Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade County gets control of Coconut Grove Playhouse

The Coconut Grove Playhouse opened in 1927 as a movie theater.
The Coconut Grove Playhouse opened in 1927 as a movie theater. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

After years in limbo, the Coconut Grove Playhouse cleared a giant hurdle on the road to revival Wednesday when state officials gave the final go-ahead for Miami-Dade County to take control of the historic theater.

With just hours to spare before an unmovable state deadline, county officials delivered a package of legal documents to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection demonstrating that they had managed to clean up the theater’s long-clouded property title by satisfying a list of creditors, ranging from the city of Miami to an office-supply company.

Had the county not met the Wednesday deadline, the state was required by ironclad rules to put the property up for sale to the highest bidder, a prospect no one in Miami or Tallahassee relished.

Though the documents were decidedly non-sexy, the bottom line is “thrilling,” said Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring: It means the county can move on an ambitious plan to rebuild the deteriorated 1926 playhouse building, which is considered an architectural and cultural landmark as well as a crucial economic driver for Coconut Grove’s village center. The county long ago earmarked $20 million in bond proceeds for the project.

The playhouse would be relaunched as a working and educational regional theater in partnership with Florida International University and GableStage, a leading local dramatic company.

“Our team did a fabulous job,” said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has made reopening the playhouse a cornerstone of his administration. “I feel really good about it.”

The state last year re-took ownership of the perennially troubled theater from a nonprofit group that had closed it abruptly in 2006 amid mounting debt and administrative disarray. In August, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet enthusiastically approved the joint plan by FIU and Miami-Dade, triggering the Jan. 15 deadline to clear outstanding claims against the property.

Under the terms of the deal, the county and FIU will joinly lease the playhouse from the state for a token sum for 50 years, with two 25-year renewal options.

Gimenez said he was also pleased by the county team’s success in drastically whittling down claims that, on paper, added up to a few million dollars.

The payout to creditors with encumbrances on the playhouse title, though not finalized, is likely to come to much less than the $120,000 the County Commission authorized for the purpose, Spring said. That money will come not from taxpayers but from a deal to have the Miami Parking Authority manage the theater’s still-functioning — and money-making — parking lot.

In exchange for that deal, which also provides the authority a voice in the renovation project, the city waived more than $1.5 million in accumulated building violation fines, Spring said.

Among other principal creditors, the Aries group, a developer that had a contract with the nonprofit playhouse group to redevelop the property, accepted $15,000 to satisfy more than $1 million it claimed it was owed. In return, the nonprofit group agreed to relinquish an adjacent retail building on Main Highway, known as the Bicycle Shop, to Aries, which also dropped lawsuits against the county and nonprofit board.

One printer who was owed $60,000 by the playhouse declined to negotiate, Spring said. The county has sued the printer, arguing its legal claim evaporated after the state took back the property, but set aside the money in an escrow account in case it loses in court, he said.

Now, Gimenez said, comes an even tougher challenge: Figuring out exactly what to do with the resplendent but rundown and vandalized 1926 Mediterranean Revival playhouse, originally designed as a movie house by the architectural firm of Kiehnel and Elliott, one of the most prominent working in Miami in the period.

Converted into a live theater in 1956, the playhouse became one of most important in the South, reopening with the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting for Godot.

Because it is designated a historic structure by the city, the three-story building’s exterior must be preserved. But consultants have said the 1,130-seat auditorium is too big to be economically viable. A previous plan developed by the nonprofit board had considered building a new, smaller theater behind the historic façade on Main Highway. The nonprofit board also had a deal to build commercial or residential development on the parking lot to support the theater’s operations.

“The tougher part now will be a debate about the building,” Gimenez said. “Can you maintain it? If not, what aspects of it do you keep? What kind of development goes in, and who does it?”

Gimenez and Spring emphasized that no decisions had been made. The county will next put out competitive bids for architecture and engineering firms to develop a proposal, Spring said. It must also negotiate the contract with GableStage, which would also consult on the theater design, he said.

The key, Gimenez said, is that the theater become self-sustaining without taxpayer help.