By Bill Hirschman
The 13-year journey to resurrect the fabled Coconut Grove Playhouse squeaked by what may have been the last serious roadblock Wednesday when the Miami City Commission voted 3-2 to overturn objections from its Historic Preservation advisory board.
If the vote had gone the other way, it would have dealt a virtual fatal blow to the county’s vision for the project.
But there is one last hurdle: Mayor Francis Suarez procedurally has the power to veto the decision until 4:30 p.m. Monday, May 20th.
The passage cleared the way for a joint proposal by Miami-Dade County, Florida International University and the GableStage regional theater. The plan would maintain the iconic exterior of the 1926 structure but tear down the rest of the deteriorating former movie house. It would be replaced with a modern structure including a 300-seat theater. GableStage, the acclaimed theater housed in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, would manage the facility and FIU would hold theater classes inside.
The decision about 7:20 p.m. was greeted with cheers, backslaps and hugs among supporters, some of whom had been at the specially-arranged meeting since 9 a.m.
GableStage Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler beamed as he said, “It’s been 15 years and I have to say getting the result we got makes it worthwhile.” He gave profuse thanks to the theater’s supporters who have testified at multiple hearings, as well as the project’s champions Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and especially Michael Spring, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The nationally-known Playhouse has been closed since 2006 – its 50th anniversary season — when an estimated $4 million in debts caused its non-profit board to shutter operations. But arts and county officials led by Spring had been striving for years before that to preserve some kind of theater operation on the site.
Since then, they developed the current plan to build the theater plus a parking garage and space for college classes on the property on the corner at 3500 Main Highway in Coral Gables. The cost is to be underwritten by $23.6 million in on-hand funds including $20 million from voter-approved bond issues. County officials have said that construction could begin this year if no other problems arose and can make the 2022 completion required by the state which actually owns and leases the property.
The project still must receive final examination from the city’s building permitting department, although other city departments have examined and approved the plans.
The vote capped a meeting in which nearly 60 supporters and opponents spoke across four hours. An equal number of spectators crammed the commission chambers. Yet another two score waited outside — locked out of city hall because of capacity issues, they were shuttled in as other people left. Then county officials and their consultants made a lengthy presentation, and finally commissioners wrangled over competing views.
The most significant opposition came from those aligned with the Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation, a non-profit organization created by philanthropist, lawyer and arts activist Lewis “Mike” Eidson. It proposes a private-public partnership to build a major regional theater like the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta or Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Eidson told the commission that he and his supporters have spent five years and about $1 million of Eidson’s money hiring architects and consultants to research building a 700-seat theater adjacent to a 200-seat black box theater, plus classroom space. A key player is R.J. Heisenbottle Architects, a historic preservation design firm that has worked in several Miami-area projects.
Those plans carry a $46.5 million price tag on construction, a $9 million operating budget the first year and an $8 million operating budget after that. At least $20 million of the construction cost and the additional initial operating cost would come from private contributions, Eidson said. The $23 million from the county bond issue and other grants would make up the difference.
At one time, the Foundation had about $11 million in pledges, but Eidson said Wednesday that several donors had walked away when the county plan seemed to be moving easily through the government process. He said he now has $3.5 million in pledges plus $1 million in cash that he said he had invested just that morning. He said it would be easy to raise the needed amount.
But Gimenez said the county had given Eidson 90 days to come up with $20 million in cash, not pledges, four years ago as a sign that he could make his project fiscally possible. The county never heard back, and that was cited by city commissioners Wednesday in their decision to go with the solidly financed county plan.
In theory, the issue being considered was a very complex appeal by the county of the city’s Historic Preservation Board’s decision to oppose the county’s proposal. That preservation board had initially approved some aspects of the project in 2017, but reversed itself March 5 following a lawsuit filed by two Grove residents, the county contended.
Indeed, much of the testimony centered around whether the county had been correct in assuming that the board had approved demolishing the aging structure. The county accused the Preservation Board’s Vice Chair of “hijacking” the March meeting, having “conspired” with opponents, and inserting incorrect criteria into the board’s deliberations.
But City Commission Chairman Ken Russell, who represents the Grove district, said that while the board had to consider the technical legalities of the appeal sitting as a quasi-judicial board, it also had the right to consider broader underlying issues up to a point, “essentially sitting as the (preservation board).”
So after spending considerable time on the demolition permission debate and other similarly complex subtle interpretations connected to the appeal, the commissioners prevailing in the final positive vote simply expressed impatience at the long-delayed and universally-sought renovation project as their rationale.
Initially, Russell made a motion, citing concern about the possible historical worth of the interior of the Playhouse. He moved that the county begin building a parking garage that all the commissioners want and restore the iconic three-story façade – but not to go ahead with plans to completely replace the rest of the venue yet. That would give the county more time to explore restoring the interior and give Eidson time to find financing. Commissioner Keon Hardemon seconded the motion and voted with him.
But Commissioners Joe Carollo, Manolo Reyes and Wilfredo Gort voted against the motion. Then they voted to uphold the county’s appeal and move forward.
Carollo said Eidson and others do not have full funding nor any guarantee of getting it. He said, “I’m a realist…. If we don’t do something today, it isn’t going to happen. It might not be what everyone wants, but it certainly will be something we will be proud of.”
City Mayor Suarez said virtually nothing, although two weeks ago he made statements at a commission meeting that indicated his interest in the parking garage.
