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By Brett Sokol
Photography by Nick Garcia | February 28, 2015 | Lifestyle
Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine prepares for his city’s centennial.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine on South Pointe Pier.
Walk into Miami Beach City Hall these days and you might do a double take: The fourth-floor chambers of the mayor and city commissioners have undergone a dramatic makeover, personally overseen and paid for by Mayor Philip Levine, who is currently in his second year of office after one of the most tumultuous (and certainly the most expensive) campaigns in the city’s 100-year history.
Rather than the standard-issue 1970s municipal drab of yore, City Hall’s fourth floor now features floor-to-ceiling, life-size photos of iconic leaders and inspirational quotes from such notables as the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (chosen by Commissioner Micky Steinberg to grace her office’s doorway) and former US President George Bush in his WWII-era fighter pilot days (selected by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson to greet his visitors). The overall feeling is less of a gray warren of government offices and more of a new dot-com start-up, which is precisely the point.
Currently on the mayor’s checklist: a citywide party. For Miami Beach’s 100th birthday this month, Levine says to expect four days of special events “celebrating our leading role in fashion, music, architecture, style, and design,” culminating on Thursday, March 26, with a free concert on the sand off Ocean Drive. “Every time we talk about adding another star, our police chief and our city manager roll their eyes,” he says about the concert lineup. “They’re terrified about having another Woodstock here.” Still, he admits he’s hoping to top the 120,000-strong crowd that turned out for a free 1995 concert in the same spot by the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
Within City Hall itself, Levine has reversed course from the previous mayoral administration. A police force seen as deeply dysfunctional found itself with the aforementioned new reform-minded chief as well as a new second in command—both hired from outside Miami with an explicit mandate to clean house. In the wake of code enforcement and building department corruption scandals, the new city manager was similarly empowered to dig through records and flag questionable deals and conspicuously unpaid bills. No less worrying, Levine says, was the combination of dramatically rising sea levels and a decrepit drainage system, leaving much of South Beach regularly looking like a biblical reenactment. “Our streets were flooded, [and there was] no plan, no vision on how to fix that, just a sense of hopelessness that we could do anything about it,” he argues. To that end, new pumping stations have since been installed around the city to push water back into the bay—a pricey remedy, but one Levine believes to be essential in addressing climate change.
Flood control is also important to the Beach constituents who put Levine in office. “I don’t call them residents; I call them customers,” says the mayor. “We have 90,000 customers.” Considering his citizens as customers and extending his business instincts to the public sector hasn’t always gone over well for Levine. In fact, during his 2013 mayoral bid, many observers questioned why he wanted the job in the first place. On the heels of the reported $300 million sale of his cruise industry media firm, his launch of a new cruise line-focused company, a slew of splashy real estate deals, dates with models and TV stars, and not least, jetting around the country alongside Bill Clinton, a beachside mayoralty seemed like a sidetrack to his life.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a pothole mayor,” Levine says with a laugh, insisting that he thrives on micromanaging, even down to personally intervening in roadwork. He recalls driving down the Beach’s Alton Road during last December’s Art Basel (which attracted one of its largest crowds ever) just after he’d publicly promised all of the street’s lanes would be open for the fair’s traffic onslaught. Suddenly he was greeted with the sight of an orange menace: “They’d put cones up in one lane! I got out of the car and I personally threw all the cones onto the sidewalk. [I then] called the CEO of the construction company and the [city’s] director of public works,” he continues with a grimace. “They responded by saying that it was a total mistake; they’d get the cones cleared in one hour. I told them not to worry because I’d gotten it done in three minutes.”
The Beach’s never-ending construction woes aside, it’s hard not to be impressed with at least some of what’s been accomplished under Levine’s tenure. Previous plans for drastically expanding the city’s convention center redo with an accompanying high-end retail and condo complex—and with more than $500 million in public money funding the project—have been spiked. Instead, a more modest renovation of only the convention center is underway. “We’re a boutique destination,” Levine explains. “We are not a massive international convention center town. That’s Vegas. And we don’t want to be Vegas.”
Spoiler alert: Levine is running for reelection in November. And with three of the city’s six commissioners termed out of office and their seats in play, Levine says he’ll once again be devoting his considerable resources to supporting kindred candidates—and maintaining a solid majority of votes in support of his vision for the city. His next big project? Stopping the expansion of casino gaming, which he sees as an existential threat to the future of not only the Beach but all of South Florida. “The world loves Miami, the world’s coming to Miami,” he says. “The only thing we can do is mess it up.”