By Bill Hirschman
Within metaphoric inches of success, Miami-Dade County’s current plan to resurrect the Coconut Grove Playhouse was dealt what may be a fatal blow Friday when City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez vetoed the project primarily on historic preservation grounds.
Suarez said at a news conference that he hoped that the county was willing to collaborate with the city on a different more expensive phased-in full renovation and restoration of the iconic theater.
In one scenario he favored, work on an adjacent parking garage would begin immediately. A 200-seat theater would be built first behind the current building. As soon as possible, the decade-long deterioration of the building’s interior would be proactively halted and efforts made to preserve the remaining structural integrity. An independent 700-seat theater would be built inside the current structure at a later date using much of the existing structure.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose administration has spent years developing a more modest limited project ready to go out for bids, released a statement Friday responding to Suarez’s request for a meeting, saying “We are ready to do so.” But the rest of his statement seemed unwilling to back away from its existing proposal.
“Today’s veto contradicts the professional recommendation of the City of Miami’s own historic preservation officer to support the County-FIU project. And it defies the will of the people, with an independent poll confirming that 78% of Coconut Grove residents are strongly in favor of the County-FIU Coconut Grove Playhouse project,” the statement read.
Gimenez’s statement continued, “In spite of these repeated and deliberate delays and roadblocks, we will pursue every means available to us to fulfill our promise to make the Coconut Grove Playhouse a place where our families and kids can once again enjoy the arts for generations to come. It is the right thing to do.”
A starkly divided community has been struggling over the future of the building since the nationally known Playhouse closed in its 50th anniversary season in 2006 when an estimated $4 million in debts caused its non-profit board to shutter operations.
At his news conference, Suarez said, “This decision is based on a number of factors, but the overriding factor and overarching factor is preserving one of our most historic and precious assets in the city of Miami.” He said there were other technical legal reasons for his veto, but “the most important was I was not convinced that the county had used all feasible and prudent opportunities to save the historic playhouse.”
Suarez’s veto, the first of his year-and-half tenure, could be overridden by the city commission with four out of five votes when it meets Thursday. But when the city commission endorsed the county plan on May 9, Chairman Ken Russell and Commissioner Keon Hardemon had voted against it, favoring what Suarez later outlined.
Suarez’s announcement across the street from the iconic faded blue three-story façade was greeted with cheers by about 30 preservation supporters; none of the county officials or arts activists who have lobbied steadily for years in favor of the county project were present.
Although there may be other recourses including legal action, Suarez’s veto scuttles a joint proposal by Miami-Dade County, Florida International University and the GableStage regional theater. The plan would have restored the iconic southern and eastern exterior but torn down the deteriorating interior of the former movie house and replaced it with a modern 300-seat theater. GableStage, the acclaimed theater housed in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, would have managed the facility and FIU would hold theater classes in it. A parking garage would have been built adjacent to it.
County officials had expected the construction to be complete by a 2022 deadline set in a lease with the state which actually owns the property at 3500 Main Highway. The cost would have been underwritten by $23.6 million in on-hand funds, including $20 million from bond issues earmarked for the project. It had already invested more than $1.3 million including hiring local firm Arquitectonica which has drawn up construction-ready plans already. Suarez’s plan would mean starting over on every aspect including design.
Suarez offered no timeline or detailed financing plan although supporters of the larger theater expected it to cost at least $46 million, not counting annual operating expenses. Suarez said that if the county would devote its bonds funds to his scenario, the city could contribute $10 million in Miami Forever bond money earmarked for cultural facilities. 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.
Philanthropist, lawyer and arts activist Lewis “Mike” Eidson has been pushing several years for a private-public partnership for a larger venue, operated similarly to the Arsht Center which Eidson chaired for some time.
At one time, Eidson said, his non-profit Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation had about $11 million in pledges for his vision, but several donors died or walked away when the county proposal moved ahead. County officials once offered to consider his proposal if he could raise $20 million in cash in two months. He did not do so.
