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Miami Beach Trying To Shed Hard-Partying Reputation, But Businesses Are Pushing Back

Miami Beach is a paradox. Before the coronavirus, it had seen a record number of tourists and booming prices for real estate. But it has also been suffering from a reputation for rowdy behavior — stoked by viral videos of a woman twerking on a cop's ATV, a "stripper cat fight" and a brawl outside a club, with shots fired — that politicians say is concentrated around the city’s main tourist strip, Ocean Drive, where bars can stay open until 5 a.m.

The mayor this summer proposed measures including creation of an alcohol board and earlier closing times for nightlife operators, as well as rebranding the area as a cultural district.

“The crime rate hasn't actually gone up,” but the city’s entertainment district has become a place that residents no longer feel comfortable, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told Bisnow in a phone call.

“I can't have public fighting and gunplay in the city,” he said.

Ocean Drive in Miami Beach during Super Bowl weekend in 2020

Some of the most famous establishments, however, insist they are not to blame and are asserting their property rights.

Attorney Alex Tachmes represents some of Ocean Drive’s longest-running bars, restaurants and hotels, including the Clevelander, The Palace and Oceans Ten. He acknowledged to Bisnow there are problems, like patrons openly displaying guns in their waistbands when they sit down for lunch, brazenly smoking cannabis while walking down the street and getting into fights that get filmed and spread across social media, which is “not good for the Ocean Drive brand."

For years, residents have been complaining about "utter lawlessness." This summer, one commissioner, David Richardson, told RE: Miami Beach that people were scared to go to work in the entertainment district.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a safe area for people to operate,” he said.

Owners of businesses on and near Ocean Drive have banded together to float solutions. The group includes the operator of the high-end Betsy Hotel, and Gloria and Emilio Estefan, owners of the Cardozo Hotel and Larios restaurant. 

Also this summer, a Citizens Volunteer Patrol was started, with residents trained by police to report suspicious activity — a development that drew fearful comparisons to George Zimmerman's vigilante-style shooting of Trayvon Martin and to Castro's Cuba, but was also chided as a "Karen squad."

Miami Beach in the past has faced accusations of racism when it cracked down on partying during Urban Beach Week, but both Gelber and Tachmes say the current problem crosses racial lines. 

Gelber said bad behavior is encouraged by some businesses, which promote an "anything goes" atmosphere on flyers. Using its authority to issue sidewalk café permits, the city tried cracking down on restaurant bait-and-switch scams that were proliferating, but Gelber said the city can't oversee every transaction. Tachmes said the bad operators hurt the whole district because tourists leave poor reviews, don't return, and hotels can't command high prices. 

The city of Miami Beach sits on a barrier island across Biscayne Bay from Miami.

The city is currently considering the mayor's proposal to establish an Alcohol Control Board and require that businesses follow certain restrictions if they want to serve alcohol after midnight, RE: Miami Beach reports, and also to develop Ocean Drive as an Art Deco Cultural District.

The city has already authorized $552K to engage a firm to conduct a land use study and set aside $200K for grants to fill empty retail space with galleries and lure wellness-oriented businesses. The city is also looking to spend about a half-million dollars on consultants for rebranding.

But Tachmes said there is no proof the bad behavior is connected to bars being open at certain hours — some incidents have happened while the coronavirus had the bars closed. He said the issues go beyond just the entertainment district and suggested it would be silly for the area to try to change its approach to lure kids or architecture lovers, instead of vacationers looking to party.

"We don't need a new brand," Tachmes said. "The brand is attracting people from all over the world."

There are about 35 police officers on duty in the district on weekends, but Tachmes said that police need to crack down on anything that crosses the line into criminality, from loud noise to overcrowding to bait-and-switch tactics.

"If you comply with the law, are not violent, are not waving a gun around, and not smoking weed, knock yourself out,” he said. 

Tachmes said that if the city moves forward with limiting hours, it will hurt property values.

“When a client buys a hotel for $50M, $60M, it’s totally normal to do a pro forma showing revenues [for the] next five years," he said. It’s impossible to project revenues or get a loan if businesses have no idea from one year to the next whether operating hours will end at 5 a.m. or 1 a.m., he said.

Several brokers contacted for this story declined to comment on how real estate values are being affected by the conflict, but LoopNet shows a 46-room hotel on Ocean Drive for sale for $21.9M ($476K per room) and a flex condo unit under contract for $2.47M. A Colliers International report for Q3 2020 put the average retail asking rate at $76.64 per SF on Miami Beach.

Tachmes said he is hopeful he, Gelber and the city council will find common ground, but he wrote a formal letter to the city asserting that his clients are relying on Conditional Use Permits they've already been issued to be allowed to operate late.

“None of these businesses are going to sit by quietly when cash flow goes down $10M," he said.

He also warned that resort taxes paid to the city, which are based on food and beverage sales, could dip. 

"I'm not worried about our resort taxes," Gelber said. "You can't pay us to have a city that we feel is unsafe."