"Recently, certain officials in Miami, under pressure and coercion from real estate developers, have taken steps to remove Wynwood's status as an Arts & Entertainment district," the petition reads. "Their goal is to use the momentum of this trendy neighborhood to build large luxury residential buildings and make millions in profit."
The claims, on their face, could put anyone on the defensive, especially people who regularly party in Wynwood and view it as a haven for creativity and culture. And the petition goes even further, claiming city officials and developers are trying to force nightlife venues in the neighborhood to close at 11 p.m.
That part caused an uproar on social media; more than 26,000 people signed the petition in about five days.
But the situation unfolding in Wynwood is far from clear-cut. Supporters of the petition say closing Wynwood venues early and arbitrarily without input from business owners is unfair. But critics say the whole thing is a smokescreen; they call it a smear campaign spearheaded by a powerful developer who isn't getting something he wants from the City of Miami.
It's Really fucked up what the developers are doing to Wynwood. You invest & then kick out all the locals out of Wynwood. It's a place for Art, entertainment, music etc etc. #SaveWynwoodhttps://t.co/lvoW5OBVJQ— RalphyV18 (@RalphyV18) February 21, 2020
So in this vaguely worded, nameless petition, what's fact and what's fiction?
The people behind the petition are Moishe Mana, a billionaire developer who's the largest private landowner in Wynwood; and Tony Albelo of Swarm, an event production and branding company with ties to Mana and several of the venues he owns. Albert Berdellans, Swarm's vice president of marketing, says the two didn't put their names on the campaign because a loose contingent of businesses was becoming involved in addition to Mana and Swarm, and they were all concerned with immediately disseminating the information about the problems.
"It was not intended to be opaque or nefarious," Berdellans says. (He adds that a "Save Wynwood" website explains the mission and who is behind the campaign, but as of now, the URL redirects to the petition.)
Swarm operates the Wynwood Marketplace, which, among other venues on the same Mana-owned property, was recently shut down because it didn't have the proper permits. Blogger Al Crespo first reported on all of the Wynwood drama in a multipart series.
The Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) — a City of Miami board that represents business and property owners — claims Wynwood Marketplace has been operating illegally for years. Swarm disputes that claim and says it has always had permits. Mana, strangely, says Wynwood Marketplace hasn't been in compliance but only because the city wouldn't help it. (New Times has been unable to independently verify whether Swarm was always in compliance with its permit.)
Albert Garcia, chairman of the BID board, says that in 2015, the site was given a temporary use permit (TUP), which allows short-term structures to operate on vacant properties for a limited time. The permit, Garcia says, lasted a year. Garcia claims Swarm has been operating the Wynwood Marketplace without permits ever since, while brick-and-mortar businesses in the neighborhood had to jump through all of the hoops required to set up shop in Wynwood.
"These people were allowed to make lots of money, be successful, and not play by the same rules as everyone else," Garcia says.
Temporary use permits are generally used to bring businesses and events to areas with low economic activity in order to encourage long-term investments. Some business owners argue that Wynwood is hardly such an area.
"Wynwood doesn't need TUPs, because you have all these brick-and-mortar businesses," says Adam Gersten, the owner of the bar Gramps. "No one needs a leg up in Wynwood, and certainly not the guy with the most land."
On Valentine's Day, the city issued a new temporary use permit that set different requirements and restrictions for the Wynwood Marketplace. The site was shut down February 15 and will remain closed until Swarm and Mana make the necessary changes and the city conducts a final inspection. The new temporary permit prohibits special events at the property and requires compliance with the city's noise ordinance.
Swarm's Berdellans says the petition was created in response to the closure of the Wynwood Marketplace. He says Swarm and Mana want to change the city's zoning laws to officially designate Wynwood an entertainment district and change the noise ordinance in a way that would allow businesses to play music into the night and early hours of the morning.
The petition mentions developers are pressuring "certain officials" to change the rules. Berdellans claims those officials are members of the Wynwood BID who want to close neighborhood venues at 11 p.m. As for the developers, he says, they're the ones pushing residential buildings in Wynwood.
For his part, Mana says the petition is about the future of Wynwood. His agenda, he says, is for Wynwood to be an entertainment hub and avoid the same fate as South Beach, Coconut Grove, and other neighborhoods he calls "dead."
