Dan Gelber presser falls apart amid Miami Beach 2 a.m. alcohol ban protest

Gelber Protesters 00
'If you were wondering what we’re dealing with here, this is it.'

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber’s plan to “set the record straight” about leaked audio from a month-old conversation he and former Mayor Philip Levine had with developers fell apart Friday morning, as protesters shouted them and other speakers down at a press conference in Lummus Park on Ocean Drive.

TV news microphones may have picked up some of what Gelber, Levine, Betsy Hotel owner Jonathan Plutzik and Miami Design Preservation League Executive Director Daniel Ciraldo said, but an organized, raucous throng of some 60 protesters with matching t-shirts, including one with a megaphone, made things all but inaudible for other attendees.

After about 15 minutes of trying to be heard, Gelber, Levine, Joe’s Stone Crab restaurateur Stephen Sawitz and members of the Ocean Drive Association and Miami Design Preservation League called it quits. Gelber stepped aside to speak with reporters.

The protesters, many of whom said they were local hospitality workers, followed Gelber, booing and jeering.

“Where are you going?” one demanded of Gelber as other protesters closed in, continuing their chants. Some yelled, “Save jobs. Vote no. Stop crime.” Others screamed, “Liar,” particularly at Levine.

“If you were wondering what we’re dealing with here, this is it,” Gelber told Florida Politics. “These are the folks keeping this place reputable? Our residents can’t come to the street anymore.”

According to Jermaine Jordan, area director of sales and corporate partnerships at Mango’s Tropical Café, who was among the protesters, the onus is on Gelber, city staff and the Miami Beach Police Department to keep the streets safe, not residents and local workers.

“This has nothing to do with businesses and private establishments and everything to do with what we’re doing as a city to protect our residents, tourists and businesses,” he said.

Jermaine Jordan, who works for Mango’s Tropical Cafe on Ocean Drive, said Mayor Dan Gelber and former Mayor Philip Levine allowed crime to worsen. (Image by Jesse Scheckner)

In a Facebook post shortly after the Friday morning protest, Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert, who publicized the press conference to “set the record straight,” suggested the protesters were paid to be there, an assertion Gelber also made to reporters while he and Ulvert were being pursued for a block down Ocean Drive and along a cross street to Collins Avenue.

Ulvert said one protester punched him in the back and that he “found (himself) fearing for (his) life.”

“My job was to organize the press and ensure we had coverage,” he wrote. “At no point did I imagine protecting others, including myself…”

This reporter did not witness any violence Friday morning, but violence has become a major issue in the South Beach Entertainment District, Miami Beach’s busiest nightlife area, where more than 1,000 people were arrested during this year’s spring break, prompting the city to impose a rare 8 p.m. curfew.

That curfew has since been lifted, as has a 2 a.m. last call the Miami Beach Commission narrowly approved in May, which Commissioner David Richardson argued was “the wrong way” to address crime, unruly behavior and a spate of shootings and deaths that plagued the city in preceding months.

The change was meant as a temporary patch until voters weighed in on the matter in November, but it was cut short less than a month later when Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko ruled it unlawful.

The ruling came after the popular Clevelander hotel on Ocean Drive sued the city. Since then, the owners of some of Miami Beach’s hottest spots, including the Clevelander, Mango’s and Twist, have poured $275,000 into a political committee called Citizens for a Safe Miami Beach.

The PC paid for t-shirts the protesters wore Friday, which said “VOTE NO 2AM BAN.” They waved signs with slogans including, “Less tourism = higher property taxes. Get Dan out,” and “Save 5,000 jobs now. Vote no on 2 a.m. ban.” When Levine spoke, they hollered, “Liar.”

Protesters reacted strongest to former Mayor Philip Levine. (Image by Jesse Scheckner)

The November referendum is a so-called “straw poll” asking voters if they support changing the entertainment district’s 5 a.m. last call for alcohol to 2 a.m. “with specific locations and related restrictions and exemptions, to be determined” by the City Commission. The Ocean Drive Association, which Plutzik chairs, supports the referendum.

A 2 a.m. last call, part of a 12-point plan Gelber announced in March and maintains on his city website bio page, would cause Miami Beach to lose $14 million in yearly tax revenues and businesses there to lose $227 million in liquor sales over three years, economist Hank Fishkind concluded in a Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce-funded study released last week.

Fishkind came to a similar conclusion in 2017 before 65% of Miami Beach voters rejected a similar measure under Levine, the outgoing Mayor at the time.

On Tuesday, the Miami New Times published clips that former reality TV star and Miami Beach Commission candidate Fabian Basabe shared of a Sept. 13 Zoom meeting Gelber had with City Manager Alina Hudak, staff and about 30 developers, including Levine, whose private work includes real estate investment, sales and development.

