Most of the outdoor seating permits for Lincoln Road restaurants were first issued in 1997, a time when the City of Miami Beach was attempting to promote the pedestrian mall's revival. The city's plan worked much like George W's Iraq war -- it was "too successful," with no contingency plans for preventing that success from deteriorating into chaos. In the case of Lincoln Road, the chaos translates into a sprawl of tables, chairs, umbrellas, heat lamps, busing stations, and throngs of people, which makes strolling the Road about as appealing as squeezing through a shopping mall the day before Christmas.
Some restaurant owners pay up to $30,000 per month for rent, and cramming in a few more tables goes a long way toward mitigating that burden. Upon noting their tenants' extra outdoor seats, the landlords who charge those outlandish rents hike them even more. The city takes a bite too, through permit fees and extra taxes on all the food and drink being sold. That is probably why the city allows restaurant owners to extend "50 feet in the public right-of-way on one side and/or the other side of the applicant's restaurant." This leads to restaurants sprawling across numerous storefronts (Locanda Sibilla has tables in front of six other venues besides its own), thus transforming the mall into what seems like one giant outdoor cafeteria. Of course the cafés first need "written permission" from their retail neighbors to do this -- pass that cash cow!
The Public Works Department is in charge of handling Lincoln Road sidewalk café permits; Code Enforcement writes tickets for ostensible violations, with fines ranging from $150 to $500 -- a drop in the bucket for businesses that can reap thousands from extra tables in one busy weekend. Repeat offenders can have their permits suspended or revoked (though this virtually never happens). Public Works' Raul Gonzalez admits the department was giving a break to the sidewalk cafés until this past week, when renewal applications had to be submitted.
New Times took a face-in-the-crowd route on a recent Friday to see how these ordinances are being observed. Listed below are the rules ignored most consistently, along with some of the more flagrant scofflaws.
Lincoln Road Sidewalk Cafés:
(c) Permits shall not be issued where the tables and chairs would be placed within five feet of bus stops, taxi stands, fire hydrants, alleys, bike racks, or any type of public street furniture and/or fixtures.
Lincoln Road Café and Mystic Café have tables so close to bicycle racks that it's not hard to imagine diners getting tire marks on their backs. Finnegan's 2 and Pasha's have tables wrapped around street and traffic lights. World Resource Café conspires with Tiramesu to block public access to a Morris Lapidus fountain. Who was Lapidus? You can read a biographical plaque about him placed upon one of his sculptures -- actually, you can't, because Sushi Siam's dining tables prevent you from getting close enough. The other side of this sculpture features a waterfall, but you can't get to that either as Soprano Café's tables block you from doing so. Segafredo had tables blocking the mosaic fountain (crafted by artist Carlos Betancourt) on the west end of the mall, but they have since removed them. Nexxt Café has been cited for numerous violations but seems to be behaving itself these days.
(e) The pedestrian path for Lincoln Road shall be five feet, and additionally, a ten-foot clear path for emergency vehicles and trams shall be required.
Almost all the restaurants allow for five-feet paths, though once the chairs are pulled out and occupied, it sometimes becomes three or four feet. As for the ten-foot path for emergency vehicles -- are they kidding?
(f) No object shall be permitted ... which would have the effect of obstructing the pedestrian path or the public access between the north and south sides of Lincoln Road.
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Balans, Johnny Rockets, Spris, Cafeteria, La Lupa Di Roma, Paninoteca, Aura, Soprano Café, Carnevale, Six2Six, Da Leo, and Sushi Samba Dromo block north-south access -- the last two have erected insurmountable blockades.
(z) No storage of chairs, tables, dishes, silverware, or other sidewalk cafe equipment shall be allowed in the permit area. Rolling service stations, service carts, and busing accessories shall not be permitted to be placed within five feet of the walls, columns, or posts of the Lapidus structures.
Offenders include Spris, Touch, Tiramesu. Da Leo turns a Lapidus structure into a virtual storage closet for tables, chairs, busing stations, and heat lamps, and Soprano Café piles glassware, bus tubs, breadbaskets, and all manner of items onto the waterfall sculpture's ledge. Still, nobody beats Sushi Samba Dromo for turning a Lapidus artwork into what looks like a set from Sanford and Son, the storage area containing many other items -- water coolers, file cabinets, stereo equipment.
A public "vision meeting" will be held to decide the direction (i.e., degree of density) that Lincoln Road should take. It has been scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 27, at the Miami Beach Community Church, located on the Road at Drexel Avenue. Restaurateurs, retailers, Public Works, and Code Enforcement will be there. The public is invited to attend as well.