Coconut Grove

One last vote could decide the fate of the historic Grove Playhouse.

The historic Coconut Grove Playhouse has stood vacant for 13 years.
The historic Coconut Grove Playhouse has stood vacant for 13 years. Miami Herald file

Miami’s historic preservation board broke the law when it voted down a Miami-Dade plan to revamp the long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse, allege county officials. The charge comes in a sharply worded appeal that asks the city commission to reverse the decision.

In unusually strong terms, the appeal alleges that a board majority was led astray by an “orchestrated attack” on the county plan by the board vice-chair, attorney Lynn Lewis. It calls Lewis “irredeemably biased” and contends she “conspired” behind the scenes with preservationists to undermine support for the plan.

On March 5, the preservation board voted 6-4 against a controversial, years-in-the-making plan by the county that calls for demolition of the historic playhouse’s massive auditorium, renovation of the theater’s defining 1927 Mediterranean front section, and construction of a new, stand-alone 300-seat theater behind it.

Lewis, who did not return a message left at her law office requesting comment, made the successful motion to deny approval. Lewis has been a vigorous voice for preservation on the board for several years.

The appeal hearing has been scheduled for April 25.

The vote earlier this month came nearly two years after the board had approved a conceptual master plan for partial demolition of the playhouse and construction of a new theater. As part of that approval, the board asked the county to come back with detailed blueprints for the $20 million-plus plan. Lewis was the lone “no” vote on that previous occasion.

An architectural rendering shows the restored front of the Coconut Grove Playhouse building at left with a new, freestanding 300-seat theater on the right and a new plaza at center. Arquitectonica/Miami-Dade County

At the start of the recent hearing, which would stretch out for seven hours, Assistant Miami-Dade attorney Eddie Kirtley questioned Lewis for more than 45 minutes to determine whether she harbored a bias against the county playhouse plan. Because such hearings are quasi-judicial, board members must judge evidence presented to them and are not supposed to discuss cases or reach conclusions outside that public sphere.

After Lewis acknowledged communicating privately on aspects of the Grove Playhouse plan with preservationists and state preservation officials critical of the county blueprint, Kirtley asked her to recuse herself from the vote. Lewis declined, saying she remained impartial. The board, which could have excluded her by a vote, did not take any action. (The state preservation office has no legal say in the playhouse preservation question.)

During the hearing, Lewis closely questioned backers of the plan and said she felt the county had not done enough to study keeping the entire shell of the theater auditorium. Her motion, citing “expert testimony”, states the county plan did not meet legal standards for preservation.

But the county appeal, signed by cultural affairs director Michael Spring, said keeping the entire auditorium was not before the board. That possibility had been legally discarded earlier, when an appeals judge ruled against two Grove residents who sued to keep the original theater whole, the appeal argues.

Instead, Spring said in an interview, the county relied on the initial board approval and has spent about $1 million on detailed designs for the proposed revamp. The city board review should have been limited to that, and not reopened the question of saving the entire theater, the county says.

The county’s preservation consultant on the project, architect Jorge Hernandez, testified that the design team researched the playhouse building for a year and explored alternatives to demolition, but concluded they were not feasible. County and theater experts have said the auditorium, designed for a silent cinema, is too large to be economically viable and cannot accommodate a modern live theater.

In following Lewis’ lead, the appeal contends, the board majority illegally deprived the county of due process and applied the wrong legal standard in its denial. The appeal notes that the two recognized experts at the hearing, the city and county historic preservation officers, both concluded that the county plan does meet required legal standards.

Although the playhouse is protected by the city as a historic landmark, the legal designation explicitly excludes the theater interior, which has been altered numerous times over the years and lacks architectural integrity. The designation also says that only the front section, the v-shaped three-story building that fronts on Main Highway, has architectural merit.

“The project that we have developed was the only viable way to accomplish the creation of an outstanding space for artists and audiences to experience world-class dramatic theater,” the county’s appeal says.

The Miami city commission handles appeals of preservation board decisions. Commission votes on preservation matters can be appealed in Miami-Dade circuit court.

Commission chairman Ken Russell, whose district includes Coconut Grove, has been sympathetic to preservationists and theater fans who want a larger auditorium and the storied playhouse restored in toto.

In the appeal by Grove residents, he won commission approval for an alternate concept for a larger, 700-seat theater that had been pushed by lawyer and arts patron Mike Eidson and preservation architect Rich Heisenbottle. But Eidson was unable to raise the additional money needed for full restoration, and the appeals court overturned the city decision as a legal overreach.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has said that the plan now under consideration is the only viable, funded alternative in play under a complex agreement with the state, which owns the playhouse. The county and Florida International University lease the property from the state. The agreement calls for its reopening by 2022.

Gimenez has publicly suggested that if the county plan fails to win approval, he may withdraw from the effort to save the playhouse, leaving its future in limbo. The playhouse closed abruptly in 2006 amid growing debt.