Attendees of the meeting, according to a follow up by the New Times, included Norman Braman, a billionaire car dealership magnate and political donor to Gelber; Michael Comras, president and CEO of retail-leasing and development firm Comras Company of Florida; Rana Florida, CEO of consulting firm Creative Class Group; Jack Volkart, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach, which belongs to New York City-based development firm Flag Luxury Group; Nadim Ashi, who leads Fort Lauderdale-based real estate and hospitality development firm Fort Partners; Jonathan Fryd, president of Miami Beach property management and development firm Fryd Properties; Diego Lowenstein, CEO of Bal Harbour-based residential and hospitality developer Lionstone Development; Ariel Nakash, vice president of fashion, property, agriculture, aviation, maritime, media and entertainment holding company Nakash Holdings; Robert Finvarb, a Miami-based real estate investor, developer and hotelier; Michael Shvo, a New York City-based mega-developer whose holdings exceed $7 billion; Austin Zurlo, an associate of global real estate and private investment firm Starwood Capital Group; D.C. Becker, founder of hospitality advisory firm Titan Group; and Alex Witkoff, executive vice president of development for real estate development and investment company Witkoff.

During the call, Levine suggested creating a political action committee to raise money to support Miami Beach Commission candidates who “would move the city in a positive, safe direction.”

“There are six commissioners, and two will be new (after the city’s Nov. 2 elections),” he said. “We need to use whatever influence we have, (but) nothing can happen unless we (developers) exercise our power with those elected officials.”

About 60 protesters carrying signs and wearing matching shirts greeted Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, former Mayor Philip Levine and others in Lummus Park on Friday morning. (Image by Jesse Scheckner)

Gelber, who is seeking reelection to a final two-year term next month, stressed on the call, “We cannot talk about a PAC. That’s not what Alina (Hudak) is allowed to talk about, and I really shouldn’t be here talking about that with city personnel.”

Miami Beach campaign finance law prohibits candidates for Mayor or Commissioner, as well as their campaign committees, from directly or indirectly soliciting, accepting or depositing into their accounts any contribution from a vendor, real estate developer and/or their lobbyist.

Gelber, who did not appear to solicit or accept campaign contributions in the meeting, said he wanted to keep channels of discussion open with his office and the developers, but suggested it remain informal to keep Hudak from having “to send staff members to you all the time.”

Gelber told the developers to send him ideas “to reimagine the areas we know need to be reimagined.”

“I commit to you this: Our staff will be available,” he said. “If you want something on the ballot because it needs to be on the ballot, I’ll put it on the ballot, (and) I’m prepared to do whatever we need to do to support any idea, even if it’s not particularly popular.”

Florida law requires government advisory boards, including those by developers proposing redevelopment ideas, to make their meetings and documents public. They must also provide the public with advance notice of meetings and allow public comments.

Asked Friday whether he regretted not formalizing the group as an advisory board, Gelber said he’d done as much with the Art Deco Cultural District Panel, a group he formed to provide input for his envisioned “Art Deco Cultural District,” which he hopes will replace the entertainment district.

But its members are not the same as those he met with Sept. 13, he said.

“These were just residents, developers and investors who — and I’ve said this everywhere, and it’s online; you can go to the city website. Everything I said in that meeting is there,” he said. “Just because a guy tapes it doesn’t mean it’s leaked. I assumed it was being recorded. I said something I say every Tuesday to the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. There’s nothing new or novel about it.”

A sign the Clevelander posted briefly outside its premises ahead of Spring Break 2021: “Misbehavior encouraged.” (Image via RE: Miami Beach)

Jordan, who also runs his own hospitality marketing company, 305 Hospitality, has listened to clips of the Zoom conversation. It’s disappointing, he said, to hear Gelber talk more about brainstorming redevelopment ideas for the entertainment district than cracking down on crime.

“People don’t come to Miami for condos,” he said. “They come to go to restaurants and hotels. They bring their families to have a good time in a safe environment. It was safe before the last two mayors, who have a lot to do with these developers. So, there’s a lot to ask there.”

“It’s sad. It’s 2021. We should be coming together as a community, coming together in the private and public sector to find ways to make the city better, safer. All those things can be done if you have a plan, but we have two former mayors who clearly don’t have a plan, and they have personal interests at stake.”

If businesses and workers catering to late-night partying are concerned about safety and order, they aren’t showing it, said Gelber, pointing to a sign the Clevelander posted outside early this year with the message: “Misbehavior encouraged.”

The sign was promptly removed, as the business did not have a permit for it.

“This (referendum) needs to pass, or these folks are going to be in charge of this area,” he said.

Asked how concerned he is that recent events will affect his reelection, he said: “I didn’t run for Mayor to kick the can down the road. I know I’ve got to get reelected, but this is important.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


One comment

  • Jo Manning

    October 23, 2021 at 6:33 pm

    I was there and would be glad to share my experience with you. There was definitely a threat of violence in the air. Seriously. Those demonstrators were out to hurt someone. They should have been arrested for disturbing the piece and for harassment of the mayor and of citizens like me. There is a tape — actually, there are many tapes! — and these thugs can be easily identified. They should not be allowed to get away with this … and you can be sure, if they do, they will escalate their bad behavior further. It’s no joke.

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