Playhouse ‘restoration’ ain’t what 2004 voters had in mind

Proposal sounds like development bait and switch

Before members of the city of Miami’s Historical Preservation Committeeplayhouse meet Tuesday afternoon to consider an application to “restore” the Coconut Grove Playhouse, they ought to look up the word restore in the dictionary.

Then they ought to categorically deny this proposal because it is more about redeveloping our historic gem of a theater and turning it into another Cocowalk than preserving its legacy.

That’s not the only thing opponents of this plan — who plan to flood City Hall — are concerned about.

They worry that there is enough retail and restaurants in the Grove that don’t need the competition. They worry that all the loading access points for service vehicles and garbage trucks front the residential abutting Charles and Williams streets. They worry that the two lane Main Highway in front of the theater and garage may be expanded (where they’ll get the space, Ladra doesn’t know).

What’s certain here is that there is enough concern and residential hand-wringing about this to take a second look.

Miami-Dade County, which is funding the “renovation” project, wants to playhousedemolish the 1,100-seat theater and replace it with mixed-use development: A 300-seat theater, a 200-seat restaurant, some retail, possibly apartments and a 400-plus space parking garage. The only thing that will be restored is the entrance facade and box office. How is that a restoration? What historic restaurant was there?

It’s a slap in the face to true preservationists and theater lovers — as well as voters.

“Its absurd for them to demolish the Playhouse,” said Carmen Pelaez, a playwright whose play RUM & COKE had an extended sold out run in the BlackBox at Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2003.

“Its history didn’t happen in the facade, it happened on both its stages. It’s one of of the the only historic theaters in Miami of national importance and it’s earned its right to be restored to its original MainStage and BlackBox configuration,” Pelaez said.

“Our goal should be to restore it’s reputation as a first class regional theater where pre-Broadway runs can develop next door to smaller curated productions giving local theater makers the chance to interact with their international peers and Miami theater goers can benefit from a thriving theatrical community in the heart of Miami.”

That sounds about right. In fact, it sounds a lot like what voters had in mind when they approved the $15 million the county wants to use (in total $20 M) on this project. The funds come from the 2004 Building Better Comwreckingplayhousemunities Bond, where voters approved $15M of the pie for “reconstruction of Coconut Grove Playhouse to restore its structureal integrity and add to its performance and educational capabilities.” The other $5 mil come from the 2005 Convention Development Tax Bond for “the reconstruction and expansion to the Coconut Grove Playhouse to remedy structural deficiencies and improve the programmatic capabilities of the theater.”

Notice that nowhere does it say restaurant. Or apartments. Or Coach store. Notice the bonds were to expand the theater, not shrink it to less than a third of its size.

In 2004, two years before the doors closed because they couldn’t sell enough tickets, the Coconut Grove Playhouse had an economic impact estimated at more than $20 million per year and a report said it was responsible for up to 40% of the commercial activity in the area. Forty percent! That information, plus the promise to match the public funds through private fundraising, is what drove voters to approve a $15 million bond grant, again, to “restore [the] structural integrity and add to performance and educational capabilities.”

Now, 13 years later, the county is instead pursuing a plan that would invest that $15 million, plus another $5 mil, in playhouseblueprintthe building of a brand new 300-seat theater behind the historic theater’s entrance facade and turning it over, free-of-charge, to an organization with an average annual operating budget of $1.3 million, including public money that is not guaranteed forever. Ladra was informed that the county ignored its own criteria of requiring the “major cultural instutition” it provides the lease to have a $1.5 annual million budget. But the only year that Gables Stage had that, activists say, is in 2013, when it got an $800,000 grant from Miami-Dade itself.

Then Ladra also hears that there wasn’t really an open, competitive process for the 99-year lease with Gables Stage and the Florida International University. These two are fine institutions and wonderful providers of theater, and as the mother of a 16-year-old thespian and musical theater enthusiast with very few options out there, I’m excited about the educational opportunities (hoping they are affordable). But was the process fair? And couldn’t a more collaborative effort by many other theater companies be better? Some in the theater industry feel like it was a cooked deal that “wreaks of favoritism.”

