The Coconut Grove Playhouse Trojan Horse; Part I

Some of the parking lots described in this post.
[See map legend below for matching location.]

Background: Looking south towards [C] the E.W.F. Stirrup
House, dwarfed by [A] The Monstrosity, aka Grove Gardens
Condominiums. Foreground: Looking across [F] The Blue
Star- Lite Drive-In and [E] the 45 parking spaces leased from
the MPA for Valet Parking. Behind the fence at right are [D]
the two vacant residential lots used illegally for parking rich
folk. Immediate left: The back wall of the Coconut Grove
Playhouse, the Blue Star-Lite Drive-In screen, and some junk.

Events have been moving quickly this week. Just as I was finishing a blog post writing up a full year’s worth of research on the parking lots
surrounding the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Miami-Dade County selected Arquitectonica to restore/ renovate/raze the structure (depending on who you ask). That forced a drastic rewrite to what follows.

Get comfortable, kiddies, because this is a long one. It needs to be long so I can develop the thesis in the headline: “Why is the reno of the Coconut Grove Playhouse really a Trojan horse for a gigantic glass and steel parking garage with a small theater attached?” It’s a sprawling Michener-like story — so long I’ve had to chop it up into 2 parts — covering almost a century and a cast of characters that number in the tens. Like Michener, lets take a quick look at who you will be meeting:  

  1. First and foremost, E.W.F. Stirrup, one of Florida’s
    first Black millionaires, who had more to do with the creation
    of Coconut Grove and the building of West Grove than anyone else you can
    name. Almost with his own hands he built an entire, cohesive Black neighbourhood in the Jim Crow south that lasts to this day. His house and his legacy have been allowed to undergo Demolition
    by Neglect; 
  2.  Commodore Ralph Monroe, a contemporary of Stirrup’s whose house The Barnacle, only a few thousand feet away from Stirrup’s, is now a State Park [K] and polished within an inch of its life, for whom Commodore Plaza [N] is named, and who gets most of the credit for creating the early Coconut Grove;
  3. Aries Development in the Snidely Whiplash persona of Gino Falsetto, who built The Monstrosity that changed the entire character of West Grove, has allowed the  E.W.F. Stirrup House to go to wreck and ruin through nearly a decade of Demolition by Neglect, and who, through several of his valet and parking companies, is destroying the quiet enjoyment of his neighbours; 
  4. The [allegedly] corrupt Miami District 2 Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, who refuses to answer any questions posed to him by this reporter and is now running his puppet wife for his seat, now that he’s been term-limited off the City of Miami Gravy Train; 
  5. Miami-Dade Cultural Czar Michael Spring, who recently defended the legitimate “cone of silence” during the Coconut Grove Playhouse selection process, but doesn’t mention any of the backroom deals and decisions that were made prior to starting the selection process and dropping the cone of silence; 
  6. Arquitectonica, chosen by Michael Spring’s selection committee to oversee the Coconut Grove Playhouse destruction, or renewal, depending on which side of the fence you sit;
  7. Luis Choter, of The Miami Parking Authority, who has likewise refused to answer the questions forwarded to him by [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, despite his email to me of January 27th apologizing for his lack of attention and promising he will be “looking into all the concerns and responding accordingly within the next couple of days.”;
  8. Cameo appearances by Sharie Blanton, of [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff‘s office; Ron Nelson, of same; Arthur Noriega, CEO of the Miami Parking Authority; Alejandra Argudin, who does something or other with the MPA; and Rolando Tapanes, another MPA employee; all of whom are in the email’s CC: field dodging my questions;
  9. Entrepreneur Josh Frank and his Blue Star-Lite Drive-In; 
  10. Jeremy D. King, a media flack at Regions Bank’s HQ; 
  11. The Movers and Shakers of Coconut Grove, both now and then;
  12. 1920s architect John Irwin Bright who designed the Coconut Grove Playhouse; 
  13. Several valet companies with dozens of valets;
  14. A number of private parking companies;
  15. A number of different parking lots;
  16. And, neighbours both good and bad.

