Ultra Festival agreement renewal for Virginia Key status with city of Miami appears to be two commissioners against, two undecided, and one in favor

One could make the case for Miami becoming the victim of her own good fortune.

As a city she appears to be hitting her stride, in the prime of life as it were, past those awkward growing-pain years of the 80’s and now exuding a cool confident style irresistibly attractive to so many.

The burden of which can be overwhelming as the Ultra Music Festival on Virginia Key the weekend of March 29th demonstrated. Up to 30,000 concert goers nightly overwhelmed the Rickenbacker Causeway as they departed the venue on foot to reach the mainland due to what stakeholders agreed was a failed transportation plan.

Now it is up to the city of Miami Commission to say whether or not to renew the license agreement as was recently discussed during the April 11 regular meeting in a sponsored discussion agenda item from Commissioner Joe Carollo.

Post that discussion, commissioners are now scheduled to decide yay or nay at the May 9th regular meeting, to include a public hearing allowing for all interested parties to address the question.

According to city attorney Victoria Mendez the commission has up to May 27 to renew the Ultra contract per the license agreement.

Two days before the Ultra agreement commission discussion item agenda, and minutes before the last village council meeting April 9, city manager Emilio Gonzalez released an advance letter to village manager Andrea Agha anticipating the festival’s return next year.

“The City is confident that, when the event returns to Virginia Key next year, additional operational enhancements and resources can be implemented to further improve transportation and noise mitigation,” read the fourth paragraph on page two of the manager’s Ultra 2019 Preliminary Recap Report.

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on future Ultra

During the morning portion of the subsequent April 11 city commission meeting, prior to citizen comment, and the reading into the record of Carollo’s twenty or so resident letters received (36 complaint calls and 17 disturbance calls were also handled per the city manager report) Mayor Francis Suarez recited his plan on how to make Ultra on Virginia Key better next year.

“The mass exodus of people Friday night overpowering the causeway, as Mayor, I am very concerned…and the significant amount of noise complaints on Friday,” Suarez’s remarks began.

“…Ultra gets blamed for everything, there are lots of noise waivers during the Winter Music Conference, the Art Basel of Music…the question is, is it an appropriate venue and I have been a supporter…the 220 million dollars of economic benefit to the city, it employs thousands of people and (offers) a tremendous amount of overtime for first responders.”

Suarez said the “noise contamination” he heard from his house in Coconut Grove, seven miles from the Virginia Key stages could have also been the result of pumping bass sounds from other music conference related parties all over the city.

“If we are going to keep it,” said Suarez, “water transportation should be enhanced, Vizcaya would not be used as a drop off point due to problems associated with people parking all over the Roads (neighborhood), limit the size of the event, and I question the wisdom of pointing the stage in the direction of the city.”

“If the commission decides they want to keep the event these recommendations should be followed.”

Citizen Comment heard and commented upon

Mayor Mike Davey and council members Katie Petros and Ignacio Segurola began the public comment address and were the only speakers representing Key Biscayne.

Davey requested the contract not be renewed due to the scale of the event on the island, the detrimental effect to residents, the decrease in business and park attendance, and the nearly $100,000 the village spent in overtime for police and fire resources (reimbursement from the city to be requested per the last village council meeting).

Petros mentioned schools being closed due to the event, Key Biscayne residents being some of the concert attendees that had the hardest time getting home--forced to walk four miles through the “dark narrow strip” by Crandon Park--and she feared this event would only get bigger over time and introduce ever larger events more frequently as a Virginia Key norm.

Council member Segurola was not as diplomatic as his colleagues.

“The experiment that was Ultra was a failure. You know the problems more than I. Please kill this now.”

He said the problems are insurmountable and they would be begging for a tragedy next year. “I ask you to kill it….the two people who jumped from the bridge…I feel what saved them was (from where they jumped) if it had been from higher they’d be dead.”

Of the 17 speakers about Ultra, two were in favor of it staying, and one was neutral. The city agenda that day also had a resolution to keep the newly named Maurice Ferré Park downtown as a green space and that agenda item speedily passed. Some of those same speakers in favor also spoke out against Ultra on Virginia Key. 

Although the city of Miami is one municipality diligent about abiding by Robert’s Rules of Order and enforcing the standard of no clapping or calling out outbursts from the audience (and Commissioner Manolo Reyes at one point summarily reminded the crowd), the commissioners, mostly Carollo, took time to atypically ask questions of almost every speaker who approached the lecterns after their two minute allotted public comment.

Most of the questions were related to that about which they spoke but Carollo asked a Nature Conservancy representative to consider doing a butterfly garden in Calle Ocho. Commissioner Keon Hardemon asked Rachel Skubel, a PhD candidate studying sharks and the “social ecological system of human and nature interaction in wildlife,” to address black violence in underserved communities.

“I am sick and tired of Key Biscayne coming in and threatening the city of Miami with lawsuits,” said F. Lozman, who was there to speak regarding enhancing floating marina docks.

Frank Pichel said Ultra was not that terrible and called it a work in progress. “It was the lack of water taxis. Better (Ultra) then property taxes go up.”

When Samantha Souvigny made it to the podium holding her young son in her arms (who had provided frequent endearing sound effects all morning) she said she had waited out all the “mean mugs” she got for his being “high strung,” because she spoke for him, and the animals.

