Faced with two high-profile planning issues, Miami commissioners on Thursday readily tackled one, approving a massive redevelopment project in Allapattah that enjoys broad community support, but put off what’s sure to be a heated, last-ditch hearing to salvage a controversial plan for revamping the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Commissioners voted 4-0 to grant final approval for a special area plan for the Miami Produce Market, a proposal by developer Robert Wennett that would convert an Allapattah fruit and vegetable warehouse center covering more than eight acres into a cutting-edge residential, commercial and educational complex. The project, designed by star architect Bjarke Ingels, would suspend a series of new residential and office high-rises on stilts over the center’s three existing warehouses, which would be renovated for retail and other uses.
Commissioner Willy Gort, who represents Allapattah, said the plan represents the kind of big investment the working-class district, the most ethnically diverse in Miami, has long needed. He also noted that residents of the adjacent Santa Clara Apartments, an affordable-housing tower, would be able to use the expansive public green space that Wennett has included in his plan.
The plan also calls for a trade school and an urban farm. The developer also pledged to give priority in hiring for construction and permanent jobs to Allapattah residents. Commissioners last month gave the project preliminary approval, also by a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Joe Carollo was absent for both votes.
The Allapattah discussion went far more quickly than the debate over the Grove Playhouse that preceded it. The commission was scheduled to consider a do-or-die appeal by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez of a decision by the city preservation board to deny the county a permit for its plan to renovate and partly demolish the 1927 theater.
But in the latest twist in a saga that’s been full of them, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson sent Miami Commission Chairman Ken Russell, whose district includes the Grove, a letter asking for a postponement. Wilson said her schedule did not permit her to attend the hearing, but did not specify her interest other than to note she is honorary chair of the “Bahamian Heritage Initiative.”
Wilson is of Bahamian descent, and the playhouse sits at the edge of the historically black and Bahamian West Grove, but the Democratic congresswoman does not represent the area and she has not been involved in the years-long playhouse debate. Wilson staffers did not respond to requests from the Miami Herald for elaboration.
Gimenez and county cultural affairs director Michael Spring at first strongly opposed Wilson’s deferral request, which would have put off the appeal hearing for at least a month. But Gimenez, who in an unusual move attended Thursday’s hearing, requested in a compromise that the appeal be heard next week in a special meeting.
“I think it needs to come to closure one way or another, up or down,” Gimenez said, noting that the county has been trying to win approval from the city for its plan for more than two years.
Commissioners agreed instead to a special meeting on May 8, but not before about 90 minutes of public testimony during which a stream of backers of the county plan reacted with frustration to Wilson’s request, seen by some as a delaying tactic. Several highlighted the fact that Wilson had sought no say in efforts to reopen the state-owned playhouse since it closed abruptly in 2006 and questioned her agenda. They called her intervention “insulting,” “unconscionable, ” “absurd” and “a mockery.”
“Where did she come from and where has she been for the past 10 years?” asked Grove resident Hank Sanchez-Resnik during the public hearing. “It feels to me like you’re being played.”
But opponents of the county plan uniformly backed the deferral, reiterating a contention that the county did not do enough to consider alternatives to partial demolition. The county plan calls for restoring the signature wing-shaped Mediterranean front section of the playhouse, while tearing down the 1,100-seat auditorium behind it and building a freestanding 300-seat theater in its place.
Miami Herald Staff Writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.