Let’s begin:

After a years research — and a lack of clear answers from the city of Miami — Not Now Silly concludes the small 300-seat theater being proposed as a replacement for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, is nothing more than a cultural Trojan Horse being used to sneak a huge parking structure onto the corner of Charles Avenue and Main Highway.

I started researching the parking problems around the Coconut Grove Playhouse a year ago as a natural outgrowth of my research on the E.W.F. Stirrup House and The Colour Line in West Grove. Six years ago, when I first started researching Ebenezer Woodbury Frankling Stirrup, I could have hardly imagined that his house, The Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Playhouse parking lot were interconnected in a very complicated ways, both now and historically.

The Bright Plan shows the proposed city hall and golf course,
with “Colored Town” moved to “the other side of the tracks.”

A QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Prior to the illegal annexation of Cocoanut [sic] Grove by Miami in 1925, the town’s monied interests — the Movers and Shakers — of The Grove envisioned turning the small, nascent tourist village into a big tourist destination. So they hired Philadelphia architect John Irwin Bright, who came up with The Bright Plan in 1921, the very first of an untold number of urban renewal plans for Coconut Grove over the years.

The Bright Plan called for a fancy hotel; a golf course across most of West Grove, from Main Highway to Douglas; and a city hall approximately where Cocowalk now is. A wide boulevard ran from city hall to Biscayne Bay with a reflecting pool down the middle. The entire Bright Plan was based on Mediterranean-style architecture and would have been beautiful. However, it never got built. The bottom fell out of the Florida real estate market almost before the ink on The Bright Plan had dried.

However, there was one item on the Bright Plan that eventually got built: The Coconut Grove Theater (now the Coconut Grove Playhouse) was erected in 1927 and was based on Bright Plan drawings, which is why the building has a faintly Mediterranean feel. It first showed movies, but was later converted to live theater before it closed in ignominious bankruptcy 2006.

This is just one rendering of a potential gigantic development on Main Highway.
Don’t be fooled. The facade will be a facsimile. There is no plan to save it.

Save The Coconut Playhouse is a Facebook group not affiliated with the Not Now Silly Newsroom. It has far more detail about the backroom machinations of the current plan to renovate and/or tear down the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Please join if you care about historic preservation.

Another rendering of a potential glass and steel parking garage hiding a tiny theater..

Back in 1927 monied interests — the Movers and Shakers — got together to built the movie house to bring culture to Coconut Grove. However, before the theater could be built the land had to be acquired from E.W.F. Stirrup, by then one of the largest landholders in Coconut Grove. It’s still an open question whether Mr. Stirrup, who was Black, could even go into the movie theater just 200 feet from his front door. At the time movie theaters were heavily segregated. The Ace Theater, on Grand, was later built for the Black folk of West Grove.

Back in 1927 parking cars wasn’t a big issue, but there are times these days when it seems like the parking of cars is the only issue.

When Miami developers present plans for new buildings one of the first questions that needs answering is “Where’s the parking?” Providing adequate parking often seems more important than an eye-catching design or quality of life considerations. This is especially true of Coconut Grove, where residents are howling over the fact that Cars2Go and Citi Bike are taking up precious parking spaces in The Grove because parking for their precious cars is more important than taking a chance on new, alternative forms of transportation.

A year ago Miami-Dade Cultural Czar Michael Spring untangled the Gordian Knot of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in an attempt to revive and renovate it. In other words: Bring culture back to the corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue.

And, that’s when today’s monied interests — our modern day Movers and Shakers — got involved to screw the taxpayers behind closed doors. 

The backroom Playhouse deal had many moving parts. One part of the deal was to give to Aries Development the former-Bicycle Shop [J on map below] and $15,000. This was done because Aries floated a loan [in an amount I’ve never been able to determine] to the former-Playhouse board before it went belly up. At the time Aries was given a lien on the Bicycle Shop as collateral. That’s not that unusual. What is unusual is that Paradise Parking (another tentacle of the rapacious developer Gino Falsetto, aka Aries Development) is said to have squatted on the Playhouse Parking lot in order to satisfy the loan.

