Mayor says Miami Beach needs makeover after spring break

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The mayor said the city needs to adopt a "work-live-play" recipe rather than the "play-play-play" formula.
The mayor said the city needs to adopt a "work-live-play" recipe rather than the "play-play-play" formula.

Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber said he's determined to give the city a more balanced lifestyle, following a raucous spring break that produced damaging publicity for one of Florida's key tourism engines.

Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber
Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber

Gelber said the city needs to adopt a "work-live-play" recipe rather than the "play-play-play" formula that in his view drew unmanageable crowds to Miami Beach for much of March.

Large throngs snarled traffic. Some breakers -- not all of them students -- danced on cars, baited police or skipped out on restaurant tabs, prompting 894 arrests between Feb. 3 and March 15. Residents were on edge.

"Our city doesn't want to be a rite of passage for anyone," Gelber said. "If you look at the spring break experience throughout Florida, whether it is Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach or the Panhandle, nearly every community has said we don't want that. Because when you're a rite of passage for someone else -- unless you don't have any residents around -- it's very difficult."

As crowd control began to unravel, Gelber on March 20 imposed an 8 p.m. curfew on the three most popular avenues in South Beach. He also restricted late-night, inbound traffic to Miami Beach. The measures ended April 6.

Gelber said he had no second thoughts. "The only thing I regret is not doing it a week earlier, honestly," he said. 

Beyond spring break, Gelber has stepped up his advocacy for a change in the ground rules on South Beach, which he said were created 30 years ago when 1930s-era hotels in the area were in serious disrepair and needed a boost.

"So they decided to accessorize them with bars and restaurants to help attract development, and now the hotels are the accessory uses for the bars and clubs," Gelber said. The "entertainment district" between Fifth Street and 16th Street has become the tail that wags the dog, he said.

Gelber wants to move up last call for alcohol sales to 2 a.m. from 5 a.m., an idea predictably panned by bars. He also favors tighter noise restrictions, limits on oversized "boat drinks" at city-licensed sidewalk cafes and enforcement of a "code of conduct" for Ocean Drive cafe operators that aggressively solicit diners.

Many of the ideas must go through the seven-person Miami Beach City Commission or be approved by referendum. Voters rejected a change to the alcohol rules in 2017, following heavy lobbying by bars and restaurants.

Gelber hopes that the shock of this year's spring break will serve as a catalyst for change.

"We're a cultural destination. We have historic architecture, great hotels and restaurants and an enormous number of [cultural] venues in the city," said Gelber, who has served as mayor since 2017. "We view ourselves as an art and culture destination first and foremost, and the spring break experience we saw was incompatible with that."

As for the costs, Gelber said he can't put a dollar amount on the spring break damages. He said that as the pandemic eases, people will come back for all the things Miami Beach offers. But he acknowledged that the public relations hit from being on the national news was "not insignificant."

"Those images were so hard to look away from that I recognize the challenge," he said. 

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