Eidson said earlier this month that he now has $3.5 million in pledges plus $1 million in cash that he said he had just invested. He had already invested more than $1.1 million of his own money in the past toward the research and development. He said that he expected no trouble raising the balance from private donors and foundations.
Suarez’s veto message addressed some of the complex procedural wrangling that most recently focused on the county’s appeal to the city commission. the appeal centered on the city’s historic preservation board rejecting the county’s plan after previously appearing to have approved it. But Suarez’s underlying rationale was more straightforward. “We must uphold historic preservation in our community and the Coconut Grove Playhouse should be no exception. “ He cited a report that the Playhouse is “a signature building reflecting the heyday of Coconut Grove.”
No matter how Suarez decided, the decision was guaranteed to anger at least one large group of people, all politically active enough to have lobbied at multiple meetings over the past few years.
A considerable block of theater artists, arts patrons, Grove residents and neighborhood business people saw the long-delayed plan as overdue and the only practical answer to restoring a sustainable functioning theater.
But another large swath of residents, many living in the Grove, wanted the entire building restored as one of the last authentic pieces of Grove architecture and a historical icon throughout regardless of the architecture. Such a project would require twice the county bond money.
Local playwright Carmen Pelaez, who performed her one-woman show Rum & Coke in the Playhouse’s Encore Room, cheered the idea of rescuing what could be used as the basis for a gleaming new auditorium, “Instead of pulling it down and putting it in a museum, take it out from behind the layers of plaster and plywood. I want there to be theater. I want there to be dance. I want there to be concerts.”
A complicating factor is the 2013 lease that the county and FIU have with the state. The deal can be canceled if “construction is not completed” by 2022, said Scott Woolam, senior project manager for the Division of State Lands for the Department of Environmental Protection. The county has not formally responded yet to a letter sent last year requesting reassurance that project will be completed by then, Woolam said.
Complicating the other side was a March letter from the state Division of Historical Resources circulated by those opposing the county plan. The letter questions whether the county’s plan to demolish the interior violated the U.S., Secretary of the Interior’s standards for preservation of properties like the Playhouse which are recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Next Act
What happens next is unclear.
GableStage’s Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler said Friday, “After 15 years of incredibly hard work, $1.3 million in expenditures, and hundreds of man- and woman-hours which resulted in a really magnificent county plan, “we’re sure not throwing in the towel.”
While the county funds are technically committed to the current Coconut Grove Playhouse project, Michael Spring, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs, wrote earlier this month, “The Board of County Commissioners has the authority to revise the use of the County funds, based on a sound rationale to do so and subject to the Mayor’s recommendation and review by the Office of the County Attorney.”
Adler told the audience at the opening night of a production in March that there was “a Plan B.” He said earlier this month that if the Playhouse plan fell through, the company would move ahead with alternatives that its leaders have been examining in a strictly exploratory way. He did not elaborate in interviews this month.
Two alternative scenarios have been put forward by the preservation supporters.
One group, loosely connected under the organizational banner Save The Coconut Grove Playhouse, wants to preserve what they contend is an architectural landmark. The building was formally recognized as a “historic site” by the City of Miami in 2005, meaning it cannot be altered or torn down without city approval. They want to see the entire property restored to its former glory, although there has not been agreement whether that means the 1926 original or the mid-1950s renovation when it turned from a movie house to a theater facility with about 1,100 seats.
Another group – some of whose members also belong to the first group – argued that the GableStage proposal is too modest. That group, whose most outspoken voice is Eidson, contends that this site provides a rare forward-thinking opportunity to help Miami become a world-class nationally-recognized arts center.
Eidson said before the last commission meeting that if the county plan was rejected, he would press forward in discussions with the county about a private-public partnership. His Foundation’s plan would be to build a 700-seat main theater within the current interior to be operated year-round, plus a 200-seat smaller theater to be occupied rent free by Adler and a conservatory for FIU.
A key players opposing the county is R.J. Heisenbottle Architects, a historic preservation design firm that has worked in several Miami-area sites. The firm has developed a layout of his vision for the property and some conceptual drawings.