And he says anyone who views him as a villain is "evil or stupid. Both ways, it's bad."
Nevertheless, the Wynwood BID published a letter on its website yesterday debunking what it considers to be lies in Mana's petition.
"We want to make it very clear: the Wynwood BID has never 'proposed' closing nightlife venues, or any type of bonafide businesses for that matter, in our neighborhood at 11 p.m. To the contrary, we are opposed to an 11 p.m. closure," the website says.
City of Miami code prohibits all outdoor music past 11 p.m. but allows music to be played or performed indoors until 3 a.m. According to the city's noise ordinance, the music may not be "plainly audible at a distance of 100 feet from the building, structure, vehicle or premises in which or from which it is produced." Music is acceptable when "played or operated in a closed building and the sound is not audible from outside the building so as to disturb the quiet, comfort or repose of persons in any dwelling, hotel or other type of residence."
Business owners tell New Times they've had few violations in recent years because they comply with the noise ordinances or because enforcement has been generally lax and inconsistent.
Over the past year, Wynwood businesses have filed complaints with the city about zoning code and noise ordinance violations at Mana Wynwood and the Wynwood Marketplace, according to the BID. The city's response was to shut down the Wynwood Marketplace until it complied with the same rules everyone else in the neighborhood must follow.
"Since then, rather than comply with the rules, Mr. Moishe Mana has launched a smear campaign rife with misinformation, exaggeration, and personal threats in an apparent effort to intimidate city and police officials into ignoring the obvious violations on his property," the BID website says.
Garcia, the BID chairman, says those same fearmongering tactics are being used in the petition.
"I think it's very irresponsible behavior," he says. "You also have to keep in mind the parties behind this. Mr. Mana is a respected property owner in Wynwood and the City of Miami. He's actually the largest commercial property owner in the city. So there's a lot of people that are afraid for reasons that might be understandable — that he has special connections and can exert special favors at the expense of smaller people."
To that end, the BID's executive director, Manny Gonzalez, has even filed for whistleblower protection against Mana after, Gonzalez says, he received threatening text messages from the developer. The Wynwood BID provided the following text messages to New Times:
Mana says he was angry when he sent those texts because he believes the BID is "weaponizing" police and code enforcement against businesses. But he maintains he didn't make any threats — just a promise.
"There was no threat," Mana says. "Anyone who reads this message can clearly see I say I will do my best to get him fired. It's not a threat. I will do my best to get him fired."
Beyond the war between Mana and the BID, however, is the larger question of Wynwood's future. Philippe Kalifa, co-owner of El Patio, perceives the petition as a fight that has left neighborhood businesses stuck in the middle. He thinks bar owners need more representation on the Wynwood BID, so he and other owners say they plan to create an association to advocate for themselves.
"The rules aren't being respected right now," Kalifa says. "We want to work hand-in-hand with the city to find solutions. We want to continue thriving in Wynwood."
Sven Vogtland, the owner of Coyo Taco and 1-800-Lucky, says he doesn't think Wynwood is in jeopardy, and he wants people to know his two businesses are open until 3 a.m. as usual.
"The neighborhood is changing; residential is coming in," Vogtland says. "It's really a new thing, adding residential to something that was mostly warehouses, galleries, bars, and nightlife. I think we need to find a balance on how to coexist."
Throughout the years, Wynwood has experienced many iterations: the home of Miami's Puerto Rican community, a warehouse and industrial zone, a gentrifying arts district, and now a hub for breweries, nightclubs, and boutiques. Gersten, Vogtland, and other business owners say they're not opposed to change, and they welcome new players to the neighborhood. They simply want everyone to be on the same playing field.
Gersten says the cost of doing business in Wynwood includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in impact fees, taxes, retrofits, sidewalk improvements, and permits. And most people who open small businesses in Wynwood aren't wealthy; they spend their life savings to set up shop in hopes of succeeding. Gersten says the past is the past, but the Wynwood Marketplace should accept responsibility, pony up, and get its affairs in order.
"The petition claims that Wynwood is under siege," Gersten says, "when it's solely the petitioner that is under siege."