And then there is the undeniable feeling — supported by recent multi-million property sales — that this is being railroaded through as part of a bigger picture redevelopment of the old Grove main street business district. In other words, this may be driven by money, not art. Activists and Playhouse lovers feel blindsided. They say that Miami Dade Cultural Affairs Director Michael Springer had promised not to demolish the theater in 2013. But now, they say, they feel like this has always been the plan.

In 2013, another architect — a man who has restored Miami Freedom Tower, Miami City Hall, Miami Woman’s Club, Gusman Center for the Performing Arts and Vizcaya Village — had presented a plan to open a 700-seat theater and restore some of the interior of the Playhouse. Richard J. Heisenbottle wrote a letter recently published in the Coconut Grove Grapevine that also ought to be considered before the current plan moves forward:

“From the outset of discussion on the re-birth of the abandoned Coconut Grove Playhouse it has been assumed by the Miami-Dade County that only the front façade of the building is contributing to its historic designation. This assumption was made because the authors of the approved City of Miami Historic Designation Report, placed one sentence to that effect in the designation report.  This one sentence probably went unnoticed by many HP Board members as they voted for its designation, but years later that one flawed sentence has shaped the assumptions on which Miami-Dade County’s cultural facilities building program was based.  That assumption is that except for the main façade Miami-Dade County can tear down the remainder of the Richard Kiehnel designed theater and build a new 300 seat theater in its place.

“It is questionable whether those who authored this report ever toured the theater’s interior. For if they had, they would not have missed the remarkable original proscenium arch, low relief plaster ceiling, cornice moldings and twisted columns all of which are still intact and contribute to its historic character and its historic designation.

“This flawed assumption has resulted in the county commission voting to go forward with cultural facilities building program for a new 300-seat theater that is seriously flawed from cultural, economic and historic preservation perspectives. There are literally thousands of successful restored historic theaters throughout the country from Broadway to Main Street and the Coconut Grove Playhouse deserves to be one of them.”

There are a lot of people who feel a 700-seat theater would do more for the Grove than another restaurant. It would bring more people into the area that would then eat before or after a show. It would bring 700 people extra in, not 300 people and then a few hundred who were coming into the area anyway but now choose a new eatery to spend money in.

“At Washington University School of Business one of the first things we learned was that a business must define itself, what it is and what it does,” said activist Barry White. “The Coconut Grove Playhouse was and always should be a theater, a cultural and educational icon, and an economic driver for the area. In those roles it does not need to compete with restaurants and retail in the area for whom it is only supposed to attract visitors.

Some people would like to see two theaters remain.

“A 300-seat theater with 200 performances a year will attact 60,000 people annually and, at an average $35 per seat, produce $2.1 million in revenue. Adding a 750 seat theater with 200 performances a year would add 150,000 visitors per year and, at $35 per seat, add $5.2 mil a year. That is a total of $7.35 million in theater revenue and an additional 210,000 visitors to the Grove annually,” White said in an email to me where he directs himself to the historic preservation board.

“The Playhouse is a theater and an audience attractor. Don’t let misguided people who wrongly think it should be a self contained money machine disuade you. It will be a money machine by selling tickets to fine theatrical presentations to over 200,000 people annually — its only function, its only role.”

Activists also feel that Mike Eidson and The Coconut Grove Playhouse Foundation have caved in to the county’s pressure to demolish the historic theater, which, again, violates the voters’ mandate to use our tax monies to restore, not demolish, this landmark.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who seems to be in favor of the current xavier suarezplan but did not return a text late Monday from Ladra, has always been one to listen to his constituency and change course if he needs to. I hope he will put the brakes on this project until we can learn more about the possibility of a full restoration.

There is concern that the decision Tuesday is already made, that money is talking here and that the hearing is just a show before the rubber stamp. Hopefully, there will be enough opponents to cause some pause of the demolition of this historic place. Because once the wrecking ball has gone through it, it will be too late.

Like Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera told everyone at the December 8 town hall meeting about the playhouse future: “This theater belongs to the people and the people decide what happens to it.”

And by “people,” Ladra is pretty sure he meant us, not those who stand to profit from building apartments.