Breaking News: Coconut Grove Playhouse Moves A Step Closer, But Debts Threaten Future

By Bill Hirschman

The creation of a new theater on the site of the Coconut Grove Playhouse came one step closer at midnight Monday when the state’s lease application process closed with only one party expressing interest — a partnership among Florida International University, Miami-Dade County and GableStage.

The partnership outlined in an FIU memo in February includes GableStage operating a 300-seat theater with an annual $2.6 million budget in what would likely be a new building on the current parking lot. That structure would be built with about $20 million in bond money already earmarked by voters. The property that FIU would lease from the state would also host programs in which students would train and participate alongside theater professionals.

But the road to actually opening up a theater on the property is still long and complex, especially because of pending lawsuits from groups that claim debts owed by the non-profit Coconut Grove Playhouse’s board of directors. No public entity connected to the arrangement wants to incur any debt in the deal, spokespeople have said.

In theory, the state only allows three months for FIU to clear those “encumbrances” after the state has given its provisional blessing, said Patrick Gillespie, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which disposes of surplus property owned by the state

Local officials are trying to get the state to reconsider what sounds like too tight a timetable to clear the debts and get several groups to draw up and sign various agreements, said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County department of cultural affairs.

Indeed, although major players in each entity are championing the deal, formal approval is still needed from the County Commission, FIU’s trustees, the state Cabinet and Governor acting as the Board of Trustees of the State Internal Improve Trust Fund, possibly the Miami City Commission depending on what plans exist for the existing structure, not to mention a citizenry divided over having a theater on site and those who want it for commercial and residential development.

As a result, no one was willing to predict a timeline or even a certainty that the deal will go through. “There are still some issues to be resolved and this will be part of the decision making process,”  according to an email last week from Kenneth A. Jessell, FIU senior vice president and chief financial officer.

“It’s tricky stuff,” Spring said Monday. “The devil is in the details.” There are even scenarios, if the debtors ask too much money or the county commission refuses to pay off any of the debt, in which the project “may not be worth our while.”

But FIU’s agreeing to be the front man for the deal in which the state would lease the property to the university is a crucial and encouraging step, said Joe Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage, the non-profit professional theater currently housed at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

The long-shuttered 87-year-old landmark theater was offered publicly March 1 by the state. Monday was the deadline to express interest.

It is unlikely that no one else was interested in the land at 3500 Main Highway at the southwest end of the business district. For years, even before the theater closed in 2004, private developers suggested to the theater’s board that cooperative ventures were possible.

But the key to who got the property lay in a state law that sets up a pecking order of who has priority consideration: first, state agencies and organizations; then county and municipal governments, and finally, private developers. That meant that any expression by FIU would supersede anyone else’s interest.

The next step in the process now is for FIU to tweak its 13-page business plan and present it for the approval of the FIU Board of Trustees, possibly by June, Jessell wrote.

It would then go to the state Cabinet. The Cabinet, which generally meets every two to five weeks, is scheduled to meet June 25, although there is no guarantee precisely when the item might be placed on its agenda. That would then be presented to the Miami-Dade County Commission for its blessing.

But even then, the deal would be put in escrow, or on hold, “until the encumbrances on the property are cleared,” Gillespie wrote in an email. “Once they are cleared, the lease will be fully executed with the university.”

And that’s the problem. “Encumbrances” means liens, lawsuits, debts and judgments. The county civil clerk’s office lists five pending lawsuits without judgments. That includes three filed this year – after the state offered the property publicly — from the City of Miami, GH Mortgage and Aries Playhouse Development.

But the encumbrances are a complicated if crucial issue: The state took over the theater from a private company in 1980 and transferred the title in 2004 to a non-profit corporation, the Coconut Grove Playhouse. But that group closed the doors 6½ years ago amid a sea of debt. Attempts fizzled last fall to negotiate settlements with the holders of about $4 million in remaining debts, including some owned by Aries, a private company wanting to develop the land for commercial uses.  Last October, the state exercised a clause that reverted the title to its control if the property was not used as a theater. Since then, the Department of Environmental Protection has been setting up the potential lease or sale.

In conversations over the past year, state spokesmen said their lawyers contend that the prior debts evaporated when the state re-took over the title.  But Gillespie said Monday that the state’s current position is that the property has “encumbrances” on it.

Additionally, three of the lawsuits were filed after the state retook possession. Plus nothing prevents the debtors from filing a fresh lawsuit once the FIU deal goes through.

“We are currently evaluating the liens and encumbrances that may be on the property and these will be dealt with appropriately,” Jessell wrote.

The Aries claim results from a complex deal the development company struck with the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board years ago in which it donated money to erase some of the Playhouse’s debts in return for involvement in any attempt to build residential or commercial development on the property. The city’s claim stems from mounting and continuing building code violations for the aging edifice.

The linchpin  problem is that FIU has three months to clear the encumbrances from the time the Cabinet votes to approve FIU’s final business plan. It’s currently unclear what happens if they don’t.

The county has long sought to take over the three-story building and its adjacent parking lot at 3500 Main Highway with the intent of using about $20 million in earmarked bond money to build a new and/or renovated regional theater on the location.

The partnership would involve FIU leasing the property for $300 a year, a standard amount for a deal with a state university or agency, Gillespie said. The county would manage the property for FIU, but the theatrical productions would be mounted by GableStage, the nationally-acclaimed theater. GableStage would continue is six-show season along with developmental play readings and other programs.

The business plan benefits students in FIU’s College of Architecture and The Arts though a detailed series of synergistic programs including participating in GableStage productions, FIU productions on-site, internships, research and graduate classes at the theater. The school could also use the property as a headquarters for community interaction and outreach such as a location for lectures and programs.

FIU’s vision is a partnership similar to that of Yale University and the professional Yale Repertory Company. In the business plan, FIU incurs no financial risk for the development and operation of the property. Revenue from GableStage’s productions would fund GableStage.

Among the question marks is what happens to the Spanish rococo building that has stood on the southwest corner of the Coconut Grove business/entertainment district since 1926.  The building is listed on the City of Miami’s registry of historic sites, which means that any significant action taken from renovation to demolition must be approved by its city commission. Some people argue that it is an irreplaceable architectural treasure.  Others note that only the front façade has not been dramatically and substantially changed in a series of major remodeling that occurred over the decades.

The Playhouse has played a major role in Florida cultural history, becoming one of the nation’s leading regional theaters that emerged after World War II. Producers like Zev Buffman, Robert Kantor, Jose Ferrer and, after 1985, Arnold Mittelman mounted their own shows, hosted national tours and even provided a home for works being developed for Broadway.

The shows and the performers reflected a time when fading stars and supporting actors in film and television were able to headline major stage productions that they would never have the chance to attempt in New York. Some were triumphs and many were flops. Some were unadventurous fare; others reflected the latest thought-provoking hit from Broadway.

Among the legendary productions was the first American version of Godot, starring Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr, an evening that left many playgoers confused because it wasn’t the comedy those stars were usually seen in.

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