Lowell J. Kuvin, attorney for the appeal stands before City Commission.
The City Commission discussed the Coconut Grove Playhouse on Thursday, the topic was the appeal brought on by two Grovites who felt, as many do, that the HEP Board's approval (the certificate of appropriateness) of the current county's plan to rebuild the playhouse was the wrong decision. I say rebuild because all but one front piece of the playhouse is spared in their proposal. There was a long public hearing before the commissioners spoke.
The state has deemed the plan as non-historic and County Commissioner Xavier Suarez along with Florida's Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera feel that the current county plans are not what the public would like and they are not preserving the playhouse, rather they are serving development and developers. Carlos made it quite clear at the last meeting, that he does not feel the current plans are what is needed. Xavier Suarez has taken sides with Carlos.
Also the state has turned down a grant for the county's plans for the playhouse because they feel that the historic nature is not being withheld.
The public has been rallying to save the whole structure, which other plans would do, rather than go ahead with the county's plans, which basically bulldoze the playhouse save for one small portion.
The issue here to me is preservation. Not the size of the theater, but preserving the WHOLE theater.
To combat the blue shirts worn by the pro-Joe Adler/County plan supporters in the audience at the last meeting, the Save the Playhouse group wore black t-shirts with the image of the playhouse by architect Richard Heisenbottle, who spoke before the board on Thursday. He reminded the board that he brought experts in historical structures to the HEP Board meeting in April to discuss his plans, which require minimal change to the current structure. There is "not much retaining and preserving" in the county's current plans, he said.
When Michael Spring speaks, I can't help but think of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Spring is in charge of the county's plans. He is in charge of Miami-Dade County's Department of Cultural Affairs. Rather than admit his plans include knocking down most of the current playhouse, he throws light on the plans for running the playhouse along with FIU and GableStage, bringing excellent theater to Coconut Grove. He ignores the fact that the historic theater itself will be knocked down and be made into a chrome and glass structure. When asked about that, he brings up what great theater and performances they are going to bring us.
The county did their dog and pony show for the umteenth time, presenting a mini-movie and slide show, explaining how knocking down the building is keeping it historic. Jorge Hernandez, the county's preservationist, who is paid by the county, feels that the outside "the eyebrow" that is being restored is enough to call the project historic. Others feel that the magic was done inside the theater where the actors and staff worked all those years. To them, that is historically significant, too, and therein lies the rub.
We would like to see the whole theater restored, not a small portion surrounded by large development. The only people in favor of demolition are developers. Who would build a large development with a small theater as an afterthought.
I have to laugh at these people who stand up from the neighborhood and speak on behalf of a smaller playhouse, as if they know what they are talking about. Not that people who want a larger playhouse are any better. I think the main issue is to preserve the whole building. These non-experts stand up before the commission and give their opinions and the city commission are non-experts, as well, it's just that they have power to vote yes or no on the appeal, but still, they are not experts.
Long line of speakers at Thursday's meeting.
What we need to do is preserve history. Since there is a genuine plan to preserve the whole structure why not preserve history and go with that? As one man said at the meeting, "Form is supposed to follow function." This current plan is a haphazard way to bring development into the area and throw in a playhouse for good measure. Developers have their tongues hanging out over the property. They don't care about the theater. What is interesting is that the county is responsible for the back part of the theater and the "eyebrow" along with the garage will be handled by the Miami Parking Authority. So basically, the county has no interest in any historical part of this project.
Whether the playhouse is 300 seats, 700 seats or both, the actual structure should be preserved and over-development should be taken out of the equation. Some people are concerned with all the traffic and lack of parking that a 700 seat theater would bring. And that does make sense. I feel that the historic nature is the thing. Save the whole structure no matter the size. Keep it "historically sane," as one lady in the audience brought up.
Max Pearl, of the Save the Playhouse group, brought up a very big irony. City Hall has been preserved by Richard Heisenbottle. The old Pan Am terminal was restored and made historic and is used daily as our city hall. The meeting debating whether he is worthy or not to restore the playhouse was held in the building he preserved.
District Commissioner Ken Russell read the minutes from a meeting in 2005, which said, "I want to make clear that my intent was certainly to include the entire building. When we make the intent, we don't just include the outside walls." It was a unanimous "yes" to designate the building as historic.
The people who voted at that time all intended for the entire structure to be designated historic. "What I take issue with is the idea is that the back structure is not historic. It certainly is historic," said Ken. "I believe that it is physically integral enough to be brought back to the state it should be," he went on.
"What happened in that building matters. Once I go passed the graffiti and the broken glass in that building, I see that the history is there. If it could be saved, it should be," Ken said. He felt that the current garage plans are overshadowing the building.
"It's not our job [the city commission] to choose the architect," said Ken. "My motion is to do a partial acceptance of the appeal. Not sending it back to the HEP Board but keeping it moving forward. We cannot afford to lose more time," he said. "I believe the money is there," he went on. Ken feels that a theater of 600 seats or more is needed to be viable. He feels that 300 seats does not do the theater justice, which was 1100 seats.
He did bring up one interesting thing - that attachments can be added to the current theater. Even if, and hopefully when, the whole structure is saved, there can be other structures added to that, which is sort of a compromise on many plans.
In the end, part of the appeal was approved, part was unapproved.
Ken suggested a motion for a 100 day limit to raise funds. Commissioner Joe Carollo suggested a substitute motion that there be a 45 day deferral to see if funding could be raised. If the money is not raised, then a smaller theater would be built. In the end, they agreed 3-2 to wait the 100 days.
County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said this in a letter to the Miami Herald earlier this week: "The other $15 million would be obtained from private-sector philanthropists headed by Mike Eidson, former chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust. Eidson would have 90 days to secure the funds and at least $1 million in a reserve fund for operational losses."
So the city commission gave them 100 days, 10 extra days which is good since nothing may get done during the holidays. Eidson has been very instrumental in pushing for a larger sized theater.
Conditions may be met either way but Ken's wish is that parts that were going to be preserved by the county and replaced into a new structure should now remain where they are in the theater and be restored in place - the twisty columns, the cherubs, the proscenium arch, etc. A smaller garage that does not overshadow the theater is also part of the new suggestions.
That is the big difference between the county's plans and other plans. The county wants to preserve these pieces and install them in a newly built smaller structure.
Commissioner Manolo Reyes is concerned with maintaining the theater after it is built. Can it be self contained? He would like to see a projection of costs for years to come.
It was suggested by Commissioner Willy Gort, that both sides should get together and come up with a compromise. Easier said than done since over-inflated egos are very much in play here.
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