Coconut Grove

Miami mayor vetoes controversial Grove Playhouse revival plan. Now what?

The on-again, off-again rehab of the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse, in the works for years, is off again. For now.

Standing before news cameras outside the long-closed theater, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez made a dramatic show of the first veto of his 16-month-old administration on Friday. Suarez announced he was overturning a 3-2 vote by the City Commission last week that would have allowed a controversial $23 million redevelopment plan by Miami-Dade County to move forward.

With the stroke of his veto pen, Suarez ensured that the intrigue over the playhouse, ongoing for 13 years since its abrupt closure, will go on at least a bit longer.

If the veto survives a potential override vote by the commission next Thursday and a possible court challenge by the county, it could effectively kill the one viable plan for the 1927 theater’s resurrection that’s been fully funded and developed since the closure, with no alternative in place. That raises the possibility that the state-owned playhouse building will remain vacant for at least several more years. It could also result in the state’s sale of the playhouse, which is classified as surplus property.

At issue is an elaborate plan by the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez that has been developed over six years under a complex agreement with the state. It calls for restoration of the theater’s distinctive, wing-shaped Mediterranean front section, demolition of the massive, featureless shell of an auditorium behind it, and construction of a smaller, stand-alone modern theater that the county and its consultants say would be financially and artistically feasible. The plan also calls for construction of an adjacent parking garage by the Miami Parking Authority.

The city has approval power over the county proposal because the playhouse exterior is protected as a historic landmark. However, the city can’t order preservation of the theater’s interior because it’s explicitly excluded in the historic preservation order, according to an appeals court ruling. That designation order states the only architecturally significant element is the wing-shaped, three-story front section, which originally housed shops, apartments and offices.

But Suarez, Miami Commission Chairman Ken Russell, who represents the Grove, and some preservationists and neighborhood activists vehemently argue that the entire playhouse building should nonetheless be saved and renovated with a far larger auditorium than what the county contends would be fiscally prudent or functional. The playhouse, with 1,100 seats in its current incarnation, has failed financially three times, once as a movie house, a second time as a for-profit theater, and the third as a nonprofit.

In issuing the veto, Suarez said he believed he could hammer out a “compromise” in one meeting with Gimenez, though the two have been bitterly at odds over several political issues.

“My frank belief is this could be settled with him over a cup of coffee,” he told the Miami Herald.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez (right) and Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, talked about their last-minute meeting with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on their position on rebuilding the Coconut Grove Playhouse Friday. Pedro Portal

Following the press conference, Gimenez’s administration accepted the offer for a cafecito summit. The mayors met at Dinner Key at 5 p.m. Friday. But the hourlong meeting only cemented their disagreement.

Gimenez rejected as unfeasible Suarez’s suggestion that the county seek approval from the city historic preservation board to proceed with garage construction and renovation of the front building, and then consider a new plan for restoring the existing auditorium. Suarez said the county and city would split whatever the cost of that turns out to be, likely millions more.

After the meeting, Gimenez and Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring said that approach would require the county to start virtually from scratch on site and architectural plans, approvals and public hearings, adding as much as two years to the project timeline. It would also leave the county unacceptably facing an additional bill of unpredictable size, he said.

“The mayor had a compromise, but it’s a compromise that’s very open-ended,” Gimenez told the Herald after the meeting. “We’ve been down this path before with cultural facilities, and I’m not willing to put the county on the hook for additional funds here.”

Suarez insisted he was presenting a “win-win” path to start construction, alleviate the county’s deadline pressure, and work toward restoration of the existing auditorium, even if it ends up with less seating than it has now. That’s what Grove residents and playhouse lovers want, he said.

“They just want to see something happen,” Suarez said. “They want to see something start, and they don’t want the historical significance of the theater lost.”

Gimenez has said county architects already considered reusing the auditorium and rejected that as unworkable. Spring added that it would be unfeasible engineering-wise to restore and structurally stabilize the deteriorated front section without knowing the plan for the attached auditorium.

Suarez also pledged to push for the city to earmark $10 million for the project, an allocation Gimenez said he would welcome — but only to build a new theater. Suarez rejected that offer.

Even before the meeting, Gimenez had issued a statement reiterating his conclusion that the current plan, designed by Grove-based Arquitectonica, is the only viable way to revive the theater. Russell, a political ally of the city mayor, had suggested a similar idea to Suarez’s when the commission met last week to vote on the county plan, but his motion failed on a 3-2 vote. Gimenez said at the time that that idea was unworkable.

Spring, who has overseen the plan, said on Friday that construction plans for the county blueprint are complete and “we are ready to go.” The state says the revived playhouse must be finished by 2022 under the agreement.

The “Save the Playhouse” group awaits Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s press conference outside the Coconut Grove Playhouse on May 17, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR.

If one thing became clear Friday, it’s that the fate of the 1927 landmark is now firmly enmeshed in complicated political maneuverings that belie the relatively modest scale of the proposed project.

Under the city charter, the veto will go on the earliest possible commission meeting agenda. It can be overridden by a 4-1 vote.

If an override does not happen, Spring said Gimenez could consider a court challenge as a last resort before possibly surrendering the playhouse to the state. Last year, Miami-Dade circuit court’s appellate division ruled strongly in favor of the county in overturning a previous City Commission denial of approval for the plan, and Gimenez and his lawyers believe they can win in court again. The court ruled that the City Commission, acting on a motion by Russell, had overreached its authority in ordering preservation of the full interior.

