Coconut Grove

Miami-Dade sued Miami over the Grove Playhouse revival. Now a court may decide its fate.

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

The fate of Miami-Dade County’s controversial plan to revive the historic, long-closed Coconut Grove Playhouse may now rest in the hands of a judicial appeals panel.

As widely expected, the county has sued the city of Miami in a bid to overturn a veto by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez of a city 3-2 commission vote that green-lighted Miami-Dade’s plan last month. Along with its 62-page legal challenge, filed on Monday night, the county also asked the appellate division of Miami-Dade’s circuit court for an expedited hearing.

The $23 million county blueprint calls for preservation of the state-owned, 1927 Mediterranean-style theater’s wing-shaped front section, demolition of its massive auditorium, and construction of a smaller, 300-seat stand-alone theater at the rear. The plan, developed under a complex lease agreement with the state and Florida International University, also includes construction of a companion garage by the Miami Parking Authority that would help fund the playhouse renovation and theater operations.

But the plan and the proposed teardown have become a rallying cry for some preservationists and a point of friction between Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Suarez, heating up an increasingly bitter political rivalry. Suarez has called Gimenez’s defense of his administration’s plan “deceptive,” while Gimenez has accused the city mayor of misusing his authority to force the county to significantly alter its plan.

This marks the second time the county has appealed a city decision disallowing its plan to the Miami-Dade courts. In 2018, an appellate panel ruled strongly in the county’s favor, overturning a previous city commission vote that the court concluded improperly sought to force the county to save the theater’s interior.

In its latest court challenge, Assistant Miami-Dade Attorney James Edwin Kirtley Jr. contends Suarez is effectively trying to do the same thing again. The appeal argues that Suarez misapplied the law and deprived Miami-Dade of due process in issuing his veto, and asks the court to reinstate the city commission approval. In a separate motion, the county also asked that the same three-judge panel that heard the previous appeal hear this latest challenge because of its familiarity with the issue.

The city had not responded to the county challenge by Wednesday. City attorney Victoria Mendez said none has been filed yet, but added that the city will object to the county request for an expedited hearing.

At issue is the 2005 historic designation by the city’s preservation board that protects the theater’s exterior. That designation expressly did not include the playhouse interior because it has been altered extensively over the years, wiping out its architectural value. In its 2018 decision, the appeals panel ruled that that means the city has no authority to require the county to preserve the playhouse interior.

The designation did include the theater’s full exterior, but noted that only the signature front section on Main Highway has architectural merit. In contrast to the elaborately picturesque front, the warehouse-like auditorium exterior has no architectural flourishes. The city preservation ordinance allows for partial demolition of historic structures to allow renovations and additions so long as their principal architectural or historic elements are kept.

A dispute over the fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse boils down to 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.

The county’s consultants say the 1,100-seat house is too large to be financially feasible. Because it was originally a silent movie house, the consultants also concluded the auditorium could not be feasibly adapted for use as a modern live theater.

The city preservation board in 2017 conditionally approved the Miami-Dade plan, including the demolition, and asked county officials to return with fleshed-out designs. When the county did so in 2018, however, the board — with a changed membership — narrowly voted against it. The city commission then overturned that decision, setting up Suarez’s veto.

Preservationists and Grove activists have argued the entire playhouse should be preserved because of the noted theatrical productions and the famed actors who strutted upon its stage, an argument Suarez has embraced. But the county’s appeal contends that position violates the 2018 court ruling because those productions happened inside the theater, which the city is barred from preserving. But by forcing the county to preserve the shell of the auditorium, Suarez is effectively forcing Miami-Dade to save the interior in violation of the court ruling, Kirtley argues.

The courts typically defer to local authorities’ judgment in zoning matters, including historic preservation, but will step in if officials have overstepped their authority or due process has not been followed.

The county appeal also takes aim at preservation board co-chair Lynn Lewis, an attorney, for what it describes as a long series of improper efforts to “undermine” its playhouse plan that “tainted” the city review process.

The county, using city emails and memos it obtained, contends that Lewis, a staunch preservationist, communicated with opponents of the playhouse plan to help develop a strategy against it and solicited an opinion from state preservation officials, who have no jurisdiction in the theater case, that was critical of the blueprint. Lewis declined to recuse herself during this year’s board vote and has defended her involvement as appropriate.

If the county can’t move forward with its plan, Gimenez has said he may return control of the playhouse to the state, which has classified it as a surplus property. If the state can’t find a state agency willing to take it over or a city or county able to purchase it for fair market value, the property could be sold to the highest bidder.