The county plan proposes renovating the front of the existing structure, a 30-foot deep three-story building, which is often incorrectly dismissed with the word “façade.” That “front building” facing the street would house offices and possibly retail outlets. A small courtyard with landscaping would sit behind it. Then the group would tear down the deteriorating auditorium and replace it with the new 300-seat theater currently dubbed GroveStage. The City of Miami’s parking authority would build an adjacent 500-slot parking garage to be used by the theater, FIU, local businesses and nearby public schools; the structure might also house residential apartments and retail stores. Some of the parking revenue would help pay for the initial operating expenses of the theater. The plans also acknowledged that perhaps a larger theater could be built adjacent to the smaller venue in the future.
The project is to be paid for with $5 million in proceeds for Convention Development Tax Bond approved by voters, $15 million from proceeds of a Building Better Communities Bond, $1 million from the Convention Development Tax, $2 million from a Knight Foundation Grant, and $600,000 from parking in the adjacent garage to be operated by the city parking authority. County commissioners have repeatedly affirmed their support, but have been equally adamant that they would not spend an extra dime on the project. Some leaders felt burned that the construction and initial operations of what is now the Adrienne Arsht Center ran way over projected budgets, requiring county tax support.
But the proposal has been embroiled for years in a tumultuous and protracted fight that has encompassed fund-raising, polls, contradicting studies, contracts with consultants, public hearings, rallies and copious impassioned social media posts.
The opposition fell into two main groups: Eidson’s Foundation and another group, loosely connected under the organizational banner Save The Coconut Grove Playhouse. The latter wants to preserve every aspect inside and out of what they contend is an architectural landmark. The building was formally recognized as a “historic site” by the City of Miami in 2005 and more recently was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The three-story edifice was designed as a silent movie house in 1926 in the Spanish Baroque “Mediterranean Revival” style by Kiehnel and Elliott Architects, and reworked slightly when a hurricane damaged it soon after. Unlike many movie palaces of the era such as the Fox Theater in Atlanta, the interior was not unusually ornate. The application for preservation status called it “a noteworthy expression of the Florida Land Boom” whose “original design by the critically important architectural firm of Kiehnel and Elliott…. embodies the metaphoric Boom and Bust cycles that Florida has experienced, and continue as a signature building reflecting the heyday of Coconut Grove.” But county officials documented that it had been extensively altered inside and out since then when it was turned into a venue for full-fledged theater productions with more than 1,100 seats.
At Wednesday’s meeting, resident Carol Lopez-Bethel argued that in the two bond issues “people voted for restoration not demolition. Please preserve what is left of Coconut Grove. Coconut Grove is being destroyed. We need to save something.”
A few opponents raised the possibility that the county actually wanted the new venue, which will likely have commercial space, to be the seed for a new and unwelcome mall. Stephanie Howard said, “It will open the door to a Trojan horse rolling into our neighborhood.”
The Foundation advocates for a larger venue yearn for it to be the gem in Miami’s ongoing campaign to become an international center for the arts. They believe that based on the Playhouse’s past, a well-managed venue could be a fiscal and artistic success. Impresario Zev Buffman, who operated the Playhouse many years ago, testified by cellphone that the venue operated in the black 21 out of 23 years.
But local theater professionals and some national consultants doubt that a larger theater can be self-supporting, even with grants and donations. South Florida institutions have found tickets to traditional theater a harder sell in recent years. They say the older generation that was once the mainstay is dying off, younger audiences are hard to attract, Miami’s dominant minorities do not attend classic mainstream theater in the numbers that producers hope for, and like the rest of the country, season subscriptions locally have fallen off in favor of undependable spur-of-the-moment decisions to attend a show at most venues
Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors Playhouse on the Miracle Mile, testified that attendance at her 600-seat theater in Coral Gables showed, “We wish we were performing in a 300-seat theater all the time. This community cannot support another large performing arts space.”
Larry Fields, executive artistic director of Miami’s Fantasy Theatre Factory, pointed to the Playhouse’s fiscal meltdown: “Seven hundred seats will fail. How do we know? Because it already did.” That was buttressed by testimony by former employee Bruce Leslie who recited year by year the Playhouse’s six-figure losses.
Wednesday’s decision was supposed to be made two weeks ago but the commission agreed to delay it in part in deference to a request from U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson-D to Russell. While the neighborhood is not in her district, she cited her interest in her capacity as Honorary Chair of the Bahamian Heritage Initiative. The Playhouse property is bordered on one side by the Grove retail-entertainment district and on the other by a primarily African American neighborhood including descendants of the Bahamians who helped build the theater.
She sent her chief of staff Wednesday to read a letter backing the opposition plan because its leaders had committed to including a Bahamian art and culture component including a museum. Several speakers including Rowena Poitier-Sutherland, director of culture, Bahamas Government Ministry of Youth, praised the Foundation’s commitment to honoring Bahamian-American culture.
Giminez announced that he was willing to discuss ways to honor and incorporate Bahamian culture in this or future projects.
The county has invested thousands of hours into the project including paying $1.3 million to designer Architectonica, its subcontractors and other consultants to develop what they claim are plans ready to submit to the city’s building department for a construction permit and then to go out for bid.
Guiding the project through the gauntlet of elected boards and appointed committees has been exhausting. Negotiations, hearings and meetings have dealt with citizen groups, business leaders, the Miami Parking Authority, three other city of Miami boards and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which supervises the property owned by the state.