By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
When he reached the door, he found Miami Beach Code Compliance officer Angelo Paloumbis. "He asked me if I had a kitchen and if I served meals," says the 44-year-old DiLena. "I told him no. I've owned this club five years and never served a meal. The club has been here eight years and never served a meal. You don't come to a place like mine to eat. Code enforcement people have been in and out of here all these years and know perfectly well I don't prepare food. But now he gives me a ticket at one in the morning because I didn't serve supper. I thought it was a joke."
It wasn't. Paloumbis and his Miami Beach Code Compliance colleagues descended not just on Warsaw but on three other prominent South Beach clubs -- Groove Jet, Lua, and Salvation, all of which cater to a predominately straight clientele. Each was hit with the same middle-of-the-night notice as Warsaw: Open a kitchen within 30 days and start dishing up eats or you'll be shut down. Period.
"It made absolutely no sense," recalls 35-year-old Greg Brier, owner of the extremely successful Groove Jet nightclub on 23rd Street. "But then we started to hear about the other clubs getting violations. We know how the city does things, and we put two and two together and figured where it was coming from."
The owners concluded that the crackdown was intended primarily to close yet another club, Amnesia, which has been locked in a four-year legal battle with the city. But the events of that night signaled something more worrisome to the nightclub proprietors: that despite a recent cease-fire, the running battle between their clubs and the municipal government for the past several years had broken out again.
"It's an amazing situation," says Eric Milon, the 45-year-old Frenchman who is part owner of the upscale Living Room on Washington Avenue. "Without the nightlife industry, there is no South Beach. There is no business, no profits. People used to come here for the Art Deco. Now they come for the nightlife. But it seems the city is always wanting to put us out of business. They are not just implementing the law. They are making your life impossible. They are trying to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs."
Miami Beach officials argue that the goose that deposits those golden eggs also leaves unpleasant droppings -- armies of teenagers from all over the county, including gang members, who cross the causeways and gather on South Beach. Many are well behaved, but some get drunk, do drugs, fight, break into cars, and even, from time to time, shoot at each other, police say. Because a number of clubs lure this element to the Beach, the industry as a whole must contend with the crackdowns. Until the entertainment industry fixes this problem, all clubs, no matter what their age policies, will inevitably feel the city's displeasure.
This bad blood between the clubs and city has flowed for some time, with no lasting solutions. But this latest clash might just provoke important changes in the way South Beach operates. A new mayor and a group of unified club owners forged a task force for that reason after municipal elections last November.
"We've been telling business owners for a long time that they have to decide what they want to be," says Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto, who participates in the task force. "You either want to be this wild scene, with tattoo parlors and whatever, that attracts the wrong element, or you want to make it a place that will bring well-to-do adults to South Beach."
Steve Polisar, an attorney and long-time South Beach investor also active in the task force, explains: "What we're looking at is working a transformation, attracting an older, upscale crowd, creating an adult Disney World."
What that means is a move to end the Mickey Mouse operations on South Beach that cater to high school-age kids. All-ages parties have become big draws on SoBe. At least one is staged on most weekends, especially in the off-season when clubs are desperate to pay the bills. They are often organized by independent promoters who rent club space for the night. Those parties permit teenagers to populate some of the same clubs that on other nights draw the supermodels and film stars of South Beach legend. At these kid events, the liquor cabinets are closed or remain open only in areas of the clubs restricted to those 21 and older. Youths pay a cover and can buy soft drinks. Most do their drinking -- or sniffing or pot smoking -- before strolling through the doors, police say. "They drink out of the trunks of their cars," chafes Chief Barreto.
By far the most popular venue hosting all-ages parties has been the Amnesia International Nightclub, at 136 Collins Ave. Amnesia is the nightspot that city officials are not allowed to forget.
The club has posed a problem almost from the day it opened in February 1994. The most dramatic incident occurred recently, in the early hours of April 7, when the Miami Beach Police hotline received a harrowing call. The dispatcher heard only two words: "Amnesia boom!" A phalanx of officers rushed to the site of the presumed bomb threat and ordered the management to evacuate the estimated 1500 patrons, most of whom were teenagers, according to police. The mob poured out into the street, less than pleased with the turn of events. Fights broke out. "It was a genuinely ugly scene," remembers Beach police spokesman Al Boza. "When I got there I saw a wave of kids coming down the street. This was scary."
