Coconut Grove

Miami mayor’s veto of Grove Playhouse plan stands. Now a court battle looms.

Miami commissioners on Thursday sustained Mayor Francis Suarez’s veto of a controversial Miami-Dade plan to revamp the long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse, setting the stage for a court challenge by county Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

“The mayor has instructed us to proceed with haste” to file an appeal of Suarez’s veto, Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring said after the midday vote.

Although the commission vote went 3-2 against Suarez, a veto override requires a super-majority of four votes. The failure of Commissioner Joe Carollo’s motion to override the veto sets the stage for what may be the final act in the county’s long-running effort to revive the state-owned historic and cultural landmark, which closed abruptly in 2006 amid crushing debt.

Gimenez’s challenge would be heard by the appellate division of Miami-Dade circuit court. That court previously ruled strongly in favor of the county when Gimenez challenged an earlier commission vote that would have blocked part of the $23 million county plan that calls for demolition of the theater’s massive auditorium.

“Everyone knows this is going to court,” Commissioner Willy Gort said just before casting a vote to override following a three-hour hearing in Miami City Hall.

Commission chairman Ken Russell and Commissioner Keon Hardemon voted against the override.

Suarez’s veto on May 19 set aside a 3-2 commission vote a week before that would have allowed the county to move forward with its elaborate plan to remake the 1927 playhouse, designated a protected landmark by the city.

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

The county plan calls for full restoration of the theater’s defining Mediterranean, wing-shaped front section and demolition of the 1,100-seat auditorium. That option has drawn fierce opposition from preservationists, who want to see the entire building saved and renovated. In its place, the county wants to build a freestanding modern theater with 300 seats, the size cultural officials and their consultants say would be artistically and financially viable. The playhouse’s failure has been blamed in part on inability to fill its seats.

The county plan, developed under a complex agreement with the state in collaboration with Florida International University, also calls for an adjacent garage to be financed and built by the Miami Parking Authority. That project, which includes offices and retail, would subsidize operation of the new theater and cover the cost of restoring the front section of the playhouse.

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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

In vetoing the commission approval of the Gimenez plan, Suarez argued that the blueprint failed to adequately protect the historic landmark and claimed the county and its consultants failed to fully consider saving and adapting the auditorium.

Suarez also proposed a “compromise” that would allow the county to move ahead with construction of the garage and restoration of the front section while an alternative plan that keeps the auditorium is developed. A faction led by political fundraiser and arts patron Mike Eidson, a key Suarez supporter, has pushed for a larger theater within the shell of the existing auditorium, but that $45 million vision is unfunded. Despite requests, Eidson has not produced a fleshed-out plan.

Gimenez rejected Suarez’s proposal as “a false alternative.” In a letter to commissioners urging them to set aside the city mayor’s veto, he argued that Suarez applied the wrong legal standard. Gimenez also said the county consultants spent a year researching the history of the playhouse, concluding that the auditorium interior had been altered repeatedly and had lost its historic integrity.

The city’s historic designation of the theater encompasses the exterior of the building but specifically excludes the interior because of the alterations. The designation also notes the front section is the only architecturally distinguished portion. Historic preservation projects often involve demolition of less significant portions of buildings and replacement with modern additions, a balance county officials maintain their playhouse plan has struck.

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A dispute over the fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse boils down on whether to save the exterior of the auditorium at the rear of the theater, seen here on May 17, as historic. A court has ruled the city can’t require Miami-Dade County, which wants to demolish the rear under a plan to rebuild the playhouse, to save the interior. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Because the court has ruled that the city cannot require the county to preserve the playhouse interior, the battle over the theater legally boils down to a dispute over saving the featureless exterior of the auditorium at the rear of the property. On Thursday, after Gimenez had images of the hulking shell projected at City Hall chambers, Carollo likened the structure to “a warehouse in Hialeah.” Carollo voted to override the veto.

“There is no architecturally significance element to the back,” Gimenez said, calling the auditorium exterior “a concrete box.”

“That’s what all the hoopla is about,” Gimenez added.

But Suarez said that what happened inside the auditorium — the many plays featuring big names, which include the U.S. debut of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” — is what makes it worth saving.

“We’re talking about our soul as a community,” Suarez said. “We are talking about things that matter.”

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