Coconut Grove Playhouse revamp plan halted again by legal snag. Our community is the loser | Editorial

·4 min read

The question of how to carve a new future for the Coconut Grove Playhouse has been discussed and debated since the aging but venerable venue on Main Highway closed its doors in 2006 in what we thought, at the time, would be a temporary move.

It was a historic landmark, built in 1927. We wanted to see it brought back to life. We assumed it would be.

But now the playhouse has been shuttered and empty for 15 years, with several revitalization plans proposed and rejected by leaders of the city of Miami and Miami-Dade. The building has decayed in that time, bringing down the neighborhood around it as well. What a shame.

And now, this week, the city of Miami decided to prolong the process by appealing a December decision that essentially gave Miami-Dade the right to begin a $23 million project that would not only renovate the structure, but revitalize the neighborhood around it.

That’s too bad.

The city’s appeal, filed Tuesday, sets off yet another round of the long-drawn-out fight over the future of the theater. This time, there could be a heavy price to pay.

Losing support

By appealing and delaying, the project may now lose the support of the Knight Foundation, which in 2018 donated $2 million to help reopen the storied playhouse. The money, according to foundation CEO and president Alberto Ibargüen, has been waiting, unused, while Miami and Miami-Dade joust over the renovation.

“This is not a threat, but we can put the money to better use if this continues,” he told the Miami Herald Editorial Board.

It’s hard to argue with that. Why shouldn’t other artistic endeavors be funded by the foundation while Miami and Miami-Dade fight over whether the playhouse should be bigger vs. smaller, older vs. newer?

We won’t drag you into the weeds of this drama because we fear your eyes will glaze over, but here are the main points:.

First of all, why is the county involved in a city property at all? In 2014, the county entered into a lease agreement with the State of Florida, the owner of the site, and with Florida International University, as co-lessee, to rehabilitate the playhouse and return the theater to its “ancestral home” in Coconut Grove.

The city of Miami and Mayor Francis Suarez favor a larger theater, maybe 700 seats, way too big for the area. With the support of some local preservationists, they also want to avoid demolishing the rear, original section of the theater, the source of most of its historic landmark designation. The county’s plan calls for that portion to be demolished and replaced with a close replica.

After years of battling, both sides went to court — most recently after Mayor Suarez vetoed the city commission’s support of the county plan. The county appealed the validity of the mayor’s veto and won. But the city is now appealing the county’s victory, delaying everything and perhaps endangering the Knight Foundation funding.

A 300-seat theater

The Knight Foundation and Miami-Dade Commissioner Raquel Regalado — who represents the area and has taken the project under her wing — spoke with the Editorial Board last week about their hopes that the city would drop its opposition and allow the work to begin on the playhouse.

The Board was impressed with Regalado’s innovative but practical revitalization plan crafted after talking to project architects. The plan, which she detailed last week in a Miami Herald OpEd, calls for a 300-seat theater, a small park and a parking garage while preserving what is preservable after so many years. Regalado and the Knight Foundation hoped, as do we, that the city would realize that this is the best solution for the playhouse now. The county plan is ready to break ground, the project is funded and will not cost taxpayers any money. Bingo!

No dice, said the city.

A spokesman for the city told the Board Tuesday that the full city commission had agreed to appeal back in June, and that’s what the city did this week, a questionable decision at best.

So we’re back at an impasse. There’s another crucial delay. The curtain at the Coconut Grove Playhouse won’t be coming up any time soon. The building will continue to decay as the battle lingers in court.

And that’s an injustice for the historic playhouse and our community.

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