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Front Page » Arts & Culture » The fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is center stage

The fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is center stage

Written by on December 5, 2017
The fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is center stage

Further drama played out as hundreds of people packed Miami City Hall last week to debate the fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. There was little agreement except on one point: the time to act is now.
Waiting another month or year only subjects the massive structure to further wear and tear from Mother Nature and time.
No decisions were made: the town hall was designed to hear comments on restoration of the theater.
Opponents of the county’s restoration plan are now focused on packing City Hall on Dec. 14 when the city commission is to hear an appeal of the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board’s April 4 decision granting a special certificate of appropriateness to partly demolish the structure.
The one-time cinema at 3500 Main Highway in the Grove has been closed more than a decade as state, county and city officials debated its fate. The state owns the theater and leases it to Miami-Dade County and Florida International University.
The county sought the certificate of appropriateness. Its redevelopment plan would basically save and restore the theater’s front, demolish the larger auditorium and build a new 300-seat theater, along with a public garage with residential units.
The historic and preservation board conditionally approved the special certificate of appropriateness. Residents Barbara Lange and Katrina Moss appealed that decision.
The county deemed the board’s April 4 vote approval of its master plan concept.
County Commissioner Xavier Suarez and Miami Commissioner Ken Russell hosted the town hall.
Mr. Russell called the playhouse “our greatest treasure in the Grove” and vowed imminent action.
“I don’t want to lose our past … we’re going to do this now – we just need to get on the same page,” he said.
That’s proving to be a challenge with preservationists, theater lovers and others taking sides: Many support the county plan, which includes having GableStage, a Coral Gables nonprofit, run the 300-seat theater; many back a proposal from arts supporter Mike Eidson for a 700-seat theater; and others like a plan floated a few years ago by architect R.J. Heisenbottle to restore the structure as a 700-seat theater and build a separate 200-seat studio theater next door to what is now a three-story Mediterranean Revival style building at Main Highway and Charles Avenue.
Michael Spring, county cultural affairs director, spoke briefly last week to lobby for the county’s plan.
“I can tell you it will be beautiful – a great regional theater. And best of all, we’re already under way,” he said.
County officials have set aside $20 million in approved bonding to revive the theater.
County Mayor Carlos Giménez delivered a to-the-point statement at the meeting, saying voters decided in 2004 to “breathe life” back into the playhouse and the current standstill hurts.
“With each day that passes, we’re missing out. We need to get it done now. The state and the county have approved this plan. It’s a sad state that today we’re the victim of wild speculative schemes,” he said. “We can argue about the size and [who will run the theater], or we can come to our senses. The county plan works.”

5 Responses to The fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is center stage

  1. Roz stuzin

    December 6, 2017 at 8:26 am

    We need to act now and the only same solution is the county’s plan to let the Gables stage which is an award warning non profit with a twenty year track record of great theatre run the three hundred planned theatre. Why would anyone argue with a fiscally responsible theatre continuing the legacy of the Coconut Grove playhouse as soon as possible?

  2. Robert Mandel

    December 6, 2017 at 9:11 am

    You left out a few important facts from the meeting. The Lieutenant Governor said he has strong doubts about GableStage’s ability to run the theater. He also criticized the county for missing every deadline on the project and failing to submit financial records that have repeatedly been requested for four years. You also did not include mentioning the mayor said he also welcomes the larger theater plan provided Mr Eidson brings the money. But the county also has to raise money since its $20 million design does not include a scene shop or costume shop. The county doesn’t have the extra money because the state rejected their grant application due to the design being non compliant with seven regulations outlined by the Secretary of State. Those state guidelines say that the auditorium is historic and needs to be included in the restoration. And then there’s this Playhouse memo sent yesterday from Commissioner Suarez to Mayor Gimenez:

    December 5th, 2017

    Carlos A. Gimenez
    Mayor of Miami-Dade County
    111 NW 1st Street, 29th Floor
    Miami, Florida 33128

