Commissioner Steven Meiner said, “The number one complaint I receive is about police visibility.”
Noting MBPD Police Chief Rick Clements’ presentation on a plan to increase police presence in the Entertainment District that began in the middle of September, Meiner said, “I feel like we’ve heard this before.” His question and that of residents, he said, is “Why is this time different?”
“We’ve lost control,” he said. Following the September workshop on the problems and potential solutions, Meiner said he’s spent time in the area and didn’t see the increased presence. Referencing a particularly difficult weekend in which a man was fatally stabbed, a retaliatory shooting occurred, a legally blind man was robbed at gunpoint, and a group of people were seen dancing on a police car in the Entertainment District (MXE), Meiner said, “The images are imprinted on people’s minds. They went viral… and those images are very hard to get out of people’s minds… I was extremely disturbed by it.”
“Residents are asking why this time is different,” Meiner told Clements. “People feel like they’ve heard this before.”
Clements responded that an increase in police on the street also means an increase in officers taking action which then requires them to spend time securing a crime scene, collecting evidence, arresting suspects and moving them to the Police station where they generate arrest reports. All that time, an officer or officers are not on the street. To compensate, the Chief said he has moved others “out of bureau, out into a specific area,” a strategy he said he will evaluate for the next 60 days. “We’re constantly willing to try different things,” he said.
Gelber said that was an important point to think about. “If we put 30 or 40 more cops just in this area and all we did was just arrest people, we would better manage an intrinsically ungovernable situation.”
Referencing the ideas before the Commission for development incentives to attract better operators, long-term plans for pedestrianization of Ocean Drive, and penalties to discourage bad behavior by business operators in the MXE, Gelber said, “The truth of the matter is, most of the things we’re voting on and most of what we’re looking at isn’t to figure out how to better manage an ungovernable situation but to change the place so it is not as ungovernable. That’s the real problem here. The answer isn’t let’s just keep arresting people because so long as it’s an attraction to this kind of behavior all we’re going to end up doing is what we’ve been doing… so that’s something that’s worth really thinking about. How do we get rid of the underlying causes of this because policing is just not a great way to solve it. That’s not, in fact, a solution.”
Commissioner Michael Góngora was frustrated that longer term solutions were being discussed at a special meeting when they are “not solutions to what we’re facing now.” He said the issues of incentives, designating so-called “heritage businesses,” and repealing a noise exemption for two blocks of Ocean Drive, are all things he would consider but he said, “The enforcement portion of this meeting today is the most important… It’s the only thing that will help now… All of these other things may help in 2021 but I’m looking for short-term solutions as well as I’m looking for long-term solutions today.”
“We have a number of laws on our books both related to Code and related to Police which don’t seem to result in the safe environment that we want in the MXE,” Góngora said. Hearing statistics about increased calls for service and arrests, “don’t really help us solve the problem. We need to understand why the situation continues to exist.”
“We want community policing, but we want it to be effective,” he said. “We need to make sure that the police are actually out there walking amongst the public, making their presence and visibility known and reducing crime.”
“If the Police want more money, the Commission always votes to give you more money,” Góngora said. “If you need more technology to do your job, we vote to give you more technology, but we need for you to work with us and make sure these images that we’re seeing either in person or on social media go away.”
In addition to the police presence, Góngora urged stepped up Code enforcement and closure of businesses violating the City’s Code of Conduct and COVID emergency orders. City Manager Jimmy Morales responded that the City has “closed at least 45 businesses during the pandemic for at least a minimum of 24 hours” under the emergency declaration for curfew and noise violations and not wearing masks inside a business.
He also pointed to the Thanksgiving weekend sweep which resulted in a number of businesses having to close for 24 or 48 hours and one – Il Giardino on Ocean Drive – had its sidewalk café permit revoked through December 31 for multiple Sidewalk Café Code of Conduct violations.
