drive. It will affect businesses on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue from Fifth to 16th streets.

The issue pitted some of Miami's top developers and investors against one another. But it also renewed complaints that the backlash against revelers has been racially charged, and would not have been as violently enforced if patrons were White. 

The Clevelander in Miami Beach

There are about 50 businesses in the entertainment district, including four clubs that serve alcohol late and would be hurt directly by the earlier cutoff — Mango's, the Clevelander, Ocean's 10 and the Voodoo Lounge. Their supporters pointed out that they were closed or had curfews during the coronavirus pandemic, yet problems persisted in the streets.

While they disagreed about precisely what steps to take, almost all stakeholders speaking at the commission meeting said that the entertainment district is out of control, repeatedly citing concerns about patrons who they said have been fighting, openly dealing drugs, smoking pot and shooting guns. 

Appearing via videoconference, Starwood Capital Group Chairman and CEO Barry Sternlicht pointed to spring break this March, when the city made headlines for police facing off with tear gas and pepper balls against crowds of primarily Black revelers in the street.

"They were showing images of violence and twerking, and none of that is good for the image of Miami," said Sternlicht, who is White. The 1 Hotel on South Beach, which his firm operates, faced "massive cancellations" as a result, Sternlicht said. "Universally, people are fearful."

But Daniella Pierre, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said during spring break that when Black people come to South Beach, they can expect to be hassled by the police even when they aren't doing anything illegal.

“They’re met with heavy police presence. They’re met with street closures," Pierre said. "They’re met with closed parking lots. What are you targeting? Is it crime, or is it a culture?"

She could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. 

During a six-week period ending in March, Miami Beach police made more than 1,000 arrests, including more than 400 felony arrests, and seized 102 guns. Stabbings and shootings in the entertainment district have made recent headlines. The city recorded six homicides, 852 violent crimes and 6,977 nonviolent crimes in 2019, the most recent year statistics are available from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Uniform Crime Report. 

For now, the restriction is a temporary pilot program that will go into effect in 10 days and last until Dec. 8. Commissioners intend to let voters decide via referendum whether the restrictions should stay in place after that.  

Some speakers at the meeting who opposed the rollback of alcohol serving times argued that the city spent decades developing its internationally recognized brand as a vacation and party destination, and should not squander that, especially since the economy is tourism-dependent.

People supporting the rollback argued the opposite: that people will stop coming and investing if the area is seen as tacky and dangerous.

Appearing via videoconference during the public commenting period of the commission meeting, Peebles Corp. founder Don Peebles, who developed the Royal Palm Hotel and the Bath Club on Miami Beach, supported the rollback.

"These nightclubs do not offer anything more to our community than an amenity, and that amenity doesn't need to go on until 5 a.m.," said Peebles, who is Black. "Frankly, it doesn't need to go on until 2 a.m. It should go on until 12 a.m."

Melba V. Pearson, a Black civil rights attorney and director of Policy & Programs at Florida International University's Center for the Administration of Justice, told Bisnow that having only White voices or business community advocates involved in the debate has led to failed policy in the past, and would likely aggravate the issue now.

 "The mayor needs to meaningfully engage with all communities — including the leaders who have repeatedly raised concerns about the treatment of Black and Brown tourists on Miami Beach," she said.

"Meaningful engagement includes actually listening to, and implementing suggestions provided (such as targeted programming and expanding the use of local ambassadors during high impact weekends), not just pushing through the same old agenda,” she said.

Peebles blamed the nightclubs for deterring future investments in hotel development, driving down nightly rates, and hurting the value of residential condos due to noise and traffic throughout the night.

"Travel's a competitive industry. People could go anywhere ... The image of Miami as out-of-control crime, partying all night, street parties, police on the streets at all hours is not the image, the long-term successful image of this city," Sternlicht said.

To spend tax dollars on more police in the district is "like subsidizing bad behavior," he said. "People have their own security forces, basically trying to prevent what might be happening in the late hours of the morning."

