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Tuesday, March 05, 2019

HEP Board stalls County's Playhouse approval

After a long seven hour meeting, the HEP Board (Historic Environmental and Preservation Board)  decided 6 to 4, that the Certificate of Appropriateness and demolition permit be denied and they would allow the county, the applicant, to come back and address concerns that were brought up at Tuesday's meeting. 

The meeting started out with a bit of drama, which is apropos, I suppose, since it was all about the Playhouse. 

Assistant County Attorney Eddie Kirtley, read the riot act to HEP Board Vice Chair Lynn Lewis, explaining that she should not have any pre-conceived notions about the Coconut Grove Playhouse issue and he believed that she did by asking her questions about various meetings and conversations and emails she had outside of the board meetings. It appears the county has their spies out. 

He wanted Lynn to recuse herself after questioning her on number of issues. He felt she was prejudiced against the County's plans and in favor of total preservation of the Playhouse. He questioned whether she could be fair and impartial.

Lynn declined to recuse herself and she left the chambers to allow the board to decide what to do among themselves. They informally voted to keep her on the board regarding the Playhouse subject believing she could be impartial.

"I believe in process," said Lynn. "But I will not ignore testimony that questions whether demolition is appropriate. I respectfully disagree with you that I have a bias," she said.

But she also said, "When you have a structure that has an exterior and interior, and has been modified, it seems to me that the secretary of the interior's standards encourage a review of the elements to determine whether those historic elements have been materially altered to affect their historic value for future generations. Is it appropriate for the board to look at these interior elements?"

"It is better to preserve than to demolish," said Lynn to large applause from the audience.

After the drama subsided, the meeting began. But let me say this, the HEP Board's job is to deal with preserving the history of the building and not be concerned with how many seats there will be or what plays Joe Adler, the county's proposed director would put on. 

The county's plans involve a wall of buildings with a small theater as an afterthought

The County presented their plans again for the demolition of the current playhouse. The only section they will be saving are the front wings that straddle Main Highway and Charles Avenue. The front wings will be renovated which will include shops and businesses that face the street. It will be separated from the stage building by a plaza which delineates the historic part (the wings) and the new or "new fabric" part (the playhouse/stage part).

You can enter through the main front entrance or "slide in" through the gap between the two buildings according to historic architect for the county Jorge Hernandez. He admitted that the main hall/auditorium is sound as it is now. His conflict is that there were too many changes made over the years and that makes it non-historic. But why? All the changes were part of history. That is the history of the building. 

One resident called the county's plans as being a mockery of historic preservation.  Another resident and architecture said it's too much chrome and glass. That whole block will be chrome and glass between the new office building and the garage planned for the area. 

 The HEP Board voted in favor of designation for the whole building in 2005. Why would the current HEP Board undermine them?

I'm trying to see this in an other way, but most of the people who spoke in favor of the county's plans and Joe Adler, as being director who will run the playhouse, were from out of the Grove - from miles away, from another county in some instances.

"Adler stacked the house," one lady said. Mr. Adler may be great at what he does, but this is not about Adler's plays.

But the Grovites want history. The Grove is losing all of its history and the locals want it to stop. If Coconut Grove was its own city/village, would we be having this discussion? I think if we were our own village, we would be renovating the whole structure and the chrome and glass people would not be allowed in the village to destroy anything else.

It really is all about money, not theater. Arquitectonica has destroyed so much of the Grove already. They are all about chrome and glass. They won't be happy until every block is chrome and glass, and that block is almost like that now with the new office building and the proposed garage.

One lady brought up a very interesting point. The very building that the meeting was being held in was once the Pan Am Terminal. It has been restored and is now City Hall. It's an historic building that has been restored by Richard Heisenbottle, one of the architects with another plan for the playhouse which would save the whole building. Mr. Heisenbottle was present and spoke to the board.

Speaking to the board, he said, "Today you have the opportunity to make history. You have the ability to right a wrong that has been perpetrated on the Coconut Grove community by Miami-Dade County. The county exploited a serious flaw in the local historic report by claiming that only the front of the theater has historic significance."

He said that the auditorium itself, the largest part of the building still has historic significance. The original details are just covered up inside the building, they are still there which were originally designed by the original architect Richard Kiehnel of Kiehnel and Elliott in 1927. 

"The entire Kiehnel auditorium is restorable by the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines," said Heisenbottle. "The entire auditorium retains its integrity." 

Historian Arva Moore Parks spoke about going to the original theater, when it was a movie house. "It was second in Miami only to the Olympia [theater]," which was restored in downtown Miami.

She is in favor of saving the whole theater, she says that most of the interior is intact. 

"Stop and think," she asked the board. She told a story of how the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables was saved from demolition by one vote.

Playhouse activist Max Pearl brought famous theater man and producer, Zev Buffman into the conversation, who spoke on the phone from Seattle. He spoke of the playhouse being the start of his career in 1962. In 1962, Buffman purchased and renovated the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse and until 1971 he was the President/CEO/Owner. He said those were the best years of his life.

He said that large theaters (800 to 1200 seats) are coming back in a major way. "It's working," he said. "The Grove theater has good bones and the right bones and right back stage." He would love to help advise the newly restored playhouse.

It's been two years and there is only one plan. Why? asked a board member Hugh Ryan. "We really haven't had any time to digest this as a board. We're getting what is thrown at us and being told to take it, we're running out of time. This takes a lot of power away from us as a board," he said.

Najeeb Campbell, board member, was in a rush to vote on the issue, while the rest of the board seemed ok to wait for further changes in the plans. He was also concerned about a member of the board being married to Andrew Parish who spoke against the county's plans and spoke as a private citizen and asked if she should recuse herself. She didn't have to according to the city attorney, and she didn't.

Lynn Lewis felt that the present theater could be saved after hearing public and expert testimony, also she and some others felt that the theater seemed like an afterthought and the whole idea was to build mass structures on that block.

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Anonymous Melissa Meyer said...

It takes a village! Good job tonight Grovites!

March 05, 2019 11:15 PM  
Blogger Tomthegrove said...

Coconut Grove is great, but, I think the long, sad saga to save the playhouse, a structure that OBVIOUSLY should be totally protected and restored, yet that is likely to end up basically just a facade, will turn Coconut Grove, once and for all, into NO PLACE SPECIAL.

March 06, 2019 6:36 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I support Lynn Lewis ; large theaters are making a comeback - do not shrink the theater. Preserve the Grove’s history. Greed is devaluing our wonderful area by stripping it of its uniqueness.

March 07, 2019 7:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"HEP Board stalls County's Playhouse approval"> Wow, like its a done deal and the HEP Board is just stalling for time. How about the HEP Board did the right thing? Or, HEP Board sends a message to Dade County?

March 07, 2019 9:16 PM  

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