The permit year which normally runs with the fiscal year from October 1 to September 30 was extended until December 31 due to the pandemic. As the City considers renewals, Morales said, “I’ve asked Code to put together for me a list of the bad operators, those that have had multiple violations. Hopefully we will be not renewing sidewalk café permits for those who have bad operators over the last year.” With the Code of Conduct that went into effect for Ocean Drive, Lincoln Road, and Española Way a year ago, and “because of the increased activity by Code [Enforcement] out there, we’ve been able to build a log against many of these businesses,” he said.
One of the proposals under consideration, Morales added, is for a dedicated Code Enforcement unit in the MXE.
Commissioner Mark Samuelian said he agrees with the enforcement push, but he said the area needs more. Referencing the entire package of what Gelber calls “carrots and sticks” – measures that include development incentives, repealing the noise exemption, tying alcohol and entertainment licenses to Conditional Use Permits, and increased penalties for bad operators, Samuelian said, “As I think about the problem, my approach to the solution… is all of the above. I think we need to use all of the tools. I don’t think it’s just an enforcement issue. I don’t it’s just a noise issue. I think we need every tool, and the risk is not doing enough.”
He emphasized the “challenges” with police visibility, noting resident observations as well as his own. “We need to raise the game in terms of visibility” but he underscored a comment the Police Chief made about the impact on other neighborhoods when resources are diverted to the MXE and the movement of crime out of the Entertainment District into nearby areas as a result of increased enforcement in the MXE. Clements said MBPD has seen increased problems on Collins Avenue recently.
Samuelian said he was happy to hear the Administration was giving consideration to not renewing sidewalk café permits at the end of the year for bad operators. Reiterating that the permits are “a privilege, not a right,” he said, “It seems like we just have a hard time reining in this bad behavior despite the legislation that we’ve put forward” in the past few years. “I really hope we can do a better job reining in these bad operators and not giving them the opportunity to make money on the public right of way.”
Commissioner Ricky Arriola who spearheaded the Ten Point Plan that has been the City’s blueprint for Ocean Drive since 2016 said, “I don’t know what’s happening in society where people think it’s okay to jump on police cars and vandalize law enforcement equipment. We cannot have a civilized society where that’s okay.” Acknowledging the “difficult” policing environment, his message to the Police Department was clear. “To the extent our police feel challenged and concerned about the support they’re going to get from this Commission… you have our firm commitment to do what is necessary to provide law and order in our city and please do not hesitate to enforce the law because we will not have a city that is safe for our residents and our guests if we don’t enforce the law.”
Turning to the Ten Point Plan, Arriola said, “The essence of the Ten Point Plan was to create a toolkit for our City Administration to get bad behavior from businesses under control and I do think we need to do a better job there.” That said, he argued, the Commission needs to give “as much energy” to long-term solutions such as “how do we attract good businesses so that we push out the bad businesses.”
How does the City get more businesses like The Betsy Hotel and “less of the crap that we see in other areas,” he asked, citing the “pizza by the slice stores,” t-shirt shops, and tattoo businesses. “How can we incentivize good investment to go in there… attract a better crowd of folks that don’t jump on police cars and stab people in the middle of the street?”
“Noise [ordinances] and curfews are not going to get the job done” he said suggesting the City “look at our land use toolbox” to create incentives to help spur good development. “How do we take that whole area and in the next 4 to 5 years totally revitalize it… how do we get that to actually happen?”
Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “I think it’s a multi-pronged solution and I think this is the right time.” She said the Commission should decide on “a benchmark we want to hit as a city” while going through the economic recovery process, so that “when we get to the other side [of the pandemic], we have things in place to get us to where we reimagine it to be.”
“We can’t keep going like this,” Steinberg said. “We keep spinning our wheels. Something has to change.”
Gelber then made an impassioned plea for action. “It’s not incredibly unruly on Ocean Drive or in the Entertainment District because there aren’t police around… What’s happening is that – and I hate to say this, but – the business model [for that area] has become a sort of lower grade than it should be and you’re getting a Bourbon Street feel. That’s what the problem is.”
“I appreciate that everybody wants to put more police there. Of course we should put more police [there],” he said, but to “just keep taking more police and arresting more people” isn’t the answer… “We have to change the district.”
