Say “Goodbye” to the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse while you still can.
Oh, there will be something erected on the northwest corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue, and those assholes who profess to care about historic preservation will still call it the Coconut Grove Playhouse — they may even add the word “historic” to that designation. However, just like the E.W.F. Stirrup House, catercorner, this will merely be a replication of the playhouse, not a restoration.
In other words: Developers in Miami win again over history and all logic
To be fair, not that I’m in the mood to be, they are saving the part of the building called “the eyebrow”. Some call it the facade, but developers want to disabuse you from using that term. It’s not the facade, they’ll argue. To be fair they are technically right. It’s the front 20 feet of the building, the entrance, that wraps around the corner of Main and Charles. To be even more fair: it’s the best part of the building as viewed from the outside.
It’s a wonderful example of faux Mediterranean architecture and the only part of the Bright Plan ever built.
READ: Early 1920s: Coconut Grove’s Historic Timeline, which all but erases the Black history of the town that once had the highest percentage of Black home ownership than anywhere else in the country.
But, as I said, I’m in no mood to be fair. Last week a Miami-Dade judge ruled in favour of Miami-Dade County’s lawsuit against the City of Miami.
Now follow the bouncing ball because this is really a Battle Royale between 3 levels of government:
First you need to know, the land is owned by the State of Florida, which entered into a complicated lease agreement involving Miami-Dade County. The county’s Cultural Czar, Michael Spring, then spent some time in back rooms —with no public consultation whatsoever— negotiating deals with GableStage, architectural firm Arquitectonica, and the Miami Parking Authority to renovate the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Once this cake was fully baked, Miami-Dade Country [read: Michael Spring] started a sham series of public consultations for input. But nothing ever changed, except around the margins. The fully baked cake got new icing, is all.
However much the County wanted to run this project without oversight, this project is still in the city of Miami and the city, not the country, had to sign off on it. To everyone’s amazement and consternation, Miami’s Historic Board (officially called the HEP Board, Historic and Environmental Preservation Board) decided the historic Playhouse didn’t need historic preservation and signed off on the County’s plan to tear down everything behind the eyebrow.
This naturally triggered public outrage and (I won’t give you every step along this trajectory, but) the City of Miami Commission overruled its own Historic Board, saying the entire historic structure, auditorium and all, had to be saved because, as many preservationists argued, that’s where the history happened.
This led to the court battle mentioned above, which Miami-Dade County recently won. Now the “developer” can do whatever it wants with the auditorium, including adding retail stores to the eyebrow and building a big honking parking garage to the footprint.
The word “developer” is in quotes because — once again — nothing is ever a straight line in this story. The “developer” is a complicated consortium of interests, which includes, but is not limited to:
- Michael Spring, Senior Advisor to the Mayor for Culture and Recreation for Miami Dade County, who cooked all this up away from the prying eyes of the public who pays his salary;
- Joseph Adler, 78 years old, Artistic Director of GableStage. GableStage is from the affluent city next door, Coral Gables, not Coconut Grove. It was his decision, apparently, to downsize the auditorium from 1100 seats to 300 seats. “Some people say” that the shlock movie producer pegged that number to the amount of seats GableStage currently fills in the Biltmore Hotel, where his productions run virtually rent-free.
- Art Noriega, the head honcho of the Miami Parking Authority, a semi-autonomous board of the city, and someone I have often called the most powerful person in Miami government. His department is one of the only in the city that brings in revenue, so he pretty much has a free hand. This free hand decided to sell the Oak Street garage because he already knew he was building the huge Playhouse Parking Garage, before the public did.
- A smaller group of Robber Barons that really have no financial interest in the Playhouse revitalization, but have adjacent properties which will improve in value once this entire mess gets straaighted out. This includes names familiar to Not Now Silly readers, like Gino Falsetto and Peter Gardner, who (along with the descendants of E.W.F. Stirrup) are now trying to build a huge hotel immediately behind the Playhouse, across the street from the no longer historic E.W.F. Stirrup House, which has been replicated.
Here’s what’s been sticking in my craw: Almost a decade ago I interviewed a person (who asked for anonymity, so I’m obligated) who ran down this entire scenario to me. We stood in front of the —then still historic— E.W.F. Stirrup House while they described a grand promenade that started at the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums (which this author has always called The Monstrosity) and continued through the Stirrup property across the street and continuing through to Commodore Plaza.
I laughed. I scoffed. I discussed this with people in the know in both the Miami and Coconut Grove politics. They laughed and scoffed as well.
Everyone said it would never happen because the properties needed to be assembled were all zoned single family dwelling and they’d never get upzoning on that many properties.
Guess what? The Coconut Grove Village Council has already approved this hotel in theory and all it needs now is for the city of Miami, which has never met a developer it didn’t want to please, to approve the upzoning on the 7-8 properties needed to build this hotel.
As near as I can tell this hotel is a foregone conclusion, just as is the Playhouse replication. It’s all over but the whimpering by people who revere history.
FULL DISCLOSURE: During the brief period Miami Commissioner Ken Russell was running for Congress, I was his official biographer. Ken Russell has not contributed to this article (rant?) in any way.
My Freedom of Information requests from the City of Miami are beginning to add up, not to mention all the other costs of researching systemic racism and corruption in Coconut Grove