Coconut Grove

Controversy stalled plan to save storied playhouse. Grove voters have a clear preference.

An architectural rendering shows the restored front building at the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the left, with a free-standing new theater at the right.
An architectural rendering shows the restored front building at the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the left, with a free-standing new theater at the right. Arquitectonica

In the heated battle over the future of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, a plan to save the historic theater by replacing its cavernous auditorium with a smaller, stand-alone theater may be winning the day among its often-fractious village neighbors.

A survey of Grove voters, released Friday, found that 78 percent support Miami-Dade County’s controversial plan to reopen the landmark 1926 playhouse, which closed abruptly more than a decade ago amid a fiscal crunch.

The $20 million blueprint would restore the theater’s defining Mediterranean front building while tearing down the 1,100-seat auditorium behind it. A modern 300-seat theater, the size the county’s consultants say would be financially viable, would rise in its place.

The survey of 400 voters — considered statistically significant — also found a strong preference for the county plan over an alternative $48 million vision proposed by arts patron Mike Eidson that would restore the entire playhouse structure and include a larger seating capacity of 700. In December, Miami commissioners effectively stalled the county plan to give Eidson time to raise additional money for his concept.

The survey was commissioned by GableStage, the Coral Gables theater company that would run the new playhouse under the county plan. It was conducted by polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International. GableStage director Joe Adler said the company paid for the survey from its regular budget, which includes both private and public grant money.

Some Grove residents and preservationists have vocally opposed the county plan, saying it would destroy the landmark’s historic integrity. An appeal by two Grove neighbors of the city historic preservation board’s preliminary approval of the county plan prompted December’s city commission action. The theater has long been a focal point of the Grove’s cultural life and architectural pride.

“We really wanted to ascertain what the feeling was in Coconut Grove about our plan,” Adler said. “We were extremely gratified with the response.

“It reaffirms the fact that we’re on the right track and the community will favor the plan we’ve been working on all these years.”

Eidson said he had not seen the survey and could not comment specifically on it. But he suggested in an email that it was a “conflict of interest” for GableStage to commission the poll because it stands to benefit substantially from the county playhouse project.

Adler and his pollster, Fernand Amandi, shared the results in meetings with Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents the Grove and initiated the move to support Eidson’s plan, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who at one point also endorsed the 700-seat alternative.

Via email, Russell wrote: “The simple question should have been whether the theater should be preserved or demolished. Of course we would rather save it. The county plan demolishes the theater and that should be our last resort. If the funds are available and it can be saved, we should bring it back to life. If we can’t raise the funds, or it’s too far gone, only then should we let it go to the wrecking ball.”

Suarez noted he had already publicly withdrawn his support for the Eidson concept before seeing the survey on Friday. He added that he now supports a compromise idea that would have the city contribute $10 million to the project to increase the size of the contemplated new theater to around 450 seats. Suarez and some in the theater world have criticized the 300-seat theater in the county plan as unambitious.

The survey of registered voters living in the Grove found:

▪ High awareness of the playhouse issue; 75 percent of respondents said they were familiar with debate over the reopening, and 66 percent said they were following developments closely.

▪ An overwhelming majority, 90 percent, favor reopening the theater over having the state, which owns the property, sell if off.

▪ Nearly three-quarters oppose halting the county plan.

▪ Given a choice between the county plan and Eidson’s plan, 59 percent initially favored the current blueprint, with just 24 percent favoring the alternative. After respondents were presented with arguments for and against the Eidson and county plans, support for the current official plan rose to 64 percent.