In my exposé from last year, The Coconut Grove Playhouse Deal begins to Unfold, I speculated that a possible future use of the Bicycle Shop could be a restaurant:

[T]urning the Bicycle Shop into a restaurant makes sense because
that’s another cash business. Gino Falsetto [allegedly] learned how
lucrative restaurants can be when he (and his brothers) bankrupted four
of them in the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, area. When the government
finally moved in to seize the assets (cash in the till and the cutlery,
essentially), Canadians lost an estimated $1,000,000.00 in unpaid taxes.
However, that’s chump change compared to what Falsetto’s investors
lost. That figure is estimated to be upwards of ten million dollars. And
then, next thing you know, Gino Falsetto has enough resources after his
business went bankrupt to buy his way into the hot Miami real estate
market.



Of course, it has to be said, that there are many honest and reputable
restaurant owners. In fact, the vast majority are. However, that doesn’t
mean that restaurant ownership has not been known as a source of illegal profit skimming. Just sayin’.



Speaking of cash businesses, that brings us to the Playhouse parking
lot. On March 1st the Miami Parking Authority (MPA) will take over
control of the Playhouse parking lot. On February 25th the new signage
was being erected. However, most of the old signs hadn’t been removed
yet.



Who had the parking concession until now?


Double Park, Paradise Parking, and Caribbean Parking. Bring Truth To Light
has written extensively about Gino Falsetto; his several various
partners in several various companies; Aries Development Group; shady
Coconut Grove real estate deals; and this particular parking lot. It’s worth quoting extensively: [Click the link to read more of this alleged nefariousness.]

How much money did these companies collect from parking fees in the
time it [allegedly] squatted on the Playhouse parking lot? Was it forced to
return any of that money to the MPA, or was it all just gravy on top of getting the Main Highway frontage, potentially worth millions? And, while I’m asking questions: How much money did these companies report on their income taxes for the years it allegedly squatted on the parking lot?

When I learned these parking companies may have been squatting on the
Playhouse Parking Lot for who-knows-how-long?, I began desultory research on the issue of parking in West Grove, but I had no real reason to write it all up into a post until December 12th.

The area surrounding the
Coconut Grove Playhouse
[Click map to enlarge]
LEGEND:


A). Grove Gardens Condominiums;
aka The Monstrosity;
B). Regions Bank;
C). The E.W.F. Stirrup House;
D). Zoned residential lots, used
for illegal parking;
E). Part of the 45 parking spaces
leased for Valet Parking;
F). Blue Star Drive In & remaining 45
spaces leased to Valet parking;
G). Playhouse Parking Lot
operated by the MPA;
H). Unlocked gate directing traffic
onto William and Thomas Streets
and location of arrow directing cars
to exit onto Charles Avenue;
I). Main entrance/exit for main
Playhouse parking lot;
J). The Bicycle Shop;
K). The Barnacle, now a State Park,
once belonged to Commodore Ralph
Monroe, a contemporary of E.W.F.
Stirrup;
L). Rich people in gated enclaves;
M). Far less well off people in West
Grove, which has remained
predominately Black and depressed
during the last 125 years;
N). Commodore Plaza, named after
Ralph Monroe, is lined with pricy
eateries and more expensive art
galleries, meant for people with
more disposable income than
those on the surrounding blocks.

Not Now Silly has often highlighted the Bad Neighbours on Charles Avenue. For a change of pace let me introduce you to a good neighbour.

Immediately west of the E.W.F. Stirrup House [C] lives Cynthia Hernandez, her husband, and their 2 children. I knew little about Cynthia’s credentials until a recent exchange of emails. That’s when I realized she is a Senior Research Associate, Instructor, & Director of Internship Programs, Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy, Center for Labor Research & Studies, at Florida International University. That’s a mouthful.

I first met Hernandez while photographing the Bicycle Shop for last year’s story. We started talking and, as always, I started pitching the history of the area, especially the E.W.F. Stirrup House. That’s when I learned she lived right next door to the Stirrup House, designated a historic site by the City of Miami, which hasn’t prevented it from undergoing nearly a decade of Demolition by Neglect.

