Olympia Theater is one of the oldest theaters in Miami and a historic landmark
It takes a keen eye to notice imperfections in the exterior of Flagler Street’s historic Olympia Theater. Brick is crumbling from the theater’s facade, and a section of wire mesh holds corner molding in place. Inside, it’s like stepping into a long-ago era of extravagance. The hall is lined with ornate wool carpet and the ceiling is decorated with octagonal coffers. The auditorium has elaborate plaster work in warm hues, complemented by Roman and Greek-style statues and lush carpeting and seating.
Operating since 1926, first as a silent movie theater and later a venue for a variety of vaudeville shows and modern films, the theater became the center for arts and entertainment in downtown Miami, hosting notable acts such as Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Etta James.
Later, philanthropist Maurice Gusman purchased the theater, refurbished it, and in 1975 donated it to the city, and it became the Olympia Center at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. In 1984, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today it hosts local community theater productions, stand-up comedy and various musical talent.
While the theater is what the public knows the Olympia for, it’s the apartments and office space on the upper floors that developers seem to be attracted to. Along with its 1,567-seat theater, the Olympia houses a tower with 72 apartment units in addition to office and storage space. The grandeur of the theater doesn’t exactly extend to the residential side. All the units were formally office spaces, but were turned into affordable housing in the 1990s.
Now, for the second time in two years, a private developer has proposed taking over operation of the theater and transforming the building’s residences into something new — this time, a boutique hotel.
The proposal extends a debate that began two years ago when a different developer proposed turning the residential space into 200 to 300 apartments, with rents that would qualify the units as affordable and workforce housing. The proposal stirred controversy and the developer eventually withdrew it. In the aftermath, the city approached Miami Dade College — which manages other historic buildings — about taking over operation of the Olympia building. Those talks are still going on.
The proposal commissioners are set to discuss Thursday comes from New Urban International, a real estate asset management company that specializes in hospitality consulting. The company is owned by the nonprofit New Urban Initiative, founded by husband and wife philanthropists Mario and Ilanit Abati. The company currently manages investments for over 30 properties in Miami-Dade County in various stages of development that include single-family homes, multi-family projects, student housing projects and boutique hotels.
Under New Urban’s proposal, the residential tower would be converted into “a lifestyle boutique hotel with an industrial urban feel and modern technologies.” Lodgings would range from suites to shared rooms. The ground floor, in addition to the renovated theater, would have a small lobby with a cafe and bakery. Cost of converting the housing into a hotel is estimated at $6 million; New Urban would come up with the financing. There is no concrete plan for what would happen to current residents, Mario Abati said, but residents would be given ample notice before any construction began.
The cost for the historic preservation and exterior renovation of the building and makeover of the theater would be about $15 million to $20 million, according to the group’s proposal, with money coming from grants and the sale of dwelling and development rights.
The company would manage the renovations and financing and bring in a third party to manage hotel and theater operations.
The city has several options: Continue operation of the theater and residential tower under Olympia Center Inc., enter into a new public-private partnership with private developers or turn operations over to Miami Dade College, an established steward of local, historical buildings.
City law requires city administrators to notify the City Commission if they receive an unsolicited proposal. If the proposal interests commissioners, then they must issue a request for proposals and open the project to competing bids from other parties. If not, they can reject it.
No longer classified as affordable housing, today a studio apartment at Olympia can go for about $900 a month, said Robert Geitner, executive director of Olympia Center Inc., the nonprofit that currently operates and manages the theater along with its residences, the Olympia Center Apartment Homes.
Programming at the theater has intensified in recent years, Geitner said. Just last year the theater hosted over 100 events, compared to past years when the yearly event tally barely reached 50. Revenue from apartment operations helps sustain theater operations, Geitner said.
The proposal isn’t the first involving the Olympia.
In 2017, the Related Urban Development Group, the affordable housing division of the Related Group, proposed the demolition of the residential tower above the theater and the construction of 200 to 300 affordable housing and workforce units in conjunction with renovation of the theater. However due to pushback from residents and preservationists, the group withdrew its proposal.
Mario Abati said he hopes the company’s philanthropic business model will win commissioners’ support. If the city accepts the proposed public-private partnership, over 50 percent of net operating profit from the hotel and theater would go to local nonprofits such as Camillus House, Autism Speaks and Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and the Visually Impaired, according to the proposal.
“We submitted the unsolicited proposal to the city so not only can we preserve the property and its historic nature, but also give a lot back to the community,” Abati said.
In April 2018, after the debate over the Related proposal, the city encouraged city manager Emilio Gonzalez to explore the feasibility of a partnership with Miami Dade College, which operates iconic local establishments such as the Tower Theater, Koubek Center and the Freedom Tower. It’s still not clear when or if the college will make an offer to operate the theater as negotiations are still ongoing, said Juan Mendieta, an MDC spokesman.
City Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents District 2 where the theater is located and is also chair of Miami’s Downtown Development Authority, said he has met with Miami Dade College representatives over the negotiation. The negotiations include talk of converting the building’s residential units into student housing.
“We do have an open mind to what different uses might take place within the housing portions of the theater,” Russell said. “There’s no doubt about keeping the theater active and well programmed as an amenity for our residents, but what we do with the 80 units, which could be student housing [or] a boutique hotel, those options all need to be decided.”
In November, city commissioners approved a grant agreement between Olympia Center Inc. and the Florida Division of Historical Resources for $500,000 to go toward restoration of the Olympia’s facade. Work hasn’t started because the city is looking for other money to complete the restoration. In the past, Russell has recommended using funds from the $400 million Miami Forever General bond voters approved in 2017 for the facade restoration.
The 2011 management agreement between Olympia Center Inc. and the city allows the nonprofit to operate the theater and its residential property for up to 15 years, with the option to be extended for three 15-year periods. Under the arrangement, either party can cancel the agreement without cause but must give the other party a 180-day written notice.
Terrell Fritz, executive director of the Flagler Business Improvement District, spoke out against New Urban International’s unsolicited proposal at a June 25 commission meeting. The Flagler Business Improvement District is a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of businesses, property owners and residents.
Fritz said New Urban’s proposal doesn’t match the overall vision of the Flagler district, but that city officials should have a discussion on how to ensure the theater remains a historic and well-preserved institution.
“We want to have this discussion,” Fritz said on behalf of the Flagler district. “We’d like the city, the mayor and the commission to get on the record with a vision on how we move the Olympia forward. If that happens, it’s going to be far less likely that people submit unsolicited proposals that aren’t in keeping with the vision. I cannot believe that anyone wouldn’t understand how important the historic Olympia Theater is to that vision. It’s just essential.”
Fritz, who is Geitner’s life partner, said he does not believe there’s any conflict of interest in him speaking on Olympia’s future operations. “There’s full disclosure,” Fritz told the Herald. “I’ve been championing that theater before my partner knew where that theater was.”
Flagler Street has long been the center of attention for entrepreneur Moishe Mana, who’s hoping to revive the street and surrounding area and bring it back to its hot-spot roots. Along with a slew of acquisitions and plans already in motion to create a new a high-tech and cultural arts hub, Mana has pushed for a revised streetscape for Flagler, after work on a previous streetscape plan Mana was not involved with ceased in 2017 after the city fired the project’s contractor.
Fritz said moves toward an upgraded Flagler Street and the fact that new businesses are sprouting up nearby should push the city to make clear its intentions for the future of the Olympia.
“As businesses are starting to open, we can’t possibly do anything that doesn’t keep the theater headed in the right direction.” Fritz said.