Up and down Washington Avenue and other Miami Beach streets, empty commercial storefronts sit vacant, silent reminders of a still-aching economy that shows few signs of significant turnaround.
This week the Miami Beach Land Use Committee recommended against a plan to permit property owners to use storefront windows – vacant and not – to post huge billboard-like commercial advertisements in windows. If ever adopted by the city, the plan would negate decades of restrictions intended to preserve the historic nature of Miami Beach.
“I think the entire commission is united in wanting to make Washington Avenue look better and we’re all concerned with the look of the city overall,” said Commissioner Michael Gongora, who chairs the three-member committee. “My concern is that I didn’t want to resolve one problem by creating another one. I didn’t want the potential visual pollution on the edge of a historic neighborhood.”
Gongora was joined by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson is voting to recommend to the full city commission against the potential regulation change. The third member of the committee, Commissioner Ed Tobin, voted in the minority and in favor of the proposed change.
Proponents of the rejected change, including Commissioner Jerry Libbin, who called for the committee’s considering the issue, cite numerous economic advantages to struggling property owners and to the city that billboard signs could bring.
Among the conceived advantages is a source of revenue for property owners without tenants. By essentially leasing window space for commercial advertising, owners could compensate for not collecting rent.
Additionally, the plan supported by Libbin would also have brought in revenue to the city by requiring a fee or licensing plan.
By essentially leasing window space for commercial advertising, owners could compensate for not collecting rent.
However, since the plan was initially envisioned in the spring, the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), the city’s foremost preservationist organization, has opposed the plan for window “billboard” advertising.
“There is a constant battle between those who are concerned with historic preservation and those who want to make a lot of money,” said MDPL Chair Charlie Urstadt. “I have nothing against landlords – I am one myself. Nobody wants to restrict people’s ability to make money. However, billboards essentially on the outside of buildings don’t sit well with the historic districts or with the rest of Miami Beach. Our historic nature is one of the things that sets us apart.”
Urstadt also said that such signs, as exemplified elsewhere in South Florida, foster an “air of desperation.”
Urstadt added that the proposed plan could have had unintended consequences.
“Landlords, on South Beach in particular, tend to hold out to get what they want [in terms of lease money] as opposed to working something out,” Urstadt said. “As a side effect of this, landlords could be tempted to hold off on leasing properties because of the extra income they would earn from signs.”
Although the proposed change in regulation would affect all properties, Urstadt said MDPL’s primary concern was for empty commercial spaces – the ones most likely willing to post huge window advertisements.
Gongora said that estimates he had seen were that the city would have raked in just “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” – a tiny amount relative to the city’s budget. He said there are several other ways for the city to add revenue from banner advertising.
“We currently have banned advertising in the city and we could possibly use the other side of those banners for branding,” Gongora said. “Another possibility, and something other cities do, is advertising on garbage cans and recycling bins. They are eyesores already.”
Gongora also said that he would be open to the idea of arts and culture marketing, sponsored by commercial interests.
However, he said that the proposal rejected by the Land Use Committee on Monday was something about which residents had expressed concern.
Urstadt said that Libbin and representatives of a sign company were the only proponents of the plan at the Land Use Committee meeting.
“I don’t think there was a landlord there to speak in favor of it,” he said.
“Billboards essentially on the outside of buildings don’t sit well with the historic districts or with the rest of Miami Beach.” — MDPL Chair Charlie Urstadt
In contrast, Urstadt said that there was plenty of opposition on hand for the meeting, including property owners. He also said an alternate proposal was made to allow for storefront graphics to mitigate for the unattractive nature of vacant properties, but which did not promote commercial interests.
Residents have mixed feelings about the proposal.
“I don’t see anything wrong with letting people do what they want with their property to make money in this bad economy,” said Beach resident Armando Pace. “I know in historic district there are restrictions and those shouldn’t be changed. But elsewhere…hey, it’s a bad environment out there [economically].”
Waitress Jenny Pryor, though, said she doesn’t think that the tourists, who visit Miami Beach and fuel its economy, really want to see huge billboard advertisements in empty store windows.
“That doesn’t seem like it’s an improvement on an empty store,” Pryor said. “I think it makes it look like it’s an obvious long-term situation. Like the city is just dying off.”
Despite the recommendation against the measure, any member of the city commission can bring it before the entire body for consideration; and the Land Use Committee recommendation is not binding.
Neither Urstadt nor Gongora think it will be brought before the commission any time soon, though.
“I think it will go dormant,” Gongora said.
Urstadt said he did not think that the item had enough commission support to pass.
Gongora said that he hopes that at an upcoming commission retreat that commissioners would examine global branding ideas.