“We live, breathe, and eat on the water, and I don’t think my son will ever get to enjoy it,” the Dinner Key Marina water vessel resident said.

“I’m 33 and I go to stuff like Ultra. But I can’t swim in Virginia Key anymore because of the micro metals and micro plastics I get in my hair…in my eyes.”

Carollo was reminded of his own youth and going fishing with his father off the old bridge to catch mackerel, king fish, grouper. “It eventually got to a point where you couldn’t catch anything from there. This whole area has been wiped out,” he said.

“Those memories you have are precious,” said Souvigny. “We go out all day and can’t find anything.”

Balaz Vandor said he went right through security on his bike wearing a back pack. “Anyone could get in if you said you were with the rowing club and that’s dangerous.”

Dana Briddle is a University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science student. She was the only speaker to address the mosquito spraying on site not part of the disclosed Ultra environmental plan.

She said although it was stated no chemicals were used, the bio-accumulation of the oils that killed the insects could affect the 208 bird species and some of the federally threatened birds of the key.

Sunny McLean introduced herself as the founder of the Virginia Key Alliance. She said that much of what was stipulated in the Virginia Key Master Plan created in 2010 has yet to be realized.

She requested the commission take the sixty days post Ultra set aside in the license agreement to address the environmental effects soberly.

“Consider your legacy,” said McLean.

“Do you want large flashy events targeting tourists or should we invest in more green spaces?”

Where the city commission stands now

Two of the three votes required to not renew Ultra’s contract on Virginia Key appear decided per the April 11 meeting. Two votes seem uncertain, and one is decidedly in favor of renewing the license agreement.

Carollo said the main reason he is going to vote against the extension of the contract is due to an obligation to his constituents, most pronounced after reading the passionate anti-Ultra complaints received from residents into the record.

“This is real and we have an obligation to our own residents even more so then secondarily to some of the others,” said Carollo.

“Everyone is pointing the finger at Key Biscayne but you haven’t heard from the 800 pound gorilla that is Fisher Island. Just based on this alone and not even putting Key Biscayne into it because I don’t want them to get the blame for this one, I can’t go along with extending this contract.”

He next instructed city manager Gonzalez to apologize to everyone who contacted the city to complain about the concert.

“First of all Mr. Manager I want you to address these complaints and to do it in the most courteous way we can and apologize to them for what they went through.”

To Hardemon’s contention that the noise at the concert wasn’t bad and he could still talk to people while he was there, Carollo said that may have been true on the ground level for attendees but it was the higher ricochets of sound across the bay and elsewhere that became unbearable.

He said the problem with Ultra has always been the intrusive sound levels and that they have promised year after year to fix it but he believes it’s impossible.

Carollo also said the ratio of cops to attendees was inadequate even with extra added security; approximately one per thousand attendees. (Ultra had to hire an additional 550 security guards from five different private agencies beyond the over 300 off-duty law enforcement contracted).

“You block the noise from one area and you are going to send it somewhere else…we could try to block the sun with our thumb but the light is still going to shine in,” said Carollo.

Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district seemed to represent the most affected area, concurred.

“I appreciate that these (emails) are organic and not form letters (they are) from different areas and different sectors of our city,” he said after earlier declaring he would not vote to renew Ultra’s agreement because the scale of the event on the key was out of whack.

“I believe we are fooling ourselves to say (the noise was from) other parties and not Ultra. The sound came from the grove and Brickell Bay Drive…I drove around and this was significant….there may have been other parties…I don’t know why you would point the main stage right at our constituents.”

Commissioners Reyes and Wilfredo Gort appeared undecided about the contract renewal. They asked many questions of the assistant chiefs of police and fire present at the meeting.

Gort wanted the complaints from Key Biscayne addressed and a breakdown of the 281 reported emergency calls.

“The most prevalent calls were related to vomiting, overdoses, and things of that nature, I can give you a comprehensive breakdown,” said assistant City of Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban.

“The call volume we received from Ultra had the greatest impact on our services and moving it to Virginia Key made it more challenging.”

He cited 12 collapses, 15 overdoses, 11 injuries, and 13 alcohol related incidents among other statistics.

Hardemon said he looked past the debauchery and the arrests at an event that was about a desire to be a part of “something special.”

“It was marvelous,” said Hardemon.

He called it successful and “the new Studio 54 of the United States of America in South Florida.” He blamed the media for spinning negative stories and “staining” the city of Miami and said they should instead look at Miami Beach.

“Thank you to all (city staff) that made that happen…I want to say thank you to Ultra, whatever narrative has been put in the media, this was a tremendously successful event…contrast it to how the city of Miami Beach treated people (during spring break) who just wanted to go to the beach.”

Hardemon also pushed to make the decision right there and then to renew or decline the contract, asking the city attorney to make it happen: “can we resolve this today?”

Carollo and a commission majority objected.

“This is such a sensitive subject that Ultra deserves the right to come prepared and all the residents that complained to be informed so they can be here (at the later confirmed May 9th meeting) if they want to and make it open to the public, “ said Carollo.

“We need to send information to all the building associations that were complaining on Brickell Key, downtown, Fisher Island, the grove…this way whatever decision we make we are as safe as we can possibly be in a lawsuit from either side.”