Coconut Grove Playhouse Redo Strikes A Balance: A Modern Theater That Preserves History
Miami Senior High and the Coconut Grove Playhouse share a history.
The same architect designed both. Both are lodged deep in the hearts of generations of native and near-native Miamians. Each suffered from decades of alterations and a lack of maintenance that required restoration.
But while a reconstructed Miami Senior High has continued to graduate proud Stingarees, the playhouse has been shuttered for 15 years, depriving an entire generation of Miamians and a historic neighborhood of what was once the crown jewel of Coconut Grove.
I have a history with both of these icons — as a former member of the Miami-Dade School Board and of the Coconut Grove Playhouse Board.
What I’ve learned from the struggle to bring the county’s oldest high school back to its glory is the art of compromise. The restoration process had to balance historic preservation with the modern needs of a growing campus, the challenges of future maintenance and the nostalgia of past graduates. Together, we restored Miami Senior High, honoring its past but emphasizing the need to provide future generations with a functioning, viable campus that would meet their needs.
I believe in the arts, in education, in historic preservation and in our obligations to be stewards for future generations. That is the mindset I brought to the sadly, hyper-politicized playhouse controversy when I became Coconut Grove’s newly elected county commissioner.
Over the years, people who care deeply about the playhouse have fought over competing visions of what a revitalized theater should be. The $23 million playhouse project, fully funded by Miami-Dade County and partners, calls for a 300-seat theater that preserves the iconic front building and other elements of the original. The plan would put shops and restaurants into the front building, as it was when the playhouse opened as a movie theater in 1927. A much-needed 300-spot garage with office space is also included, to serve the theater, surrounding businesses and schools in the Center Grove.
Some feel that the theater is not large enough. Others want the entire structure preserved as it was in its heyday. My approach was, considering the age and poor condition of the structure, to find a compromise and a path forward.
I reviewed all the documents, pleadings and reports, and met with county attorneys, staff and project architects. I asked them to add elements that would make the project a better fit with the Grove aesthetic and incorporate community educational opportunities. I reviewed the lease with the state of Florida, which owns the property, to see how we could change elements of the approved plan.
What I discovered is that to significantly modify elements of the plan spelled out in the lease, we’d have to go back to the state Cabinet, Florida International University, GableStage, the city of Miami and the Board of County Commissioners. To increase the size, we’d have to lock down the extra funding and restart the entire process of approval which, to date, has taken over 10 years. We would also have to find solutions to bringing more traffic to an abutting residential area while maintaining the current scale of the buildings in the area.
The money the county pledged to the project in 2004 has been waiting to be spent for 17 years. No other public or private entity has come forward with a check big enough to pay for a more expensive plan. If the county can’t get it done, the state will take it back and won’t invest a dime in restoring the playhouse. The city of Miami, which is currently in litigation with Miami-Dade County over the playhouse, could ask the state for control, but then would have to use money better suited to save other historic structures it actually owns, such as the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami.
The Miami arts world has changed since the Coconut Grove Playhouse was viable. If the theater is too large to be competitive, it will eventually need constant infusions of public money. The examples of that are all over Miami. This project uses revenue generated by the garage and commercial elements to support the theater. Forever.
Everyone who cares about the playhouse is well intentioned. I have sought feedback from many and will continue to do so. But we need to accept the example of Miami Senior High.
We can and will put politics aside and bring great theater back to the Grove of today, while preserving the best of our history.
Raquel Regalado represents District 7 on the Miami-Dade County Commission.
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