Why is preserving the E.W.F. Stirrup House so important to the cultural history of Coconut Grove? Read: Happy Birthday Coconut Grove!!! Now Honour Your Past

Since then we’ve exchanged information on the house and Charles Avenue whenever I’m visiting. Hernandez couldn’t care any
more about what’s going on if she were an actual home owner. Unfortunately, she just
rents. One of the issues we’ve talked about extensively over the past year is the valet parking business that operates out of the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums, aka The Monstrosity [A]. She feels her complaints about the additional valet car traffic on Charles Avenue have fallen onto deaf ears.

ANOTHER QUICK HISTORY LESSON: Across the street from the Stirrup House, are 2 residential lots [D] devoid of residences. They once had residences, of course: 2 cute little Conch-style houses. In the same complicated swap that gave Aries Development a 50-year lease on the Stirrup House, it acquired ownership of these 2 lots. The first thing Aries did was knock the houses down to use as a marshaling yard in order to build The Monstrosity in 2006.

The Monstrosity is the mixed-use, 5-storey condo complex, with 3
restaurants offering valet parking. While it fronts onto Main Highway,
it’s immediately behind the Stirrup House and dwarfs the modest 2-storey structure. While Zyscovich Architects did its best to design a building with a Key West/Bahamian feel, The Monstrosity looks totally out of place and out of scale when viewed from Charles Avenue, designated a Historic Roadway as the first street in Miami.

After these 2 lots were no longer needed to build The Monstrosity, they remained empty and poorly maintained. The property has been cited several times for a lack of upkeep, when the weeds were more than knee-high in some places. I have been told off the record, by someone in the know, that these two lots can NEVER be zoned for anything other than Single Family Residential use. However, the same thing was once said about the E.W.F. Stirrup House before the developer managed to get its zoning flipped to Commercial in anticipation of turning it into a Bed & Breakfast.

In mid-December I got an out-of-breath phone call from Hernandez about new parking shenanigans on Charles Avenue. While we had spoken many times over the last year, she had never phoned me before.

I took these pictures of residential lots [D] being used illegally for overflow
parking on November 8, 2014, long before the December kerfuffle. [There
are several cars parked to the right of this open gate which can’t be seen.]

Coconut Grove Village Council Chair Javier Gonzales may remember
me calling him that evening to suggest popping over to check it out for
himself; one of several times this reporter alerted him to this problem.

Hernandez’s concern was that the two residential lots across the street were ONCE AGAIN being illegally used as overflow
parking to the 45 spaces the valet parking companies rent from the Miami Parking Authority behind the Coconut
Grove Playhouse [E & F]. She described to me how there were some 40 cars parked on these residential lots, with the valets zipping cars in and out, and creating a traffic jam Charles Avenue, a residential street.

What made her even angrier was that when she called the police to complain she was told nothing could be done about it because — get this — the property owner had not complained. However, the property owner, through a complicated series of companies and familial relationships, also owns the valet parking outlets and the restaurants in The Monstrosity. He benefits financially by illegally parking cars on these residential lots. Why would he complain?

That’s when she called me. I told Hernandez to take pics and video. I also advised her to call the police back and ask, if they couldn’t do anything, would they at the very least make a written report so that there was proof a complaint had been made because previous complaints to the city fell upon deaf ears.

To their credit, after her second call Miami Police sent out a higher-up, who actually ordered the lots cleared. That took some 45 minutes and led to the 2nd traffic jam of the night on Charles Avenue.

I also advised Hernandez on a list of people she should send the pictures to come Monday morning, which she did. She then forwarded me the entire email chain generated by her complaint. That’s when I decided to collate my year’s worth of parking research for a Not Now Silly article. However, I needed some questions answered to adequately flesh out any such article. Consequently, I shot out an email to [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff asking 11 pointed questions in order to finish my article.

READ MORE . . . 

PART TWO of ‘The Coconut Grove Playhouse Trojan Horse quotes my email to [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff, his lack of adequate reply, and outlines why the Coconut Grove Playhouse is the Trojan horse for the gigantic Coconut Grove Parking Garage, coming soon to the corner of Main Highway and Charles Avenue.


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.