With five performance stages that featured salsa, hip-hop, jazz, and rock musicians; a gourmet restaurant; an art gallery; and an outdoor film space, Power Studios, in the heart of the city's fledgling Design District, aimed to be an all-encompassing party place -- which is saying something in Miami. The ambitious vision for the night spot, a huge hit when it opened in May of last year, was the dream of its owners, sculptor Ross Power and impresario David Wallack (who also owns Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive).
Last year's thriving dot-commers, young pros of all types, and hyper scenies stood shoulder to hip in the club's swanky maze of lounges, patios, and dance floors. It was a great party while it lasted, but by the fall the venue had quietly shut its doors. The problem? Code-enforcement agents from the City of Miami were upset about zoning violations, illegal additions, and outdoor areas opened sans permit. City of Miami Fire Marshal Virgil Fernandez was unhappy about a lack of fire exits. Result: whittled-down numbers of partiers, versifiers, and rappers who voice their angst in weekly poetry slams. Every Thursday the club's Studio A is open for poets, and beginning Wednesday, May 23, it will once again feature live bands. But the dark rum runs out early, and cocktail mixers are poured from cans, not shot from fountain guns. The kitchen, once a purveyor of succulent fare, now serves bar snacks in wicker baskets. Renovations are proceeding, but at a forced pace. So at a recent slam, the flamboyant Wallack read a rambling diatribe about social ills with the refrain "a foul wind blows from Washington," a seemingly oblique comment on the "too many rules" theme.
The main violations, according to Fernandez, were missing fire exits and crowds that easily doubled the restaurant's occupancy limits. Power Studios opened in May 2000 with restaurant and art gallery permits limiting occupancy to 500; at the height of its popularity, Wallack estimates, 1500 partygoers passed through the club nightly. The city zoning board approved Power and Wallack's nightclub permit only this past February -- four months after they'd shut down to rebuild.
The big question has been: How was it that Power Studios managed to stay open in violation of city codes and with insufficient permits for six months? Fernandez's response is simple: "I'm not in the business of shutting people down. It's a judgment call; most of the time I try to work with the establishment." Wallack and Power acknowledge a working relationship with city administrators, who view the nightclub as crucial to helping the Design District flourish.
When Fernandez first inspected Power Studios last July, he found an overcrowded, precariously constructed spot. The computerized light, video, and audio-system wiring on the second story was cited by Fernandez as dangerous because of possible power overloads, and there was no access for people with disabilities. "They built a deck on the roof with no fire exits," Fernandez sputters. "It would have never passed plan review. We thought, Wait a minute; you can't have people up here!"
But instead of closing down Power Studios, Fernandez simply closed the second floor and kept a watch at the door. On weekends Power and Wallack were required to post a "firewatch," paying $45 per hour for three marshals.
Despite the heavy monitoring, Power and Wallack stayed open. They tried to comply with city requirements. But when on-duty city officials became club regulars, the owners decided on a sabbatical. "What we needed to say was, Let's shut it down and build it to accommodate the crowds,'" Power admits.
With Mango's, Wallack proved how successful revamping an old building in a funky location can be. He closed his family's business, the Eastern Sun Retirement Home, in 1990 and invested four million dollars over ten years to turn it into a world-famous party destination where models salsa on the bars to tourists' gaping stares. He has a knack for developing projects snowball-style. Wallack drove the plan to transform Power Studios from a low-key neighborhood joint to the premier party place and backed it with a three-million-dollar investment. He says he was inspired to create a "clubhouse for the creative spirit" that would rival Miami's museums and theaters. "This was an empty building with junky furniture," Wallack says, describing the space before he jumped in. "I see a room, and I see something happening! What we did showed you could get a lot of people here. When you have synthesis, a fusion happens, and it magnifies megafast!"
Perhaps too fast.
The club first came to the attention of code-enforcement inspector Maria Lugo last summer, in the wake of its monster success. "They were trying to put too much in there," she says. "They opened the place up, and it got so popular the demand was growing more and more." Neighboring businesses complained they were being flooded during rainstorms because land to the rear of PS didn't drain properly. The result was a lagoon around adjacent properties. When Lugo showed up, she found that Power and Wallack had built the rear deck without completing the necessary permits.
Upon further inspection Lugo also discovered that the second-story deck, where art films were once screened, had been built without completing inspections or applying for permits. "It seems like they built first and then put in for permits," Lugo says. "We never wanted the place to be closed. It was good for the area. We'd like to see it open again and see more businesses like it."
The elaborate rear outdoor concert and dining area was built on a portion of property that is not owned by Power and Wallack. The land belongs to the Florida East Coast Railway. So with PS II, the club owners will pay to use it.
Power says his present code problems began in 1989, when he first opened PS as a sound stage for film and photo shoots. He'd gotten a permit from the city to build a fence around the outside area, assuming it meant he could then do whatever he wanted within its boundaries. The entrepreneurs hadn't even applied for deck permits. "We got more elaborate than we should have," Power admits. "We felt it was our own property. The truth is the city should have never let me build the fence [in 1989]. But nobody gave a flying fuck back then; nobody seemed to care."
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His subsequent problems "surprised" Power. He claims that six months before opening PS, city engineers and zoning officials approved plans to build it, even though there was no reference to "fire exits." Although he cannot cite anyone by name, he says the rooftop-lounge infractions were not his fault. "Those problems had nothing to do with David and I," Power asserts. "We hired a contractor and structural engineers, and the city said yes."
Despite all the strife with the City of Miami, Power and Wallack say they plan to expand. "We thought, We have a problem -- so let's do something creative about it." Power says. Not only is he building the required fire exits on the second floor and handicap ramps, but he says he's rebuilding the downstairs outside "dining and music" deck and doubling its size. (The partners agreed to lease about 1000 square feet behind the club from the railway to expand beneath the State Road 112 overpass.)
Though Wallack and Power remain reluctant to specify the amount of money they've lost by shutting down, Power estimates that each weekend PS is closed, "hundreds of thousands" drain away. "It's enough to put most people in the hospital." He and Wallack, however, are now taking the time to rebuild by the book.
Power nostalgically views his six-month romp atop the Miami club scene as a whirlwind -- from the rush of running the hot hangout to the utter frustration of dealing with city inspectors during prime-time hours. The increased presence of code enforcers on weekends, Power says, gave patrons the impression that something was wrong. "Everything was affected in a negative and chaotic way," Power recalls regretfully. "Now we've cleaned up the mess and come back with good attitude. Everything's in line."