A veto override would require a change of heart from at least one of two commissioners who voted against the county plan — Russell and Keon Hardemon.

But whether the override succeeds will likely depend as much on political calculations over approaching elections as on the merits of the county plan.

Russell is running for re-election this year and needs significant support from voters in the Grove. Two surveys by a respected pollster, Bendixen and Amandi, found overwhelming support in the Grove and the rest of Russell’s district for the county playhouse plan. But Russell, who rode support from Grove activists to office, has said publicly that he would not vote for the county plan.

Hardemon, meanwhile, is running for the seat of Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, who is term-limited. Hardemon voted against the county plan last week after hearing a pitch from staffers and supporters of U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a latecomer to the playhouse affair.

Wilson’s and Edmonson’s districts overlap. Support from Wilson, who is popular in the district, would be a significant boost for Hardemon.

Wilson, who is of Bahamian extraction but whose district does not include the Grove, has been seeking creation of a Bahamian cultural center. She has asked Gimenez for space in a renovated playhouse. Last week, her representatives publicly supported restoration of the full playhouse building for that purpose. Though it sits just outside the edge of the West Grove, a neighborhood founded by Bahamian immigrants, they say it was built with their labor.

Wilson jumped into the fray at the behest of politically influential lawyer and arts patron Mike Eidson, who has been pushing for an alternative concept that includes a large-capacity auditorium and preservation of the full playhouse, with little overt success.

Eidson has been a leading financial backer of both Mayor Suarez and his father, Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the Grove. The elder Suarez has said he is likely running to succeed Gimenez, who is term-limited, as county mayor.

Eidson was the the top donor for Xavier Suarez in the most recent campaign donation reporting period. Eidson gave the elder Suarez $37,500, and other people working at his Coral Gables law firm, Colson Hicks Eidson, gave $8,500.

Eidson failed to deliver on a promise to raise the additional $20 million it would take to build a larger theater or to develop a fleshed-out, viable plan. Eidson was again unsuccessful when Russell and the City Commission tried to order full restoration and gave the lawyer time to raise the money.

Eidson has acknowledged in interviews he doesn’t have the money, though he insists he could raise it easily if given control over the playhouse. He engaged noted preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, who lost a bid to Arquitectonica for the playhouse rehab, to develop an alternative vision. But that plan is little more than conceptual. County officials contend the Heisenbottle plan is both impractical and unbuildable.

The historic but closed Coconut Grove Playhouse as it appeared in July 2011. PETER ANDREW BOSCH MIAMI HERALD file photo

In a statement he released after Suarez’s veto, Eidson praised the move and said it could lead to resurrection of the playhouse as a large theater producing big Broadway-style plays.

“We look forward to speaking with Mayor Gimenez and other leaders to try and develop a way to reopen the Playhouse as soon as possible while preserving both the building and honoring what happened inside its walls,” Eidson said.

Eidson said in an emailed response to a question that he had not spoken to Suarez about the possibility of a veto.

On Friday, Francis Suarez insisted Eidson played no role in his veto, and he dismissed any political motivation for his decision. The county mayor insisted the opposite, maintaining that the city could commit at least $10 million toward a redrawn playhouse plan after a negotiation with Gimenez.

“Our politics should be aligned on this,” he said. “This is about fixing the playhouse.”

A $400 million city bond program has earmarked $78 million for parks and cultural facilities generally, but does not specify any funds for playhouse use. Any dedication of bond money would need approval from the City Commission because Suarez, as a “weak mayor,” has no authority over expenditures. Other projects to be funded from that bucket include restoration of the city-owned Miami Marine Stadium, estimated at close to $40 million, and repairs at the city-owned Olympia Theater, whose exterior has been crumbling for years.

Suarez and Gimenez have publicly sparred on multiple public issues in the past year. Gimenez was a leading critic of Mayor Suarez’s failed effort to become the city’s administrative head, a “strong mayor” controlling the city’s $1 billion bureaucracy. Gimenez — a strong mayor himself — helped defeat the measure, which dealt Suarez a high-profile political failure and widened a rift between the two mayors.

The two mayors also traded jabs over Gimenez’s push to derail state lawmakers’ effort to dismantle the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which Gimenez chairs. Gimenez is challenging the legislation in court. As the overhaul moved through the Legislature, Suarez declined to back Gimenez’s plan.

Gimenez, meanwhile, is widely believed to be considering running for his old County Commission seat — the seat Xavier Suarez now occupies. Another possibility that has not been ruled out: an attempt to unseat Francis Suarez in 2021.

The county mayor, a longtime Grove resident, has gone to unusual lengths to secure approval for his effort to save the playhouse, which he considers a legacy project for his administration.

He enlisted County Commission support to clear substantial debts left behind by the theater’s previous nonprofit operator, and reached a complex agreement with the state of Florida to lease the property along with Florida International University and reopen the playhouse, when the administration of then-Gov. Rick Scott was set to sell it. Under the plan, the revived theater would be run by GableStage, a highly regarded small company now based at the Biltmore Hotel.

If he can’t win city approval for a renovation plan, Gimenez has said he would likely return control of the property to the state.

Strict regulations governing the use of surplus property would make it difficult, though not impossible, for someone else to restore the playhouse. The state can cede the playhouse only to state agencies, including universities, or sell it to cities or municipalities at fair market value. If there are no public takers, the playhouse must then be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Even if a willing entity gains control of the property for the purpose of reopening the theater, the issuing of bids for planners and designers, development of plans, public reviews and approvals and final construction blueprints are likely to take several years.