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.”
The county plan proposed renovating the iconic façade of the existing structure and the “front building” facing the street, which would house offices and possibly retail outlets. It would also have built a small courtyard behind it; plus torn down the deteriorating auditorium and replace it with the new theater. The City of Miami would have built 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 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 was 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 an adjacent garage to be operate by the city parking authority.
Supporters of the county’s smaller theater argued back to those favoring the alternative scenarios:
—Little of the original design lauded by preservationists still exists. The county hired architectural history expert Jorge Hernandez who confirmed that the building had been renovated and altered repeatedly, most notably in 1955 when the auditorium area was overhauled to accommodate stage productions, even including a balcony. The lobby and other areas were also altered. Another study found layer after layer of different colored paint going back to a golden hue from the building’s earliest days. Even the façade was changed, seen by comparing photographs from 1926 and 1971.
—Detailed analyses of the building’s structural integrity indicate that even if the building was in good condition, the structure would not meet current building codes required to allow anyone to occupy it, county officials have said. County reports unreel pages of specific citations of rotting roofs and cracked concrete eroded by seawater used to mix the concoction — all of which would require more money to correct than is available through the bond issues. That confirmed what former employees and others who have been inside have said: The facility was literally falling apart even before financial problems caused the theater’s board of directors to shutter the structure. Some opponents disagree, saying the building’s condition is not as dire as is being portrayed and could be reclaimed – and there are decorative elements like twisted columns worth saving.
—Some local theater professionals and some national consultants doubt that a 700 to 900-seat theater can be self-supporting, even with grants and donations. South Florida institutions have found 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.
—The state, which actually owns the property, has signed a 50-year lease specifically with the county and FIU, with two 25-year extensions possible. That 2013 lease specifically cites a 300-seat theater and a proposed self-sustaining operating budget for the modest facility, Spring said.
The History Plays
The veto is just one chapter in years of controversy. 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.
For more than three years, Spring, Adler and other players have met by telephone almost weekly to discuss logistics, design and financing.
Adler has spoken to his board about needing more diverse members, more members who can raise funds, the eventual need for a larger staff since GableStage operates with a tiny cadre of employees, and even a long-term succession plan for the Playhouse leadership.
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.
That includes the complex but pivotal events leading to this month’s developments. The odyssey began when the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board approved the county’s master plan April 4, 2017. The only asterisk was the board asked for more detailed plans about the reconstruction.
Subsequently, two Coconut Grove residents appealed the decision.
On March 5 this year, the county returned with the updated plans as requested. The city’s Preservation Board, including some new members, voted 6-4 to deny the county’s application. The decision overruled its own staff’s professional recommendation, a county website contends.
In its appeal, the county accused Preservation Board Vice-Chair Lynn Lewis of “hijacking” March meeting and having “conspired with objectors outside the public hearing. Further, it claimed that Lewis insert(ed) inapplicable and erroneous standards into (the Board’s) consideration” thereby “violat(ing) fundamental guarantees of due process and cause (the Board) to depart from the essential requirements of the law.”
A key issue helping lead to the board’s reversal at that second board meeting was challenging the idea of demolishing the interior of the building. The county argued in its appeal both to the court that the board had already approved that aspect of the plan in 2017; the second hearing was supposed to focus on the new drawings the board had requested the county bring.
In December 2017, the city commission overturned the preservation board’s decision but imposed additional requirements on the project. The County appealed in court. Last December, the Appellate Division of the 11th Circuit Court issued a unanimous ruling in favor of the county’s position that the people filing the lawsuit did not have standing to file the appeal. It overturned all of the city commission’s conditions, including that the shell of the existing auditorium be maintained.
The Coconut Grove Playhouse has played a major role in Florida cultural history. In the 1950s; it began a history as one of the nation’s leading regional theaters that emerged after World War II. In its heyday, 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 were Tennessee Williams himself directing Tallulah Bankhead in A Streetcar Named Desire. Another was the first American production of Waiting For 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.