Even scarier was the explosive device, which turned out to be a small -- but very real -- pipe bomb placed near a fuse box in the alley behind the club. Police disarmed it. Within a week they had detained two Coral Gables brothers, Manny and Angelo Varas, ages twenty and nineteen. The fledgling nightclub promoters were hosting a rival all-ages party on the same night at Salvation, a club at the opposite end of South Beach. The brothers, police agreed, had watched one too many Mafia movies.
The management cannot be blamed for the bomb, obviously. But the club had already collected an unusual number of enemies in its four years of operation. Amnesia -- a structure featuring classical columns, staggered dance podiums, and a dance floor, all situated in an open-air courtyard -- is located in a largely residential section of South Pointe. Its sleepless neighbors have pressed Miami Beach politicos to either make it quieter or close it down. In fact, they assail city officials for having approved the club in the first place.
The city claims the owners of Amnesia misrepresented their project from the get-go. Amnesia attorney Dennis Bedard admits that the owners' original application was for a "supper club," but the place was never operated as such. Amnesia evolved into a noisy beast of a nightclub, known especially for its raucous foam parties. "The city pictured a place where doctors and lawyers would go for a little supper and dancing, and instead they got kids, and kids make noise," says Bedard. He stresses that the city never responded to that original application for a supper club but issued the owners a standard license receipt, which lists Amnesia as a "restaurant (bar, lounge)," just like other clubs on the Beach. For that reason, the owners are not breaking the law, he insists.
That argument angers city officials who have waged a war of attrition against Amnesia. It is that war that spilled over to the other clubs last month. Code Compliance -- the municipal agency that ensures enforcement of building and zoning regulations -- has written violation after violation against Amnesia for too much noise. But the club has persuaded judges to void the violations, according to Bedard, and keeps operating. In April 1997 then-City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa briefly attained the status of neighborhood hero when he closed the club. The din, caused by thumping music, the squealing of foam-divers, and traffic, constituted an environmental emergency, he explained. A judge quickly declared the closing illegal. Within days Amnesia reopened.
Soon after, the city discovered a new weapon: Amnesia's certificate of use stipulates that it must serve meals at all hours of operation. This past October, the city ordered Amnesia closed because it didn't operate its kitchen according to the law. The owners were serving up plenty of foam, but not enough eats. Thanks to legal maneuvers, the club has remained open, but it could face closure in the near future.
In the midst of their campaign against Amnesia, city legal strategists realized they had left themselves vulnerable. Enforcing the "no-kitchen" provision against that one club could lead to a legal counterattack on the grounds of selective enforcement. According to Code Compliance director Al Childress, this is why the city launched its April 11 late-night offensive against other clubs that weren't serving food, although none of those businesses had ever been required to serve meals before and had never pretended to be supper clubs. "That's the city, all right," opines veteran Beach promoter Woody Graber. "They had a problem, and instead of going at it with a surgeon's scalpel, they went at it with a shotgun."
But the city again begs to differ. The trouble with disruptive teenagers isn't confined to Amnesia and its immediate neighborhood. Other clubs -- such as Salvation, Bar 609, Cream -- have also hosted teenage events. The problem affects all of South Beach.
The county curfew stipulates that all kids under seventeen must be off the streets by 11:00 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. But police say it is impossible to check every club to make sure the younger kids are out on time. They also say youths seventeen to twenty are not covered by the curfew but also cause trouble, especially when they are denied entry to clubs that have age limits of 21. (A New Times photographer was accosted by such a group of young men while taking pictures for this article outside Groove Jet the night of May 12.)
Crime statistics have dropped just about everywhere else in Miami Beach, but on South Beach they are burgeoning. A whopping 25 percent of all arrests in the city are made on Washington Avenue alone, police say, and many offenders are under 21. "These are mostly arrests concerning the keeping of order, fights and such, curfews," Chief Barreto says, "but also car break-ins and car thefts."
"If you live in mid-Beach and never see a patrol car at night, it's because we're always down here," says another Beach cop.
So are lots of other people.
