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Front Page » Top Stories » Downtown Authority Consensus Ban All Panhandling In Set Areas

Downtown Authority Consensus Ban All Panhandling In Set Areas

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Written by on October 25, 2007

By Catherine Lackner
After exploring two legislative avenues to prohibit aggressive panhandling in the central business district, Miami Downtown Development Authority board members seem to have settled on restricting all panhandling in a limited area. The issue now is how to define that area.

Veronica A. Xiques, a Miami assistant city attorney who is researching the issue at the authority’s request, presented a map of two proposed districts at last week’s board meeting. One is a four-block area surrounding the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. The other is bounded by Biscayne Boulevard and First Avenue on the east and west, by Northeast Fifth Street on the north and a jagged boundary roughly parallel to the Miami River on the South. In addition, the district would cover South Miami and Brickell avenues to Southeast 10th Street and Biscayne Boulevard to Northeast 14th Street.

Board members liked the proposed districts, but "our suggestion is to start smaller," Mark Spanioli, authority senior manager of development and capital improvements, told them. "That way, it’s less likely to be challenged."

A similar ordinance has been enacted for a five-mile stretch of highway A1A along the beach in Fort Lauderdale, which has been defined as a tourist center that is crucial to the city’s economic welfare. That law has withstood legal challenges, said Olga Ramirez-Seijas, the authority’s attorney.

"Let’s start with Flagler Street and a few streets that surround it," Mr. Spanioli said. "Let’s see what happens. Then if it works, let’s expand it."

Ms. Ramirez-Seijas agreed. "The Fort Lauderdale law was upheld because the panhandlers could go to another block," she said. "If we make the district too large, that may not apply."

Board members Neisen Kasdin and Loretta Cockrum argued for limiting the initial district to Flagler Street, North and South First streets downtown, Miami Avenue from downtown south to Southeast 10th Street, Brickell Avenue south from the Miami River to Southeast Eighth Street, and Biscayne Boulevard from downtown north to the performing arts complex.

"I’d love to have the whole district," board member Jose Goyanes said. The authority’s boundaries encompass 1.7 square miles.

Ms. Cockrum agreed, especially since "five new restaurants are opening up in the area between Southeast Eighth Street and the Miami River," she said. But the board members said they understood a large district may be unworkable.

"This has affected 30%-40% of the city’s restaurants and other businesses," said Joe Sanchez, city commissioner and authority chairman. He said he has encountered aggressive panhandlers offering to clean windshields. "They have two spray bottles. One’s got water in it, and the other has a yellow substance. If you don’t give them money, you get bottle number 2.

"It’s going to get worse," he predicted, "because in the winter season, our homeless population swells. But we need to pinpoint areas" to survive a possible legal challenge.

Though Ms. Cockrum and Mr. Kasdin were eager to decide on the no-panhandling streets, some board members had left and there was no quorum to vote. Mr. Sanchez suggested a committee review the issue and the board revisit it at its next meeting.

Though panhandling is included in free speech protections of the first amendment of the US Constitution, it can be barred from certain areas if it can be shown to be detrimental to economic development. The proposed ordinance establishes the rationale: "The City of Miami has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the downtown district of the City of Miami. Given the city’s investment, the prosperity of this area is integral to the continued economic success of the City of Miami."

If the authority agrees on district boundaries, a city commission vote would be required to make them law. A convicted

panhandler could be fined up to $500 or be required to do up to 60 days of community service.

The aggressive panhandling issue surfaced in May when Mr. Goyanes said that patrons at his downtown restaurant, La Loggia, had been accosted and that too-enthusiastic, even threatening, pitches for money on the street had become a problem all over downtown. Miami’s laws against aggressive panhandling are not being enforced, Mr. Goyanes said.

Enforceable laws, including those in Kansas City, MO, forbid panhandling within 20 feet of a restaurant, parking garage, automatic teller machine or walk-up bank window, transit stop or a property that has posted signs prohibiting the practice, Ms. Xiques said in May. Some laws have included intersections in their no-panhandle zones.

But attention must be given to offender equality. Ordinances that disproportionately affect homeless people usually are stricken. Some laws in

Boston have met this fate, Ms. Xiques said.

"I believe that a well-drafted ordinance embodying all of the District Court’s limitations will stand a constitutional challenge and serve the city’s interest of protecting its citizens from aggressive panhandling behavior," she said in a memo this month.