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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Petty politics plague our playhouse

In the 1970s you'd see sailors in uniform marching in a parking lot on South Bayshore Drive. They were training at Coconut Grove's Naval Reserve Center across from Shake-a-Leg. 

In the 1980s the federal government closed it and gave the property to the City of Miami. For a couple years we argued about whether these three acres should become an art center or a homeless shelter. While we were arguing the city sold it to a developer. He built a huge condo there, 

The Grovenor House. The public got nothing from the sale of this public land. The same thing could happen to the Grove Playhouse. While the State of Florida owns the closed facility, we spend years arguing about its future. 

Who knows? Our state leaders may give up on us and sell the property to another condo king. The county, who has promised $20 million in bond money for the project, could back out too.

I am tired of this sad, hulking mass festering on Main Highway. When our playhouse failed for the umpteenth time, and closed eleven years ago, we expected something to happen. We thought our elected officials would come up with a plan to either fix it up or tear it down. Their efforts have led to nothing.
When I pointed this out to Ken Russell, our latest  Coconut Grove city commissioner, he smiled and said, "It takes time to get it right."
That's a lot of "hooey." He had a plan but was not sharing it with me.  

It does take time but not eleven years. What you do is work with groups of talented, committed citizens. You ask them to  come up with detailed proposals, ones that are aesthetically pleasing and economically viable. You then  choose the best one and go with it.

That's what we expected our leaders to do years ago.
These proposals could range from restoring the original 1200-seat movie theater (it is a very old movie theater modified in the 1950's for live productions) or tear the damn thing down and build a spectacular park. The playhouse was a movie theater for its first forty years. 

In the middle of these two extremes is a mixed-use theater development that addresses the realities of our times and the community's needs.

Local leaders gather at "The Grove" in 1946.
The playhouse was a movie theater
for its first 40 years. 
 Two groups recently emerged with competing plans to revive the playhouse.  Let's call them "300" and "700" (based on their proposed theater seating).

The "300" group wants to completely restore the building that fronts Main Highway, what most of us think of as "The Grove Playhouse." The huge auditorium behind the entrance building would be replaced with a modern 300-seat theater, multi-level parking garage, and retail space. Their plans to finance it are in place. Proponents have cleared up all the title problems. A leading regional regional theater, GablesStage, has agreed to operate the facility and FIU has offered a Master's program as a part of the plan. The 300 group has done its "homework."

I like "300" design because it is well thought out and it has a theater size that is commercially viable. In addition, it will cause less traffic congestion than the other proposal.

The "700" group wants to restore the entire building that exists now -including the auditorium in the back- what we call the "gray whale." The grey whale is the bulging auditorium behind the theater's historic entrance/office building that fronts Main Highway. 

 The whale is certainly historic, nearly 100-years old. The 700 group want to build two theaters inside of it, one with 700 seats and a smaller 200-seat room. I like the fact that this group is attempting to preserve an old building. Unfortunately, this ancient, empty space can not pay its way. Their plan to sell tickets for the 900 seats inside is not based on reality.  

I have watched the Grove Playhouse die again and again because they could not "fill seats." Obviously, the 700 plan requires a much larger parking garage and will result in greater traffic congestion in Coconut Grove.
For the past two years, Plan 700 has gotten little traction. Their group has made a lot of noise but their ideas have never seemed grounded or well thought out.

On the other hand, the Plan 300 folks moved ahead with county-support and detailed plans. They would  restore the most important part of our beloved landmark while building a modern facility behind it to house the theater. The 300 leaders had a number of community meetings to present and discuss these plans. Until two weeks ago their proposal was moving along nicely; it could have broken ground in the coming year.

Then, at a late night meeting in mid-December, the Miami city commission decided to derail the project. They voted to undermine Plan 300 by requiring "certain conditions" before it could move ahead. These conditions are unreasonable and difficult to meet. Were the commissioners doing this because they thought Plan 700 was better, or, for other reasons?  
They aren't saying.

We do know Ken Russell, the Grove's commissioner, led the derailment. As he did he said nothing about Plan 700's leader, Mike Eidson, contributing $2700 to Russell's latest political campaign.  Eidson's wife gave him $2700 as well. Our new Mayor, Francis Suarez, who supports  Russell and the 700 plan, received $500,000 that Mike Eidson raised for his recent mayoral campaign.

Call me naive but why can't our politicians be open about how they are influenced by the money they rake it to further their own political ambitions?  Why can't they say - truthfully or not - "I'm supporting this guy's plan to restore the playhouse and it has nothing to do with the fat checks he keeps handing me." ?  

If our city commission had considered what is best for the Grove -and not what is best for themselves- they would be supporting the 300-seat playhouse plan that is both realistic and economically viable. I am confident that most knowledgeable Grove citizens support the 300 plan as well.  

In the mean time I expect our leaders will sit back and count their contributions as the gray whale continues to rot. Hopefully, the stench will not continue for another eleven years.

Don't be surprised if the State, smelling money, sells the property to a developer. We'll have a Grosvenor House where we once had a playhouse. That's how it goes in Coconut Grove.

Glenn Terry
Coconut Grove

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Blogger alcrespo said...


There's nothing petty when millions of taxpayer dollars are involved.

December 30, 2017 12:48 PM  
Blogger Jane Issa said...

Miami has a greed epidemic along with unsophisticated discernment.

December 30, 2017 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go ahead destroy our history

December 30, 2017 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its not petty politics is corruption!

December 31, 2017 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It could be a nice movie theater, like the Coral Gables Cinema.

December 31, 2017 10:08 AM  
Blogger Tony Scornavacca Jr. said...

The Playhouse was excellent before, and should be properly restored to as close as possible to what it was. It's by far the most significant historic landmark in Coconut Grove.

January 02, 2018 10:44 AM  

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