It is 2:00 on a Saturday morning. South Beach is in full flower. Bevies of young women wend their way to their favorite clubs, dressed in their most brazen Saturday-night best -- lots of decolletage and legs. Carloads of young men cruise Washington Avenue, offering color commentary on the ladies. The traffic is bumper to bumper. Music and strobes pulse in the clubs. The night is young.
On the median strip in front of the Living Room, Bash, and Berlin Bar, between Sixth and Seventh streets, stand three policemen wearing shirts emblazoned with the words "Multi-Agency Gang Task Force." It was newly elected Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin who persuaded County Mayor Alex Penelas to dispatch county police to help patrol the Beach. A six-man patrol sweeps down the next block. In front of the Equus Club, between Ninth and Tenth streets on Washington, Miami Beach bicycle patrol officers order two young men to sit on the sidewalk while being questioned. Four young men in wool ski caps, three of them dressed in camouflage, swagger down the street. A young woman they pass is overheard complaining of "the gangsters" on the Beach.
The police patrol every median strip between Fifth and Fifteenth, stopping cars, checking IDs, detaining teens for violating the curfew. Officers haul the these youths to headquarters, to a room known as "the nursery," where they will be detained while their parents or guardians are called. In front of the Cameo Theatre, members of the gang unit have detained eight young men. One cop questions a boy in a Wu Tang Clan T-shirt about the tattoos on his arm. He wants to know if they are gang markings. Yet another policeman is wearing a ski mask, presumably to protect his identity for undercover work.
As much as club owners laud the police presence on Washington Avenue, they wince at scenes like this. "We want the police protection, but we don't want it to look like a war zone," says Eric Milon of the Living Room. Chris Paciello of Liquid concurs: "Having a bunch of kids on their stomachs in handcuffs on the median outside your club is not an inviting sight to prospective customers."
Assistant Police Chief Jim Scarberry insists the entertainment industry has only itself to blame. "Some clubs advertise in high schools," he says. This is done by promoters who distribute flyers. They also place ads on radio. "They tell the kids it's an all-night party and no ID is required," says Scarberry. "Then [other] clubs want the police to keep the kids away. It doesn't work that way. We favor no one under 21 being admitted to clubs, and we also favor licensing the promoters." This would mean requiring promoters to purchase bonds making them legally liable for any public costs that result from their parties. Scarberry says he has not seen enough movement in those directions for his taste.
Nor has his boss. "You get these clubs that plan to attract a certain crowd, and when they don't, they go for anybody they can get to make a buck," Chief Barreto says. "Well, the city shouldn't allow that to happen."
Barreto recalls that five years back, the businesses of Ocean Drive fought off a similar flood of underage kids. The clubs adopted voluntary policies against admitting high-schoolers, got police to end cruising on Ocean, and pooled their money for additional private security. That pushed the kids west to Washington Avenue, where more clubs were opening. Some owners disliked the influx of teenagers from the start, while others invited them in to fill empty space.
Barreto insists it is time to take a more comprehensive approach to the problem. "What we need here is a master plan," he says. "No clubs within a hundred yards of each other, or no more than three to a block, whatever. No tattoo parlors. No all-ages nights. We need licensing, rules and regulations that will create the ambiance that's desired."
The club owners moan at the notion of more rules and regulations, more government interference with commerce. No one is more vociferously opposed to that concept than David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association, which represents the owners.
Kelsey holds court at the association headquarters, housed in a garden apartment at Twelfth Street and Drexel, just across from Beach police headquarters. It was here that a raucous group of club owners gathered several days after the late-night Code Compliance crackdown of April 11. They represented about twenty clubs, not just the ones ticketed. "Everybody knows when the city goes after one set of owners, it's just a matter of time before they come after you," says Kelsey, a partner in the Park Washington, Taft, Bel Aire and Kenmore hotels on Washington Avenue. Several of the angry participants waved their code compliance citations the air and grumbled threats of a class action suit. "It was noisy and angry," Kelsey recalls. "I haven't seen the members this upset or this together since the 'three strikes and you're out' campaign the city tried to pull on us last year."
