The Coconut Grove Playhouse saga continues. County petitions court to overturn denial

Gimenez previously signaled the county would sue to push its $23M project forward

Carlos Gimenez, Francis Suarez and a rendering of the Coconut Grove Playhouse
Carlos Gimenez, Francis Suarez and a rendering of the Coconut Grove Playhouse

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has commenced the next round in the battle with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez over the fate of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

On Monday, Miami-Dade County filed a court petition seeking to nullify Suarez’s veto of a controversial renovation plan for the historic theater, which was initially approved by the Miami City Commission on May 8. A subsequent city commission vote earlier this month to overturn the veto failed.

Built in 1927, the state-owned Coconut Grove Playhouse went through several alterations during its 75-plus-year run before being shuttered in the early 2000s. In 2004, the state agreed to turn the playhouse over to the county, which partnered with Florida International University to come up with a revival plan to renovate and reopen the theater for performances. A lease signed in 2013 states the county must reopen the playhouse by 2022.

Spokespeople for Gimenez and Suarez could not be immediately reached for comment, but the county mayor previously signaled the county would sue the city to push its $23 million restoration project forward. The petition, the second filed by the county in the past two years, will be taken up by a judicial appellate panel in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.

In 2018, the panel concluded an earlier vote by the city commission regarding the playhouse project improperly sought to force Miami-Dade to save the theater’s interior, which does not have a historic designation. Only some of the exterior has historic protection. The city was forced to give Miami-Dade another shot at approving its proposal.

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In March, the Miami Historic and Environmental Protection Board denied the county’s fleshed-out design that includes demolishing the 1,100-seat auditorium behind the playhouse’s architecturally significant front. The new theater would have roughly 300 seats. The county appealed to the city commission, which overturned the board’s denial. Suarez stepped in and overrode the commissioners’ 3-2 vote.

In its recent court filing, Assistant Miami-Dade Attorney James Edwin Kirtley Jr. claims Suarez misapplied the law and deprived Miami-Dade of due process. The county wants the same panel that heard its previous challenge to reinstate the city commission’s approval. The petition alleges Suarez did not disclose he had scheduled meetings with individuals who had been sending him emails about the playhouse during the nine days before he issued his veto.

“It is unclear whether those meetings took place and, if so, what was discussed,” the petition states. “The city mayor’s veto message did not disclose the ex parte communications… The communications thus retain the presumption of prejudice.”

David Winker, an attorney representing Coconut Grove property owners Anthony Vinciguerra and Courtney Berrien, said his clients will be filing an amicus brief in support of upholding Suarez’s veto. The couple own a home within 500 feet of the playhouse, Winker said.

“The county’s arguments that the Mayor’s veto is illegal are without merit,” Winker said. “This is an inappropriate attempt to override the decision of an apolitical historical board decision that found the county’s plan to demolish over 90% of the Playhouse was unacceptable.”

The Daily Business Review first reported the court petition filed by Miami-Dade County.