Did a letter from a Florida agency claiming Miami-Dade County is in violation of a state lease sink the long odyssey to relaunch the landmark but mothballed Coconut Grove Playhouse?
The short answer is no, or at least not yet.
The letter, dated Aug. 30, alleges Miami-Dade is two years behind schedule and gives the county four months to comply with a timetable laid out in the lease agreement, or risk having the state take back the historic playhouse for sale at auction.
The county, which took control of the theater property in 2013 along with Florida International University, sharply disputes that it’s behind. It instead insists it’s on a steady course to reopen a radically revamped theater by 2021, well within the 2022 state deadline.
The county’s project team, led by Grove-based Arquitectonica, is in the last phase of design and is working on construction blueprints, said Michael Spring, the county’s cultural affairs chief, who is overseeing the project for the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Spring said he has not responded to the state letter while the county attorney’s office reviews it.
“We’re making progress in spite of all this,” Spring said. “At the moment, my view of this is, we are not in violation. It would seem a bit absurd.”
A spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state properties, said in an email this week that there are “no further updates.”
But even as the state and county stand at loggerheads, other perilous shoals loom closer and could potentially cause the playhouse project to founder. Like much that surrounds the $20 million theater revival scheme, though, including the state letter, the obstacles are clouded by a murk of confusion, disputation and intrigue.
The next hurdle comes Oct. 25, when the appellate division of the Miami-Dade court system is set to hear the county’s challenge of an unusual Miami Commission vote last December. That vote reversed the city historic preservation board’s approval of the controversial county plan, which calls for replacing the playhouse’s massive, outdated auditorium with a smaller, stand-alone theater while restoring the complex’s signature Mediterranean, wing-shaped front building.
The vote was based on a resolution by Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Coconut Grove. It laid out an alternative vision that involved keeping and restoring the massive auditorium, but hinged on one big condition: that arts patron Mike Eidson, who pushed for the larger theater, raise $20 million privately to cover the additional cost within three months. That, however, did not happen.
Despite the broken deadline, the city has continued to defend the vote in court. Russell has remained on the sidelines since the county sued the city. The county claims the Miami commission overstepped its authority in imposing the Eidson vision on its project, a contention the city’s attorneys dispute.
Because the playhouse is designated as a protected historic site by the city, the county cannot go forward with its current plan absent that approval.
A second hurdle comes in November and this one, too, involves the city.
The county plan requires four zoning waivers, in part because the historic property does not conform to current Miami 21 rules. The waivers require approval by the city planning and zoning board. City planners endorsed the waivers, and the county plan got a favorable recommendation from the city Urban Development Review Board.
On Sept. 5, after a 5-3 vote in favor of the waivers at the zoning board, Spring and his team walked out of Miami City Hall thinking they had won the necessary approvals, only to be called back in because the city’s attorneys belatedly realized the rules require a “supermajority,” or six votes, to pass. The measure, they told Spring, had failed and could not be revisited by the board.
Spring complains that board members were not told of the need for a supermajority before they cast votes, arguing the outcome might have been different had they known. Spring also contends the board members who voted against the waivers failed to state their legal objections as required.
Because a failed measure can’t come back before the board until 18 months have passed, the county has asked for the rule to be waived and, simultaneously, appealed the board’s decision to the city commission. Those will be heard in November, though precise dates have not been set.
“It’s another of these Coconut Grove Playhouse conundrums where something happened that is relatively inexplicable,” a frustrated Spring said.
The state, meanwhile, says it’s waiting for the county’s response to the letter alleging that Miami-Dade and FIU are in breach of the lease. The letter, signed by state lands director Callie DeHaven, contends the project should now be in permitting and construction.
The letter echoes complaints raised publicly by Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Grove resident who as a state legislator helped the state take the playhouse back from a nonprofit that critics say ran it into the ground before closing it abruptly in 2006.
Lopez-Cantera — who is widely believed to be considering a run for Miami-Dade mayor after Gimenez leaves office in 2020 — strongly supported the county takeover. But he later turned against it, airing allegations that the project was running significantly behind schedule and officials were unresponsive to his demands for documents. Spring and Gimenez have denied those assertions.
Spring insists the three obstacles in the project’s way are surmountable and insists they have not slowed or blocked the team’s work.
“We’re just going to have to fight through to success,” he said. “We are doing our level best to deliver a great project.”