In early 1997 club owners spotted a mind-boggling measure on the city commission's agenda. It proposed that any three code violations issued against a business -- whether they be sins against the fire code, building code, or trash, noise, or parking regulations -- would mean the automatic closure of that business. The club owners were convinced that this bureaucratic brainstorm was aimed exclusively at them.
Starting in late 1996, they were confronted with a plague of code enforcers, the owners say. "I was used to them coming one at a time, and now I would have four of them in my place at once," says Greg Brier of Groove Jet. Chris Paciello of Liquid, the Washington Avenue club he runs along with Madonna buddy Ingrid Casares, recalls that code enforcers became regulars in his place -- as regular as his best customers. "A lot of the club owners got very nervous," says Paciello. "People have a lot invested here, and suddenly they could close you down for almost nothing, if a valet parker screwed up or someone left a trash can uncovered."
To make matters worse, inspectors suddenly started enforcing a new interpretation of the overcrowding rule that limited clubs to one patron per eleven square feet. "You can't even dance together that far apart," Kelsey says.
The man behind this alteration in the city's attitude was then-City Manager Garcia-Pedrosa, who was in the process of trying to put Amnesia out of business. "He never understood South Beach and what we do for the city," Brier says. "He didn't know the difference between South Beach and Kendall."
Garcia-Pedrosa's hard line went hand in hand with a police offensive against crime on South Beach, according to Chief Barreto. Police narcotics squads in ski masks led drug raids on packed clubs, made arrests, and closed nightspots. The now-defunct Paragon was accused of sponsoring live sex shows in VIP rooms. Other venues violated the 5:00 a.m. closing time for clubs and stayed open through the morning and sometimes into the afternoon. These included Paragon, Niva, Hombre, and Union Bar.
The clubs were corrupting the city, police say. Two Beach police officers, Hector Trujillo and Louis Dieppa, were arrested for allegedly accepting thousands of dollars in bribes for protecting such after-hours rogue clubs. Trujillo was also accused of harassing proprietors who didn't pay him. Meanwhile, street crime flourished.
Commissioner Nancy Liebman started to see doom on the horizon. "That has been the history of the Beach," she says. "First boom and then bust. Over and over. I started to see the danger that it could self-destruct. Something had to be done."
The club owners acknowledged that problems existed, especially with drugs. But they say the "three strikes" edict was draconian and could close clubs that were trying to clean up problems. Some owners, such as Groove Jet's Brier, perceived a more ominous foundation in the city's actions. "We were starting to see all this big investment, high-rise investment, coming into South Beach," he says. "The new Loews convention hotel, the Portofino project. We were the small pioneers. We were the ones who took chances and put South Beach on the map. And now they didn't need us any more. So they were coming after us."
After months of this unwanted attention, the owners went on the offensive. Through public records requests they obtained code compliance paperwork and found preprinted forms listing some twenty clubs inspectors visited regularly; these included Groove Jet, Liquid, Bash, and Amnesia. "They didn't go to the Delano or the Fontainebleau or Joe's Stone Crab," Kelsey notes. "They went to the same clubs over and over. To us that illustrated a pattern of harassment."
The owners put their case before the public. Starting in mid-1997, they placed ads n local newspapers criticizing Garcia-Pedrosa's "three-strikes" rule and got it quashed. They also resuscitated the largely dormant South Beach Hotel and Restaurant Association. "That was the first time I had ever seen owners act together," says Paciello. "It was an election year, and we formed South Beach Vote." The association registered voters and sponsored "candidate nights" in clubs. The club owners, purveyors of sin, were suddenly patriots.
How much real impact the effort had at the ballot box is unclear, but the owners felt they had gotten the attention of city government. Their association backed mayoral candidate Neisen Kasdin, whom they considered an ally. The association's own attorney, David Dermer, won election to the commission, and City Commissioner Nancy Liebman, who had taken special interest in the worries of Washington Avenue business people, was re-elected.
The association thought it had some allies in high places; the mindset of city government seemed to change after the election. Mayor Kasdin organized a government and business group called the Washington Avenue Task Force to tackle the problems of South Beach. The issuing of code violations slowed. "The last six months were pretty much all right," says the Living Room's Eric Milon. But then came the morning of April 11 and the "no kitchen" crusade. "Now all of a sudden they start threatening to close people down again" says Milon, who says he was baffled by the sudden change in attitude.
