Coconut Grove Playhouse purchase could lead to expansion
By Paola Iuspa
Coconut Grove Playhouse officials are commissioning plans to expand and restore the lobby, administrative offices and bathrooms as they move to buy the theater.
The playhouse board of trustees hopes to acquire the building and the surrounding land, now owned by the Florida Department of State. The playhouse now has a lease, set to expire in 2064.
The purchase would give the playhouse control of adjacent land used as a parking lot and would allow the group freedom to form partnerships with community groups, cities or universities to create a cultural center, said Arnold Mittelman, producing artistic director.
Board members last week agreed to start negotiating with Miami-based RE Chisholm Architects Inc. for architectural plans for an estimated $8.6 million restoration project. Trustees said they have county and private funds for the work.
County officials expect to issue $5 million in bonds backed by the Convention Development Tax by late 2003, said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. Mr. Spring said that to get the money the board would need to have the remaining $3.7 million in place.
Mr. Mittelman said that amount is already covered, mostly through past fund-raising campaign pledges.
Architect Matthew Polak, RE Chisholm's vice president, said construction could begin in July 2003 and end in January 2005. According to architectural plans, the 76-year-old landmark would get a restored lobby as well as second and third floors.
An adjacent three-story building, now used for storage and once home of CocoLoco bar, would be demolished, according to the plans. The playhouse board wants to build a similar building in which the ground floor would become part of the theater's lobby and the upper floors would temporarily be used for administrative offices.
The restoration would be followed by a second, undetermined phase, likely to include enhancing the two theaters and stages, said David Radunsky, operations manager. Once that phase is done, he said, offices would be moved back to the main building, freeing up space for other uses.
Monty Trainer, recently elected chairman of the Washington Mutual Coconut Grove Arts Festival - held every February - said his group, together with the Miami Parking Authority, has approached the playhouse with the idea of creating a cultural center.
Festival officials could have offices there and open galleries and studios to showcase working artists. The authority would help build a garage on the vacant land, Mr. Trainer said.
"It would be a three-way partnership," he said. "But we can not move forward with our plans until the ownership issue is resolved."
Mr. Mittelman said he has also talked to local universities interested in using the playhouse. Florida International University, for example, has discussed a partnership for educational programs.
"But all entities I talk to," he said, "ask me who has control of the land."
Although the board has been discussing buying the venue for the past couple of months, no formal letter of interest was ever sent to the state, said Vincent Post, board chairman.
The group last week authorized board members to start negotiating with the state. The board would either acquire the land alone or in conjunction with other public organizations, according to the resolution.
State officials said they are aware of the board's interest in buying the theater but the playhouse has not yet started negotiations, said David Host, spokesman for the Department of the State.
The board is expected to forward the letter of interest to the state "as soon as possible," Mr. Mittelman said.
"We need to take an affirmative action," he said, while encouraging trustees to pass a resolution "and send a message to our community that we have a vision and are going to move on this matter soon."
The past year has been one of tension between the board and state, which threatened eviction late last year.
The state cut $500,000 in 2001 for operational costs. This year things are changing. The legislature is in the process of re-allocating that money together with a $500,000-grant for capital improvements, said Debbie Eyerdam, the playhouse's spokeswoman.
Trustees are also in the process of collecting $950,000 in state funds to refund the board for repairs, she said. The landlord is responsible for the theater's structural maintenance.
Other tension was rooted in who would control development of the 2.5 acres next to the theater. The 49-member board recently designed an agreement to free the state from its lease subject to certain conditions. The deal includes paying the money owed for repairs and limiting the kind of development a new landlord could allow on the adjacent parking lot and bike shop.