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Beset by legal and political roadblocks, Miami-Dade County is pushing ahead with a creative if controversial $20 million plan to reopen the storied Coconut Grove Playhouse. But the conclusion of the long-running saga remains far from clear.
Though the curtain dropped on the last production at the historic, publicly owned theater more than a decade ago, the next several weeks promise plenty of marquee drama following six months of mostly quiet offstage action.
The developing plot pits Miami-Dade against Miami and preservationists against pragmatists, with a cameo appearance by a famed playwright and a wealthy patron waiting in the wings to assume the lead should the county fumble its role.
Next week, county administrators will go before the city of Miami’s planning board to secure zoning approvals for their site plan for a radically revamped playhouse. The plan, by Grove-based Arquitectonica, calls for restoration of the Mediterranean, wing-shaped front building that defines the historic 1926 playhouse street frontage, with construction of a new stand-alone 300-seat modern theater behind it. The scheme has drawn intense opposition from preservationists and some Grove activists because it would require demolition of the existing 1,100 seat auditorium behind it.
Even a “yes” vote by the planning board won’t be the last word, though.
The county has also sued the city in attempt to upend a December commission vote that partly rescinded a preliminary demolition approval by Miami’s historic preservation board. That board concluded the auditorium had been drastically altered and retained little of its original architecture. The December city commmission vote potentially derailed the Miami-Dade County plan for an unfunded 600-seat alternative retaining the auditorium’s exterior shell.
A hearing is expected by September in the appellate division of Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The county argues the city commission exceeded its authority in granting legal standing to two Grove residents to sue and then requiring that a larger auditorium be built within the preserved shell of the old theater. The city is contesting the county suit, saying the commission was well within the scope of its regulatory powers.
But the city commission alternative, pushed by Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents the Grove, was premised on a critical condition: That arts patron and politically influential attorney Mike Eidson, who has been lobbying for a larger theater, raise an additional $20 million by the end of March to cover the expanded costs. Eidson, however, has not done so, according to city and county officials.
Eidson did not respond to requests for a phone interview but said in an email he continues to pursue his alternative vision. “I work on this every day,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the state of Florida, which owns the theater but leased it to the county and Florida International University to renovate and reopen it, issued a slender audit report claiming Miami-Dade is behind on the project and recommending a revised lease.
Miami-Dade County’s cultural affairs director Michael Spring, a senior advisor to Mayor Carlos Gimenez, fired back a letter saying the state violated its own rules by not providing the audit to the county for a response before issuing the report. Spring called the audit “sloppy” in an interview and sharply disputed the report’s conclusion. He said the project remains on track for reopening in 2022, the state’s deadline under the lease agreement.
Final plans by Arquitectonica are nearly complete and will be presented to the historic preservation board as soon as they’re ready, Spring said. He noted that city planners support the plan and made positive comments on the zoning application that will be considered by the planning board on Monday. The city’s Urban Design Review Board, which makes recommendations to the planning director, also endorsed Arquitectonica’s blueprint earlier this year.
“We are endeavoring to just keep the project moving forward through the plan,” Spring said. “We’re committed to delivering what we promised. We’re confident as ever we will have a great new playhouse.”
Russell said he is not yet ready to give up on Eidson’s alternate vision for a fully renovated theater. Eidson, a former chairman of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, has called the 300-seat theater, to be run by award-winning company GableStage, too small and unambitious to take the place of the legendary Grove Playhouse.
“He does believe there is a financial way forward,” Russell said of Eidson.
While the question of the theater size is “hashed out,” Russell suggested that work could start on restoring the front building, which is structurally separate from the auditorium to the rear, as well as on construction on a companion parking garage that is to be built separately on the property’s parking lot by the Miami Parking Authority.
But Spring said that would require a significant revision of the agreement with the state. He and Arquitectonica principal Bernardo Fort-Brescia have also said that retaining the outer shell of the auditorium, as Russell wants, is unworkable because a modern, technically advanced theater would not fit inside it. The playhouse was designed by the famed architects Kiehnel and Elliott as a silent movie house and decades later adapted for live theater, though it never worked well for that purpose.
The county, its theatrical consultants and many South Florida theater professionals have also warned that a larger theater would not be financially feasible because it could not fill its seats. The Grove Playhouse, perennially in financial straits, shut abruptly in 2006 in the middle of a production when the nonprofit group that ran it could no longer foot the bills. It left a trail of millions of dollars of debt that taxpayers ended up partly covering. Gimenez, whose administration set aside $20 million for the playhouse project, has said he does not want to risk repeating the old playhouse’s failure.
Even famed and financially stable regional theaters elsewhere in the country are having trouble filling larger houses, Miami-reared playwright and Oscar-winner screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney said in a video recently produced and released by GableStage.
The upcoming but as yet unscheduled preservation board hearing could prove critical to the county plan’s prospects. The exterior of the entire playhouse — widely considered as one of South Florida’s most important cultural and architectural treasures — is protected as a historic landmark, but not its interior.
The preservation board last year concluded the auditorium portion has no architectural value on the outside and little of value left insid. After a prolonged and sometimes-heated public hearing., the board gave preliminary approval for its demolition and replacement. What interior details remain, including a proscenium arch over the stage, would be incorporated into the new theater under the Arquitectonica plan.
Spring told city planners in a letter that the county will ask the preservation board to modify Russell’s conditions. In an interview, Spring said he considers the 600-seat proposal moot since Eidson did not meet the fundraising deadline.
But it’s unclear whether the next preservation board hearing on the playhouse can take place before the county’s appellate division rules in the county challenge of the city commission vote. Waiting for a court to rule could potentially delay the project, putting the county at risk of missing the state’s 2022 deadline.