Coconut Grove Playhouse Project Once Again ‘Full Steam Ahead,’ But Timeline and Ultimate Cost Unknown

By Bill Hirschman

Miami-Dade County’s long-aborning plan to resurrect the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse is once again underway at full throttle after successfully navigating a complex maze of legal challenges that ended quietly in May, the county confirmed.

“It’s full steam ahead,” Michael Spring, director of the county Department of Cultural Affairs said Friday.

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, whose opposition to the county’s vision for the project was a major obstacle, now is cooperating with the county, according to Soledad Cedro, Suarez’s director of communications.

But the passage of time in the nine-year campaign means it’s not clear any more precisely how much the project will cost or when it will open.

The architectural plans are being examined by the City of Miami’s building permit officials, Spring said. If the city cites aspects that require changing, the architects will respond. After that, contractors will be asked for bids, Spring said.

But the price tag and timetable have changed for the overhaul of the 1926 landmark site because of the elapsed time since a draft of the plans was initially released almost six years ago.

The cost issue: In past years, some county commissioners were quoted as saying that while they supported the project, they would not spend a dime past the $23.6 million from dedicated bond issues in 2000 and 2004, a $2,000 Knight Foundation grant and revenues from a proposed parking garage. Later, they softened that stance without being specific.

To cope with expected increases, Michael Spring, county Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Commissioner Raquel A. Regalado, who represents Coconut Grove,  have persuaded their colleagues to be even more supportive.

The county’s current capital budget includes $24.1 million through 2024-2025 for the Playhouse, but that may not be the final figure. Still, Spring believes that the overall capital budget likely will absorb a higher price tag for the Playhouse, since there is general support for expanding the county’s cultural footprint in several simultaneous projects.

“You have to have a contingency plan for supplementing the revenue that you had to build the project. So, we’ll get the project done and we’ll have enough money to do it,” Spring said Friday. “During this period of time when we were in court, we were also exploring options for additional government revenues for the project and we think that we’ll be able to add funding to the project once we get an updated cost estimate.”

Spring would not predict the cost nor timeline for any of these steps because he did not want to speculate on matters “out of my control.”

Early estimates in the project predicted a two-year construction period. Later, in May 2019, county officials said that if construction could begin that year, the project might be completed by 2022. Now, the timeline depends on how long the city takes to vet the plans and the county needs to revise them. The capital budget predicts construction expenditures on the Playhouse into 2024-25.

The nationally-known Playhouse has been closed since 2006 – its 50th 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.

Later, they developed the current plan to build a professional theater plus a parking garage on the state-owned property on the corner at 3500 Main Highway in Coconut Grove. The plan is for the venue to be managed by GableStage, the existing theater currently inside the Biltmore Hotel, and the building also to be used by Florida International University theater classes among other local educational groups.

But the precise configuration caused an uproar in some quarters, leading to large turnouts at commission sessions, town hall meetings, hearings and continued blowback on Facebook.

Under the county proposal, the classic façade would be restored back to its original design. But the entire interior would be razed. Former employees and others who have been inside have said the facility was literally falling apart even before growing financial problems caused the shutdown 14 years ago – and only gotten significantly worse. Instead, the county would build a modern 300-seat theater, plus a park-like walkway between the new venue and the old edifice.

One group, loosely connected under the organizational banner Save The Coconut Grove Playhouse, wants to preserve the entire structure that they contend is an architectural landmark. The building was formally recognized as a “historic site” by the City of Miami in 2005.

That group wants to see the entire property restored to its former glory in what had been estimated two years ago as a $43 million-plus project. There has not been agreement whether that means the 1926 original or the mid-1950s renovation when it was turned from a movie house into a stage theater facility with about 1,100 seats. Some members have said they suspect that business interests in the area want the space for retail outlets, making the property a coveted political football.

Max Pearl, a leader of the preservationists pushing for the complete restoration, said Friday the county has violated various required procedures and multiple agreements with its lease with the state, such as not maintaining the condition of the badly deteriorated building.

Another group – some of whose members also belong to Save The Coconut Grove Playhouse– argue that the county proposal is too modest. That group, whose most outspoken voice was local businessman Mike Eidson, contends that this site provides a rare forward-thinking opportunity to help Miami become a world-class nationally-recognized arts center. Their vision of the complete restoration would be a 700-seat theater with a small black box space added.

But supporters of the county plan countered that, in addition to the higher cost, the audience demand for that large a production facility in that location is unrealistic today.

As a result, the project was thrust for years into county commission meetings, city preservation committee hearings, town hall meetings, tumultuous sessions of the city commission whose blessing was required to proceed, court petitions and appeals.

But a shift occurred in May when the Third District Court of Appeals denied the city’s request to uphold city Mayor Suarez’s veto of the city commission’s approval. A key issue in the case was whether Suarez had improper communications with outsiders in what was a quasi-judicial matter. Much of the legal fight also involved arguments whether the court had jurisdiction over some of the various bodies’ decisions.

Since then, Spring, Levine Cava and Regalado have worked with Suarez and city officials to secure their cooperation.

The city’s view is pragmatic. “The reality is the court ruling was against what we were proposing, so we decided not to appeal; there’s no point,” Cedro said Monday. Additionally, “The city needs for something to (happen) with the Playhouse.”

The county website quoted Regalado in June, “I’m absolutely thrilled…. People are passionate about this theater, and I think everyone involved did their best to create a plan that we can all be proud of while respecting the needs of the area…. I appreciate the efforts of Miami’s Mayor and the City Commission to advocate for a good plan…. We all want our residents and businesses to benefit from a beautiful, financially viable theater that honors our history. Working together with our community, we have made this a better plan.”

The existing three-story structure has played a major role in Florida cultural history. Noted architect Richard Kiehne designed the Paramount movie house in the Mediterranean Revival style in 1926. That theater was closed for many years but was heavily remodeled inside and its exterior in the 1950s to become a stage venue.

It was repeatedly remodeled under several succeeding ownerships while 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 produced 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 debut of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, starring Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr in 1956 when the venue debuted. Many playgoers left early quite confused because it wasn’t the comedy those stars were usually seen in. Tennessee Williams directed an ill-fated production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring the woman he originally wanted to play Blanche in the Broadway premiere, Tallulah Bankhead.

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