LONG STORY SHORT: The City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board [HEP Board to Miami hep cats] voted 4-1 Tuesday to raze the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse in order to preserve its historic façade.
Confused yet? Not as confused as everyone was when it was revealed — but only near the very end of the meeting — that the HEP Board was merely approving the “concept only” of demolishing the historic theater, and not any of the myriad drawings, plans, and designs that were shown during the evening in order to sell the development project to the taxpayers of Miami. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
LONG STORY LONGER: I’ve seen a lot of Dog & Pony shows at Miami City Hall, but this one takes the cake.
As they always do, this one went on for several hours. First the developers (save one, which we’ll get to in a eventually) got to give several PowerPoint presentations that seemingly went on for 3 days (especially for me because this is the same Road Show that I attended at Ransom Everglades a couple of months back. It seemed to have only gotten longer since then).
One PowerPoint gave the entire history of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, from its inception as a movie theater 90 years ago, through its several renovations in the year since. Due deference was given to original designer Richard Kiehnel, of the famed Kiehnel and Elliott architectural firm, and Alfred Browning Parker, the ’50s “Miami Modernist”, who designed the live theater that was applied over Kiehnel’s Mediterranean-inspired design.
QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Before the (older) Coconut Grove was illegally annexed in 1925 by (the upstart) Miami, it ruled its own destiny.
The Movers & Shakers of Coconut Grove had big plans for paradise. To that end they hired Philadelphia architect John Irwin Bright, who came up with The Bright Plan, an ambitious redesign of downtown Coconut Grove. The new city hall (near where CocoWalk ended up) would have faced Biscayne Bay, with a large reflecting pool that ran down what became Macfarlane. This grand plan, which was never realized, was based upon Mediterranean architecture. While it didn’t come to fruition, one building from that plan was actually built. The Coconut Grove Theater opened in January of 1927 and was given a Mediterranean feel to match that of The Bright Plan. The rest is history.
The Dog & Pony Show descends into farce
We were led to believe — by those who were arguing for the theater’s ultimate demolition — that all the additions, subtractions, and renovations to Kiehnel’s original sublime movie house were, at best, architectural abominations and, at worst, an act of barbarism against humanity. [I might be exaggerating. Slightly.]
Next up on the double bill was the PowerPoint showing the current plans for the site’s footprint. We were shown drawings, elevations, blueprints, and artists’ renderings of the finished project in situ. During the presentation we were given enough facts and figures, to confuse anybody trying to pay attention. That PowerPoint lasted for at least a week. [I might be exaggerating. Slightly.]
However, none of that yakkity yak yak mattered in the final analysis because it was revealed right at the very end of the meeting — after all the PowerPoint presentations, after all the public input, and after all the developers had a chance for rebuttal — that:
- 1). The drawings and the PowerPoint presentation we were just shown had already been supplanted by another — newer — set of drawings and blueprints that no one had seen yet, including the HEP Board;
- 2). But, that didn’t even matter because the only thing being asked of the HEP Board that night was to give the developers an Up or Down vote to the “concept” of demolishing the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse, as opposed to approving the actual plans of buildings we just spent an eternity viewing. Each building, and every subsequent change, will have to come back before HEP for approval.
I actually gasped when I realized the Dog & Pony Show had become a Bait & Switch.
I had driven in from Sunrise, to spend hours in a room colder than a meat locker, in order to listen to a developer’s pitch that I’d already heard before. I was frustrated to learn that the citizens of Miami had been given, in essence, fake news.
There was nothing taxpayers could say about it at that point because PUBLIC COMMENTS were already closed. The only people who could speak to that was the HEB Board members and they seemed disinclined to inquire why everybody’s time was wasted. I quickly texted one of my super duper, secret, anonymous sources, who seemed pretty gleeful at this turn of events:
ME: No real fireworks. The plan might not be approved. There’s no motion on the table yet.
SECRET SOURCE: I’m watching this [from home] and this is nuts… they are idiots. Now they [HEP Board] get the reso.
BTW: This startling info only came out after some probing questions posed by Lynn Lewis, the only HEP Board member to eventually vote NO to this plan to raze history in order to preserve history. She was trying to get to the bottom of some questions she had in determining whether she would table a motion to reject the plan.
That’s right, folks. It was only in the minutes just before a motion was put on the table, right near the end of a very long meeting, that the HEP Board realized what was really being voted on. Even I was fooled by what I had witnessed.