This time around, rather than requesting records or registering voters, the owners went right to city hall and asked for an emergency meeting with Mayor Kasdin. As Woody Graber puts it: "It isn't an election year any more, and, boy, are we in trouble."
To Kasdin, the request came as no surprise. He says it reflects the Beach's new breed of entertainment impresarios. "There is a different kind of owner here now," he says. "These are not the wide-eyed people of the early years. These are number-crunching business people."
The owners of South Beach nightclubs are a mixed lot. Some have worked their way up from tending bar. Others, like Brier -- who, in addition to Groove Jet, owns three nightspots in the New York area -- come from a finance background. (Brier is a former investment banker with Tokai Bank in New York.) Richard Bronson, owner of the Shadow Lounge on Washington, made millions as a banker. Paul Yates, part owner of Salvation, is also a member of the three-man police commission in Atlanta. They run sophisticated operations with multiple dance spaces, floor shows, fashion nights, benefits for worthy causes. Their well-to-do clientele comes from around the world. There may still be some shady characters in the SoBe entertainment scene, but these particular proprietors are not underworld toughs.
And they can make lots of legitimate money. "You take a successful club on Washington Avenue, let's say the Living Room. They might gross four or five million dollars a year," says Kelsey. "A place like the Clevelander on Ocean Drive, it's much more than that." As owners are quick to note, much of this booty ends up back in the city coffers. In exchange for permission to open a club in the nation's hottest nightlife zone, owners must pay half a dozen different kinds of taxes: liquor tax, resort tax, sales tax, property tax, a special convention center tax, even a special one percent tax that helps fund the Loews convention hotel project. Part of the price of a daiquiri at Liquid may end up paying for schoolbooks at North Beach Elementary or landscaping at Flamingo Park. And the owners want the city bureaucracy to know it.
The meeting with Kasdin takes place in the mayor's meeting room at city hall April 21. The room is crowded with club owners and their attorneys, about 25 people in all. Kasdin, surrounded, tries to calm the waters. "This was not an exercise in tact," he admits, referring to the "no kitchen" code citations. "I want to allay any fears that there is an attitude on the part of the city toward the clubs."
The owners react with skepticism, grumbling, waving their code compliance tickets at the man they supported for mayor just months before. They complain to Kasdin that they have been targeted because they don't possess permits that specifically license nightclubs. But such permits do not exist in Miami Beach, at any price. All the owners have received receipts for their license fees that refer to their businesses as "restaurant (bar, lounge)," just like Amnesia. But they have never before been expected to serve meals. They insist they are being harassed. That is the only explanation.
Kasdin denies the accusations of harassment, but he does admit that some Miami Beach officials look on the club business with disdain. The owners press him for the identities of these enemies. They have been bandying about the names of Assistant City Manager Mayra Diaz Buttacavoli, and zoning and planning director Dean Grandin as possible initiators of the violations. "How did this happen?" demands Paul Yates of Salvation, waving his ticket. The mayor suggests that accusing specific officials will only create more problems and dodges the question.
The owners then make specific requests: They want Washington Avenue spruced up; dirty, broken sidewalks replaced; and trees planted. The cleanup, they argue, will attract a better crowd and deter rowdy kids. Kelsey suggests that the project might cost $400,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the revenues produced for the city by the nightclub industry. "The city blames the clubs for the atmosphere," he says, "but the fact is, it is [city officials] who have failed in their most basic duties -- to provide a clean and safe environment."
The owners want increased police presence on the streets, but not the sort that wears ski masks and handcuffs suspects in front of clubs. Most important, the owners want relief from code enforcers. Kasdin insists, again and again, that he is there to listen, not to act. All he can assure them is that they "won't be closed down overnight," something they already know because the law won't allow it. The owners troop out, unhappy with the mayor and everyone else in city hall.
At 4:30 the morning of April 21, Code Compliance inspectors had shown up at Liquid, according to Ian Macey. The 32-year-old club manager cut through the second-floor Washington Avenue club, its decor a stylized industrial motif of exposed pipes and ducts, all resounding with loud house music. He met inspectors on the sidewalk. "They asked me for permission to measure the dance floor," he says. "I didn't know why they wanted to do that, but it was 4:30 in the morning, and I told them, I'm sorry, but no, they couldn't do that. They should come back during day hours. Why are they doing that at that hour? There's no good reason for it."