Related Group Chairman Jorge Pérez, known as Miami's "condo king," called in from West Palm Beach.

"As a matter of fact, we are right now meeting with a very large Wall Street firm. We had shown Miami Beach as a destination, and one of the issues that they had with Miami Beach was it was too wild, and the fact that there was too much partying," Perez said. 

Mitch Novick, owner of the Sherbrooke Hotel, told the meeting that he had closed his hotel because of the crime and has been advising his longtime clients to travel elsewhere.

"I've been in the hotel business for over 30 years," Novick said. "I've decided not to reopen my hotel. I've had three shootings outside my property in the last three weeks. Crime is incessant. The problem stems from the incompatible and problematic zoning along Ocean Drive, which allows businesses to exploit the public realm with sexually explicit dance performances, blasting music."

Novick said that since officials closed Ocean Drive to cars during the pandemic to allow for more outdoor seating and pedestrians, it has resembled a "cheap carnival midway."

"It's time Miami Beach matures, grows up and starts attracting an affluent clientele," he said, one that can pay substantial hotel room rates.

Barry Sternlicht speaking during a Miami Beach City Commission meeting May 12, 2021.

David Wallack, who is White and has owned the beachfront bar Mango's for decades, blamed much of the chaos on multiple people crowding into single hotel rooms to save money, a standard practice for many younger Black or Latinx tourists.

"It's havoc going on, but it has nothing to do with the businesses. [Partiers] are not paying $15 and $20 to have a drink," he said. "They are out there because they are eight to 10 in a room and splitting it down so they pay $15 a night. They've been paying $35 and $55 round-trip from whatever city they're coming from. That's nothing. They're eating pizza."

Wallack said that the rollback ordinance would hurt his business, but not other establishments throughout the city owned by celebrities and politically connected people.

"Why isn't Washington Avenue included in this, Mr. Mayor?" Wallack said. "I'll tell you why, because [developer] Scott Robins owns property, and he's people's partner on Washington Avenue. [Hospitality mogul David Grutman] owns Story [nightclub]."

Wallack said where well-connected people have their businesses has also affected policy.

"That's not in the [entertainment] district; that's south on Collins Avenue, and he also is a partner in a new hotel on Washington Avenue [with musician Pharrell Williams]," he said. "We just had a shooting outside The Licking [a restaurant part-owned by DJ Khaled]."

Wallack said problems have snowballed since 2015, when the Miami police began to issue citations, rather than arrest people, for marijuana possession. He also blamed hip-hop radio stations around the country for promoting Miami as an anything-goes destination. Wallack pointed out that voters in 2017 nixed a proposal to roll back bar hours then.

Pearson said the curfew was a limited solution to a much larger cultural issue.

“The 2 a.m. curfew was previously voted on by Miami Beach residents in 2017, and resoundingly failed. It’s not the sole answer on how to move forward," Pearson said. 

Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. The city recently closed part of the street to provide restaurants with a place to expand.

Jesta Group, a Canadian firm that paid about $75M for the famous bar and hotel The Clevelander in 2018, has long threatened to sue over the matter. Its attorneys have asserted that it has vested rights conveyed by a land use order and that a 2 a.m. alcohol cutoff would be "financially disastrous."

Wallack on Wednesday told the Miami Herald that he would meet with the Clevelander's team to pursue litigation. 

"We will lose megamillions,” he said. Mango's was closed for a year during the coronavirus pandemic and just reopened in April.

State representative Michael Grieco, a Miami Beach resident, wrote on Facebook that “the city is going to get sued, and candidly, it should.”

Grieco said the fight over the issue will inevitably be long and convoluted, no matter who prevails initially.

“There are multiple land owners who have property rights intertwined with this issue. By significantly reducing revenues you are either directly taking money out of the hands of operators, or doing so indirectly by devaluing the property itself," he wrote. "Either way, the City of Miami Beach taxpayer is going to be footing the bill on protracted, expensive litigation that is not going to end well for us.”