Lewis finally crafted a motion that rejected the plan and called for the developers to return with more concrete plans. She didn’t get a second and the motion withered on the dais. A motion to approve the plan “in concept only” was tabled and passed 4-1.
In the end, and is always the case in Miami, the developers got exactly what they wanted and needed.
The Parking Garage is the thing
As I mentioned above, one developer didn’t show themselves. That’s not exactly true. What is more accurate to say is that Art Noriega, Miami Parking Authority’s CEO, never gave a presentation. This despite the fact that the massive parking garage is one of the primary drivers of a lot of the decisions that have been made along the way.
However, I saw Noriega several times during the meeting peaking out from behind the dais. At various times he was on either side of the room or the other, lurking behind all the other city swells there to service the meeting (like city lawyers and such, who could answer legal questions if they came up). I’m sure if he had been needed, Noriega might have been called upon to answer any questions that came up. However, the huge, honking, parking garage was less a bone of contention than it deserved to be.
A mere 25 months ago, after I saw the first artistic drawings that a source had leaked me, I published The Coconut Grove Playhouse Trojan Horse (Part I; Part II). These articles suggest that it’s the parking garage driving the theater redevelopment and not the other way around.
Nothing I heard on Tuesday changed my mind. In fact, the project seems to have morphed from a mere 5-story parking garage into a condo and restaurant development with a parking garage and small theater attached.
TO BE FAIR: There’s no denying that parking is sorely needed in that area, something I’ve written about previously after sitting in that parking lot for hours on end counting cars. Furthermore, continued development will make that need more dire. Immediately to the north of the Playhouse footprint is a plan for a 4-story office building fronting on Main Highway, which will probably have restaurants on the ground floor. [See rendering above.] Additionally, Ransom Everglades private school, just south of the Playhouse on the east side of Main Highway, is bursting its parking lots at the seams. Then consider that all those valets in front of the restaurants along Commodore Plaza (working for tips only) are desperate for nearby places to stash cars.
Not Now Silly has published stories about all these parking issues previously.
However, what was once a parking garage development project, with its 300-seat theater afterthought, will now also have residential condos, retail shops, and a restaurant.
Because there’s now a lot of misinformation swirling after the Dog & Pony Show Bait & Switch, I have been trying to get the definitive answers to the following questions:
- How many floors tall is the parking garage? [I’ve already been told it’s been downsized from 5, but have been cautioned not to say “4”.]
- How many parking spaces will be in the parking garage? [Downsized from 513.]
- How many residential condos are in the current development plans? [A crazy number I heard was 30, but that was when the garage was 5 stories.]
- How many of those are FOR SALE? [All of them I’ve been told off the record.]
- How many residential units are being created for visiting directors and actors at the theater? [This may no longer be part of the plan, or they may be in the front building, the only portion being saved.]
- How large is the restaurant? How many seats?
- How many retail stores will be in the front of the building? [The only portion being saved.]
There are a lot of unanswered questions and this massive development project never should have been passed without the HEP Board having more answers.
A 300 seat theater? You’re joking, right?
Miami is supposed to be a World Class City. What’s World Class about a theater that’s smaller than the auditoriums of several of the local schools?
Where’s the room for growth in a 300-seat theater?
GableStage, the company that will take over programming at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, currently operates in a 150-seat theater. It has the potential to double its audience. However, where does it go from there?
A 300-seat theater is not large enough to bring in touring musicians, who might be booked for nights the theater is dark. A 300-seat theater is not large enough to be rented out of community events when the theater is dark. As mentioned, the local school auditoriums are slightly larger.
People who are arguing for this configuration tell me Miami can’t support a bigger theater. That there are already large theaters in Miami that don’t sell out.
Detractors at the meeting kept reminding the citizens that the Playhouse failed as a much larger theater. However, a number of factors could have led to the Playhouse’s demise, from bad publicity, to the wrong kind of shows, to bad scheduling.
I contend that if you put on the right shows — including musical artists on nights when the stage is dark — you’ll draw clientele.
However, if you build a 300 seat theater, you’ll never draw more than that. This is nothing but small time, small town, small thinking.
TO BE FAIR: There is a plan to build a second theater on the same footprint that has 700 seats, in addition to the 300-seat room already passed “in concept”.
However, the 700-seat theater is unfunded. Getting the $40 million to build it is considered a long shot, at best, and will probably never be built.
It’s been my contention all along that a 300 seat theater is small time, small town, small thinking.
COMING SOON TO NOT NOW SILLY
Why the Miami Parking Authority is too powerful