This is the growing attitude among the nightclub owners and managers toward the latest inspections, even as another meeting is scheduled with city officials to discuss the problems. This one will place representatives of the club owners around a table with staff members of every city bureaucracy that influences the operation of the clubs -- the offices of the mayor, the city manager, Code Compliance, planning, and the city attorney. Commissioner Liebman and Chief Barreto will attend. None of the owners is very hopeful. "They never listen," says Kelsey.
Kelsey and Paul Yates of Salvation show up at city hall, this time at the office of Code Compliance. For a club owner, this is the belly of the beast. The office is a warren of gray cubicles assigned to a small army of enforcers. Yates and Kelsey are soon joined in a conference room by the city officials. They are there to help redraft regulations that define nightclubs, cabarets, restaurants, and lounges, their hours of operation, and age requirements for admission.
After a brief discussion, it becomes clear that most city officials charged with rewriting the laws have little or no firsthand experience of the businesses they are being asked to regulate. No one tries to hide this. Planning director Dean Grandin, for one, questions just who patronizes clubs at 5:00 a.m. Are they locals or are they tourists who deposit more money in the local economy?
Gradually Yates assumes a leading role in the discussion. He not only owns part of Salvation, he has operated clubs in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. He formed part of a task force that rewrote similar laws in Washington. He mentions his position as a police commissioner in Atlanta. He is the one person present who belongs to both worlds of officialdom and the nightlife business, and he acts as a bridge between very two different experiences.
The discussion begins to bear fruit. The owners had feared they would be forced to lock up earlier than their current 5:00 a.m. closing time, but city officials don't press that position. It is agreed, however, that allowing all clubs to close at that hour, disgorging thousands of young people into the streets of South Beach at the same time, is unwise. Clubgoers should be able to dance off the alcohol and possibly have a bite to eat in clubs where the liquor has been locked up; those businesses can stay open later. Yates explains that this is how it works in Washington, D.C.
New definitions of cabarets, nightclubs, and supper clubs are deferred for further discussion. New regulations are already before the city commission that will shorten the hours of convenience stores and gas stations where minors are known to buy beer and wine or have it bought for them. The discussion shifts to the underage teenage troublemakers. Yates and Kelsey say owners might be willing to end the all-ages parties if that is what it will take to clean up the Beach.
The meeting ends with a palpable sense of relief. Everyone seems just a bit surprised at the cooperation. Liebman declares the meeting a success. Even the normally combative Kelsey is taken aback. "They listened," he later marvels.
The next two weeks see more meetings, but also more conflicts. The no-kitchen violations filed against three clubs are put on hold by City Manager Sergio Rodriguez. No fines need be paid for the moment, and the threat of closure is lifted. Rodriguez also agrees that nightclubs should be exempt from having kitchens and preparing food as long as they provide food -- even if it is cooked elsewhere. What kind of food isn't clear. Representatives of both Salvation and Amnesia say they will host no more all-ages nights and will not allow outside promoters to do so. These two clubs have drawn the largest teenage crowds, so their decisions are significant.
But the code enforcement officers are still out in force, measuring dance floors. Both Salvation and Warsaw have received violations for keeping their doors open after 5:00 a.m. Meetings to draft the new definitions run into roadblocks. City officials suggest certain numbers of tables and chairs in clubs; when they are advised that a lot of furniture is a hazard in case of fire, they back off. "They want to write laws about an industry they know nothing about," fumes Kelsey after one meeting.
The club owners retain another attorney just in case group legal action becomes necessary. Kelsey sees some good signs in the new legislation that may eventually come before city leaders. South Beach may fulfill its destiny as the adult Disney World after all. The war with the city may end.
But nothing has been finalized, and Kelsey sounds an alarm in a bulletin to the members of the association. "Don't become complacent, " he warns. "We still need to be prepared for battle if these changes are not accepted by the commission.... Don't forget that there are a lot of people out there who are very much against clubs and bars.