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Drama over Coconut Grove Playhouse fate drags on

Just three months ago, the long-running drama surrounding the fate of the shuttered, debt-plagued and historic Coconut Grove Playhouse seemed about to close happily under the direction of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. But now some unexpected plot twists could send it into an extended run.

Gimenez, authorized earlier this year by the County Commission to settle outstanding claims against the nonprofit theater and assume ownership of the deteriorating 1927 building, made substantial progress in complex negotiations. The parties were the theater’s former owners, the state of Florida, a slate of creditors, a much-criticized theater board, and the city of Miami, which has been threatening to foreclose because of mounting code violations.

But the last, unsatisfied creditor rejected a $250,000 settlement offer as “ridiculous.” As Gimenez’s self-imposed June 30 deadline for a deal came and went, the creditor instead floated a last-minute, $55 million-plus proposal to build a new, 600-seat theater behind the historic façade, and add retail and residential buildings as well as an underground parking garage.

The creditor’s spokesman, Aries Development partner Gino Falsetto, insists the offer is serious and backed by a letter of commitment from moneyed investors and developers. It also has the support of Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the Grove.

But the nonprofit playhouse board, which has been working on unloading the property to the county and getting out of a long-stalled redevelopment agreement with Aries, has shown little interest in pursuing it.

Gimenez, meanwhile, appears skeptical but said he would allow Aries “a bit” more time to get traction on what he called “an 11th-hour, 59th-minute” proposal before reopening settlement negotiations.

“We stopped our process to see if anything comes of it,” Gimenez said. “We’ve heard this before from them. But I don’t want to be unreasonable.”

Then, to complicate the picture even more, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who has been pushing to reopen the playhouse since it closed abruptly in 2006, ran out of patience. He sent Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi a letter asking the state to exercise a legal clause allowing it to unilaterally retake the theater. Bondi’s office said last week that she is seeking further information before deciding.

Lopez-Cantera, a term-limited Miami Republican who is running for the nonpartisan post of Miami-Dade property appraiser, said the parties have had more than enough time to reach a deal.

“I’ve been putting it off long enough in the hopes they could find some settlement. I don’t see it happening,” he said. “It’s the same old story with the playhouse, and I’m sick and tired of it. I want to get it in the hands of someone who is focused on getting something done.”

That, ironically, could end up being the county if the state exercises a reverter it placed on the playhouse property title when it ceded control to the nonprofit board. Lopez-Cantera said Florida International University and Miami Dade College would have first dibs on the playhouse, which would go to the county next if those institutions did not want it.

The county long ago budgeted $20 million from voter-approved bonds for the playhouse restoration, but officials have always said they would need partners to run the theater company and develop its parking lot to cover operations.

Just before it went under, the playhouse reached an agreement along similar lines with Aries, then the theater board’s hand-chosen savior, but the relationship quickly deteriorated amid the economic collapse and growing acrimony between the board and Falsetto’s group. Each party claims the other owes it hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Earlier this year, Gimenez worked out agreements with the playhouse board, which critics have accused of running the once-famed theater into the ground and then obstructing its revival, and another leading creditor, developer Henry Pino. He also got Lopez-Cantera to hold off on the reverter, and persuaded the city to freeze a foreclosure lawsuit based on more than $140,000 in code-violation fines.

The playhouse board also reached an agreement with an institution it has not identified to salvage the trove of costumes, documents and memorabilia that remain inside the theater, long regarded as a South Florida cultural and architectural treasure.

But Falsetto and Aries, who contend they have spent almost $2.8 million on the playhouse project, including the purchase of two adjacent lots for ancillary commercial and residential development, have balked at settling. Instead, they recruited an Atlanta development group and an investment fund to join in.

“They have the money and the expertise to get this thing going quickly,” Falsetto said. “I believe our proposal is the best thing for Coconut Grove and the playhouse. My keen, keen interest is to protect my investment and also to help the community. We could get this thing off the ground in a matter of nine months to a year.”

But he acknowledged that the playhouse board seems less than enthusiastic.

“Maybe they just want to wash their hands of it,” he said.

Falsetto and Sarnoff say putting the playhouse in county hands will only delay its revival.

“If this goes to the county, the question is, how many years and how much over budget will it be?” Sarnoff said, citing delays and overruns in county cultural projects like the Adrienne Arsht Center and the South Dade Cultural Center.

But playhouse board Chairwoman Shelly Spivak said Falsetto’s group has given her very little to go on beyond a slim outline of its proposal.

She said she has little confidence in Aries after a long series of what she described as broken promises. And pursuing the new deal would require a complete redrafting of the development agreement, she added.

“I have no plan from them, no budget, no way of knowing there is serious money behind this,” Spivak said. “It’s the same old story I’ve been hearing for three, four years.”

Instead, she said, by refusing to negotiate a settlement with the county, Aries has become the last obstacle to the playhouse’s return.

“Aries is the problem,” she said. “They are the sticking point.”

Gimenez, while declining to set a new deadline for resolving the issue, said it should take about 30 days to sort out whether Aries’ new offer has legs. But he hinted he would not wait much longer.

The county already has had to come up with money to seal the theater’s broken windows and doors after intruders repeatedly broke in.

For now, the city continues to hold off on foreclosure, and Gimenez said Lopez-Cantera’s request could help pressure Aries to finalize a deal.

The number of interested and sometimes warring actors, Gimenez said sarcastically, “makes for a lot of fun.”

But, he added, “it’s time to move.”

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