    Dear Mayor Gimenez,
    This regards your memo of December 1, 2017. Most of this memorandum is accurate and presents a balanced update of where we are with the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
    However, the memorandum fails to take into account the two most important things that happened during the two days preceding the issuance of this memorandum to wit:
    1) At the town hall meeting of November 30th, the lieutenant governor of the state expressed strong doubt about Gables Stage’s ability to operate and/or manage a theatre of any size.
    2) Furthermore, at the town hall meeting and again at the Sunshine meeting of December 1st, between myself and Chairman Bovo, the desirability of a larger theatre was discussed as both a means of bringing regional theatre to the Grove and also as a means of solving the appeal from HEPD, which will otherwise be heard by the city commission on December 14th. Mayor Gimenez specifically used the figure of 450 seats, which is a 50% increase over the 300 seats mentioned in the memo of December 1st.
    3) Chairman Bovo did not quantify his preference as to seating capacity, but did express a strong desire to have a settlement of the appeal from the HEPD decision. In light of the above, it is incumbent upon us to reconsider the recommendation of a 300-seat theatre and also the involvement of Gables Stage.
    I would strongly recommend that the County, for at least the next nine days (until December 14th, 2017) refrain from commenting on these matters until we see if a settlement is achieved as to the HEPD appeal. Any pronouncements that make the large theatre versus small theatre discussion into an adversarial one hurts the chances of a compromise and could delay a settlement of the HEPD appeal.
    Let me add that if a settlement followed by a grand compromise is not achieved by the 14th, and if the Miami City Commission affirms the appeal, I will recommend to the Board of County Commissioners that we proceed with a large-theatre-only plan, which will not only accomplish the purposes of preservation (as stated in the bond referendum), but also facilitate the additional grant of $10 million pledged by the City of Miami, which is clearly premised on a large theatre.

    Xavier L. Suarez
    District 7 Commissioner, Miami-Dade County

    cc: Alex Ferro, Chief of Staff to Mayor Carlos Gimenez
    Chairman Esteban Bovo

  3. Harry Emilio Gottlieb

    December 6, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    I also attended that Coconut Grove Playhouse Town Hall Meeting. I saw all the folks wearing the blue T-shirts supporting efforts of GableStage to take over the operations of the Playhouse, when it eventually reopens in a few years. I wondered how many actually live in the Grove or ever attended a performance in the Playhouse. I saw the suites that wish to demolish 2/3rds of this treasured historically designated iconic building and replace it with a flashy new contemporary glass and steel structure and parking garage along with a few condos. To better appreciate Architectonica’s work you may wish to drive to 3301 Coral Way and view the Miracle Market Place. Needless to say it’s hardly what is desired for the Grove Playhouse. The fact that little effort has been made to invite the best local Historical Preservation Architecture film to participate is not encouraging. Richard Heisenbottle firm has restored the Olympia Theater, Freedom Tower and even the former Pan Am Terminal, which happens to be Miami City Hall and the very same building this meeting was held in. As I was reading this Miami Today column I could not help notice the absence of the reprimand made by Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez Cantera to MDC and GableStage. Cantera who lives in Coconut Grove has championed the return of the Grove Playhouse for the past ten years of it being abandoned. He is as frustrated as the rest of us that this once powerful cultural and economic engine is still in limbo and continues to slowly be demolished through neglect. Even while having a bad cold Cantera attended the meeting and very passionately demonstrated his disapproval with the process. He dressed down GableStage for not having skin in the game. He dressed down MDC for missing not one, two or three, but four separate deadlines that were required by the State of Florida. So I’m a bit curious as to why these facts were not included in this Miami Today column? Did the journalists covering this story get caught in traffic and were a half our late, therefore missing Cantera’s address to the audience? Was the column too long and paragraph had to be edited out? Or is this publication so biased in support of the MDC, GableStage and Architectonica proposal, they felt it necessary to obstruct the facts? I’m hoping the two journalists that covered this story were just stuck in traffic.

  4. DC Copeland

    December 11, 2017 at 7:42 am

    Every group involved has an opinion but none of them have bought and revamped theaters to make a profit. However there is one company out there that does this as a matter of doing business every day” London based company Ambassador Theater Group (ATG), It is on a theatre buying spree across North America. Who knows, they might actually be interested in buying and restoring the theater, like they did with Broadway’s historic and largest house, the Lyric Theater. Or at least taking on a 75-year lease. If they see the potential and opt to buy, restoration costs the tax payer nothing– in fact, the public will make money off the sale (how rare is that?). If they pass, then it’s possible they may know something the local “experts” don’t. And if they do, if we’re lucky and smile nicely, maybe they will tell us.

    • CL Jahn

      December 17, 2017 at 2:23 pm

      Actually, funny story, Joe Adler has ALREADY saved a failing theater in Miami-Dade County. When he took over GableStage, formerly the Florida Shakespeare Festival, it was mired in debt and had an un-even artistic history. GableStage is now a theatre of national prominence (it was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal’s list of Best Theatre of 2017 this past week), and is financially viable. I don’t know why the Lt. Governor said otherwise, I have seen no evidence to back that assertion. I do know that several of the grants they’ve been awarded in the last few years do require a fiscal evaluation.