By Bill Hirschman
The campaign to reopen the Coconut Grove Playhouse with a smaller auditorium built behind a restored façade suffered another setback Wednesday in the 14-year saga, according to court records.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by Miami-Dade County requesting that the judges quash the City of Miami mayor’s rejection of the county’s proposal to rehabilitate the historic site, according to the ruling obtained late Wednesday.
The three-judge panel did not rule on the merits of the objections raised by the county, but decided unanimously that they did not have jurisdiction in the case, the decision read.
The 15-page decision’s effect was unclear on the project that exists as a joint effort of the county, Florida International University’s performance arts programs and GableStage, the Coral Gables regional theater that would be based there and manage it for other clients.
Either side could conceivably appeal to the state Supreme Court, but the county has been anxious to advance the project as soon as possible. The county and FIU have a lease with the state Department of Environmental Protection, which actually owns the property.
As of Wednesday night, the county plans to move forward per previously established marching orders, said Michael Spring, director of the county Department of Cultural Affairs. Previous discussions about possible outcomes among administrators and county attorneys have held “we have very good alternatives to pursue this” no matter the ruling, Spring said Wednesday.
The question mark is that Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a prime mover with Spring on the project, is term-limited out this fall and no one knows whom his successor will be, let alone that person’s preferences. Further, about half of the county commission seats are up in the November election.
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 officials, Gimenez and Spring, had been striving for years before that to preserve some kind of theater operation on the site.
Judges Angelica D. Zayas, Daryl Trawick and Lisa Walsh heard arguments from attorneys from the county and the city on June 16.
Much of the discussions centered on whether the county had the right to challenge the mayor’s decision, whether the interior of the building was legitimately considered protected on historical or architectural merit, and whether the county’s allegation that a city preservation board’s vice-chair had tainted a key decision by allegedly being biased against the county proposal.
The jurisdictional argument stemmed from the county’s contention that previous decisions in the project’s progress by a city preservation board and the city commission as well as the mayor’s veto of the city commission’s previous blessing of the project were “quasi-judicial” actions that, indeed, are legally subject to review by upper courts.
The county contended that they mayor’s veto did not qualify as “quasi-judicial” and the appellate court agreed, thereby taking the case out of their purview.
Court arguments aside, at war are two visions. One group, primarily Grove residents and business owners, want the entire structure to be resurrected intact, in part for architectural preservation reasons. One of its champion’s proposal suggests a 700-seat theater could house a nationally-recognized theater akin to the Steppenwolf in Chicago, part of the region’s rise as an international cultural hub.
But the county contends that the 1926 former movie house at 3500 Main Highway is too badly damaged to reclaim, logistically as well as fiscally. Instead, it wants to restore the current façade to its former glory, build a park-like space behind it, demolish the rest of the structure and then build a new facility housing a 300-seat theater and classroom space. It would be used and managed by GableStage as a resident professional theater and by Florida International University for arts-related classes. Their partisans say a 700-seat theater could never be financially self-sustaining even with grants and donors.
The county’s $23.6 million plan would be financed mostly with earmarked bond issues proceeds already approved by voters. The other plan has been estimated to cost about $46 million with supporters saying that the balance could be raised from grants and donors.
A key element in court filings and public hearings has been whether a city preservation board previously did or did not endorse a county plan that would demolish the bulk of the existing building.
Miami-based Arquitectonica has completed the bid package of architectural and engineering drawings, Spring said last month. Once the project has the go ahead, the drawings/specifications package will be submitted to the City of Miami Building Department for review for a construction permit. “We may simultaneously issue the drawings and specifications set for construction bids,” Spring wrote last month.
The tumultuous journey, often marked by hearings and meetings populated with passionate speakers, came to court after a drama more complicated than a Tom Stoppard play.
This third act climax began in 2017 when the county needed approval to begin significant work on the project. The edifice had been declared a historic site by the city in 2005, so the county had to apply for a “certificate of appropriateness” to the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board known as HEPB. The board granted permission for a master plan in April 2017, which the county contends included demolition of some parts of the structure.
Two citizens appealed that decision to the Miami city commission, which granted a go-ahead with several restrictions that the county contended had nothing to do with historic preservation. The county appealed the city commission’s decision to the circuit court, which ruled in the county’s favor.
The county then proceeded with designing the project based on its understanding of the preservation board’s original ruling. When the county returned to HEPB for a final blessing, the board rejected the project.
In that dispute, the county and HEPB board disagreed in a complex debate on the whys, wherefores, definitions, architectural merits, what parts of the building are historically relevant – even the very legitimacy of the rejection. Much of it is centered on the county’s plan to demolish much of the aging deteriorating interior.
County officials appealed the HEPB board’s rejection to the Miami city commission. It sided with the county in a 3-2 vote following a heated and marathon public hearing. But Miami Mayor Francis Suarez vetoed that action. The commission then failed to override the veto in May 2019. That prompted the current appeal to the court.
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, including creating a more lush interior.
After significant renovations, the structure became home to professional theater productions in the mid-1950s including the American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.