For nearly eight weeks, a sliver of South Beach belonged to the people.
There were no cars allowed on a 10-block stretch of Ocean Drive, the popular seaside promenade, giving bicyclists, skateboarders, joggers and walkers a space to exercise away from cramped sidewalks and congested roads.
It was the beginning of something good, open-street advocates said. And now it’s gone.
On Saturday evening, the city will likely reopen the northbound traffic lane to cars. Workers spent the day placing orange and white traffic barriers to mark off the new lane. The southbound traffic and parking lanes will be reserved for pedestrians and open-air restaurant seating. Bicyclists will not be allowed in the new pedestrian zone and must either ride in the traffic lane or use the Lummus Park boardwalk.
Mayor Dan Gelber said the street’s new configuration will not be permanent, calling it a “two-week pilot” program. Ideally, he said, the city should be able to fully pedestrianize the street during certain periods, and open it to cars the rest of the time. On May 9, the city closed off Ocean Drive from Fifth to 15th streets for recreational and restaurant uses.
“The street has such different demands at different times,” Gelber said. “During the week, it’s not always busy and maybe you don’t need it to be fully pedestrian.”
But activists pushed back Saturday, arguing that the city’s vision for Ocean Drive should not include vehicular traffic.
“The street was a resounding success,” said Azhar Chougle, executive director of the Transit Alliance. “It was extremely loved. Right now we are regressing to an unsafe environment.”
Chougle said drivers cruise on Ocean Drive to show off their cars, not to spend money at the businesses that line the street. They take up space and serve no function, he said.
“I think it would be an absolute mistake for it to not go back to the way it was,” he said.
In May, the city received county approval to close nine streets across Miami Beach, to help restaurants expand outdoor dining and give residents pedestrian-friendly areas to stroll, skate or exercise along. The city has yet to close any streets other than Ocean Drive.
Matthew Gultanoff, a bicyclist of 20 years and founder of Better Streets Miami Beach, said of all the plans the city announced, the only one that came to fruition was on Ocean Drive. He encouraged city officials to ease congestion in residential areas by discouraging through-traffic and reducing speed limits on streets like Meridian Avenue.
“The whole purpose behind this was to make more space for people to distance themselves,” he said. “The coronavirus is back stronger than ever ... and the city has rolled back the one plan that they implemented.”
Activists aren’t the only ones perplexed by the city’s decision to reopen Ocean Drive. Commissioners Ricky Arriola and Mark Samuelian, who supported the closure of the street, said on Friday they were not consulted about the plan.
“It would be nice to be consulted by our City Manager,” Arriola said in a statement. “Clearly he consulted with the Mayor, but that’s par for the course during the last four months. He thinks he only answers to one person.”
“I am very skeptical of this approach — especially now that we have a 10 p.m. curfew,” Samuelian wrote on his Facebook page. “Every Commissioner should have been consulted before this decision was made, and I will be placing this on the next Commission agenda.”