Historic Olympia Theater offer may still spark renovation
Written by John Charles Robbins on November 14, 2017
A developer’s proposal to renovate the historic Olympia Theater building in downtown Miami may be the catalyst for a restoration of the entire property – even though the proposal was withdrawn after voices of opposition were raised.
Now the owner of the famous venue, the City of Miami, is studying exactly what will be needed to bring the theater and the old building above it new life.
And the emphasis is to be on historic preservation at the outset, according to Ken Russell, vice chairman of the city commission.
The city owns the aging Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts at 174 E Flagler St., which is currently managed by Olympia Center Inc., a not-for-profit.
The city’s Department of Real Estate and Asset Management received an unsolicited proposal in May from RUDG (Related Urban Development Group) LLC, to form a public-private partnership to redevelop the site’s 80 residential units and make capital improvements to the theater.
The matter was a discussion item scheduled for the commission but was deferred a couple of times, at the urging of Mr. Russell, until the developer withdrew the proposal Oct. 24.
At the commission meeting Oct. 26, Mr. Russell made a successful motion to direct the city manager to prepare a request for proposals to study exactly what is needed to fix the building and look at future uses and management.
“I saw it wasn’t ready,” Mr. Russell said of the proposal from Related, noting miscommunication in the community regarding the developer’s intention.
“Watching that tension rise, I think Related recognized that this isn’t the right time or maybe the right way to do this,” he said.
Mr. Russell said there are many options for the future of the theater building.
“Right now it has affordable housing, of which I am a fan. And I think if it were cleaned up right and put back together in the right way, it could service downtown very nicely.
“But there are other concepts: cultural offices for artistic groups; housing for artists that are at the Olympia Theater. You name it. Maybe it’s a blend. Maybe it’s a mix,” he said.
But Mr. Russell said he wants clarification on what is necessary to renovate the façade, because “the idea of demolition sounds horrible.”
He has been told that the only way to fix that façade is to take every brick off, fix what’s behind it, and put it back together.
“So I need a full study on that before we move forward,” he said. “It’s going to study what our uses are, how we’re going to manage it, how we’re going to pay for it… What I’d like to do though is start with the historic side at the beginning of the process rather than at the end.”
The adopted resolution says that on Oct. 26 an unsolicited proposal was discussed proposing demolition and replication of the existing office building in accordance with the city’s Historic Preservation Office standards; construction of a mixed-income affordable and workforce housing development, containing 200 to 300 units; and renovation of the Olympia.
The commission directed the city manager to request proposals for a study based on a community-centered vision for the uses and management of the Olympia, its adjacent office building, and the required façade remedial work.
Several residents spoke out about the theater Oct. 26 with a common message to commissioners: Please don’t tear it down, don’t rebuild it, and respect the present management team.
Olympia Center Inc. is a 501 c3 non-profit formed specifically to manage, activate, program and preserve the historic Olympia Theater and office building for the community and for future generations, said Robert T. Geitner, executive director.
Mr. Geitner thanked Mr. Russell Oct. 26 for deferring the matter to afford the center time to reach out to community groups and stakeholders and express its concerns.
He asked the commissioners to follow a resolution adopted by the Miami Downtown Development Authority that he said calls for a vision-driven community-based process “that allows us to discuss what we want for our Olympia Theater.”
This was echoed by Ralph Patino, chairman of the center’s board of directors, who said: “All groups are unanimous and that we need a community-based, vision-driven open public process to define future redevelopment of the historic Olympia Theater in the office building. And we will work with you tirelessly from now until it gets done.”
The city has set aside about $3 million over the past three years for improvements to the building.
At the Oct. 26 meeting, Mr. Russell mentioned another possible source of funds if city voters approved a $400 million general obligation bond at the Nov. 7 General Election, which they did.
“We may have new funds available to us, where we might not need the help as much of a [public-private partnership] or an outside partner,” said Mr. Russell.
The approved Miami Forever General Obligation Bond earmarks about $58.2 million for parks and cultural facilities.
The Olympia Theater opened in 1926 as a silent movie palace and the city’s first air-conditioned building, and was donated to the city as a cultural arts facility by the Maurice Gusman family in 1975. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.