“We are going to continue to just repeat this over and over again and other Commissions will repeat it unless we decide to be bold enough to change what’s happening dramatically,” Gelber said. “That ought to include everything from [repealing] the noise exemption to alcohol sales to anything, because the current model is not working,” though he acknowledged, “It may be working financially for some operators.”
“Throwing a zillion police at it will get a lot of arrests and maybe we’ll tamp it down, but until that place is elevated as a cultural district with a cultural experience celebrating our art deco history,” nothing will change, he said. He aims to move the district away from its heavy emphasis on entertainment to an Art Deco Cultural District as part the overhaul he proposed this summer.
“We ought to inspire better development and we’re getting some better development there but the surest way to get great development is to send out to the community what we are intending this place to be which is an elevated cultural district,” Gelber said. “I absolutely believe that people will come to this iconic stretch, people will come to experience the beach, the breeze, the architecture, but you don’t have to appeal to the big drinks [crowd] and this rowdiness that has created a sense of anything goes.”
“We’ve gotta change it and all I would urge anybody to do is to be much bolder than we have been. We’ve tried a lot of things but it’s time to get a lot more serious and not be afraid. I think we need to really be bold,” he implored.
Ken Koppel, chair of the new SOBESAFE resident group said a different approach will benefit everyone. “The residents are hurting but the businesses are hurting too just as bad because the customers that used to spend money are gone. They’re scared away. An objection we’ve heard to parts of the Administration’s plan is that it will hurt businesses and that’s backwards. It will constrain a handful, but it’ll save hundreds and it’ll save our tourism and convention business.”
“Uncontrolled or inadequately controlled liquor, noise, hawking, bait and switch operators, rental scooters, rental occupancy abuses are all death to our neighborhoods,” Koppel said. “Yes. Enforcement is critical. We agree with all of the Commissioners’ comments on police presence. We are seeing some recent improvements, both Police and Code Compliance, but more is needed.”
Moving to the specific items on the agenda for a vote, the Commission approved repealing the noise exemption to the east for businesses in the 9th through 10th blocks of Ocean Drive after 2:00 am. Initially, the proposal was to repeal it entirely, but following appeals not to harm the legacy businesses on the blocks which include Mango’s, the Clevelander, and the Palace, the compromise was to turn down the music at 2 am. The change was approved on first reading by a vote of 5-2 with Arriola and Richardson voting no.
Arriola said, “If I thought it would work, I would enthusiastically support it” but given many of the businesses were closed for large parts of the year due to the pandemic and yet problems persisted, he said he reached “the conclusion that these noise ordinances and these curfews don’t make a difference in behavior at all… Bars and restaurants in that area were closed and yet we saw the misbehavior” at all hours.
Richardson said he was reluctant to make permanent changes during a pandemic without understanding the real need.
While Góngora voted in favor of the legislation on first reading, he asked that consideration be given to allowing the music until 3 am when it comes back for a second reading in January.
Commissioners voted unanimously on first reading to set up a designation process for heritage businesses like Mango’s, the Clevelander, and the Palace that initially will not carry any special privileges but could in the future with Commission approval.
Finally, they unanimously approved increased penalties for Sidewalk Café Code of Conduct violations with automatic 24-hour shutdowns for second offenses and a requirement that the sidewalk operations cease at midnight until a plan is approved by the City Manager for correcting the violations. For third offenses, an automatic 48-hour weekend closure plus a requirement that the sidewalk operations stop at 10 pm pending approval of a plan to correct the violations.
For longer-term initiatives including how and if Ocean Drive should be pedestrianized, arts and culture activations in the area, and development incentives, the City has hired noted urban planning firm Zyscovich to come up with a plan. Gelber who appointed a new Mayor’s Ocean Drive Panel this week said he hoped the latest panel made up of thought leaders and power players in the business, entertainment, hospitality and arts and culture fields would serve as “almost a focus group for Zyscovich and us” as the City looks to dramatically improve the resident and visitor experience.
The Commission agenda with details on the items passed is here.
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