Miami’s historic preservation board voted against a five-years-in-the-making plan by Miami-Dade County to revamp the Coconut Grove Playhouse on Tuesday, dealing a potentially crippling blow to the effort to revive the long-shuttered theater.
By a 6-4 vote, the board reversed a course it had set two years ago, when it approved a $20 million county master plan that calls for demolition of the historic playhouse’s auditorium, restoration of the defining 1927 front section and construction of a smaller, new stand-alone theater behind it.
After a nearly seven-hour public hearing that concluded after 10 p.m., the board —- including new members who had not participated in the 2017 vote and seemed unfamiliar with its details — instead denied the county permission to move forward on a refined, detailed blueprint plan amid concerns over the proposed loss of the theater’s massive auditorium.
Some noted preservationists, including historian Arva Parks, argued during the hearing that demolishing the auditorium shell would erase much of the playhouse’s historic and architectural integrity.
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Others, including former Miami and Coral Gables preservation officer Ellen Uguccioni and Dade Heritage Trust, the county’s biggest preservation group, supported the county plan as an “outstanding” compromise.
Experts for the county had concluded that the auditorium, originally designed as a silent movie house, lacked architectural value, would be impractical to retrofit for use as a modern theater and is too big to be financially sustainable.
The 2017 board approval was contingent on the county’s returning with detailed and refined plans for the reconstruction, a fact that Assistant County Attorney Edward Kirtley reminded board members of.
But a majority of board members said they were uncomfortable with tearing down the 1,100-seat auditorium, the largest part of the playhouse, and contended that the county had not sufficiently explored alternatives to demolition — something the county denied.
“I just don’t like the option that’s in front of us,” said board member Hugh Ryan, complaining the county had not provided the board with other alternative plans, including full restoration of the theater.
Michael Spring, the county’s director of cultural affairs, said that’s not what the board asked for, which was detailed plans for the proposed partial restoration and new construction. The county’s preservation consultant, architect Jorge Hernandez, said the project team explored alternatives in detail for a year, but concluded they were not viable.
“We do not think the HEP board gave us a fair hearing,” Spring said in an interview after the vote. “We faithfully adhered to their request. “We only made the plans better, by their own admission, and yet they voted against us. That just doesn’t add up. It’s frustrating and puzzling at the same time.”
Spring said the county may appeal the board decision to the Miami Commission. A decision will be made in the next few days after consultation with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“We have a great case to make to the elected officials,” Spring said. “We have a fully realized plan to show them.”
The storied playhouse closed 13 years ago after running aground financially, in part because it could not fill its auditorium. Under a complex 2013 lease deal with the state of Florida, which owns the theater property, the county must reopen it by 2022.
Nearly two years ago, the preservation board first approved a county proposal to restore the theater’s protected and defining 1927 Mediterranean front while replacing its massive auditorium with a new 300-seat theater. That smaller size is what would be financially and artistically viable, backers of the plan say.
Spring said the 2022 deadline still leaves the county time to appeal Tuesday’s decision.
“We’re going to keep forging ahead,” he said.
The plan has been in the works since 2004, when the county and Florida International University reached a complex deal with the state of Florida, which owns the playhouse, to reopen and manage it as a live dramatic theater. The hearing Tuesday was supposed to be the last regulatory hurdle for the county plan.
If the county can’t meet deadlines for start of construction, the state could declare it in default of the lease and take back the property. Under rules governing surplus property, the state could then auction the playhouse off if no other state institution is willing to take it on.
Some 45 people spoke, at times, passionately, in favor of the county plan or urging the board to save the full building.
Prominent preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle called the county plan “a massive demolition project and construction project in the guise of historic preservation.”
Supporters said the playhouse had already been dark too long and they fear it would never reopen if the county plan was not approved.
“For 5,046 days the Coconut Grove Playhouse has been dark,” noted actor and Grove resident Nathan Kurland, who led a drive for the state to reclaim the property from a nonprofit group that critics said ran it into the ground. “Here we are in 2019 with the theater still dark. At this point we need to move forward. We need theater back in Coconut Grove.”
A board minority supported the plan, arguing it struck an appropriate balance between preservation and the need for new construction.
“It’s about more than just the building alone,” said member Najeeb Campbell. “It’s about culture, but also sustainability of the building. It has to be a complete package. My fear is that if this is not done, we lose this opportunity, and you will lose the entire playhouse.”