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Coconut Grove Playhouse Restoration Plan Gets State Approval

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For supporters of a plan to reopen the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the countdown has begun.

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott and his cabinet approved a proposal by FIU and Miami-Dade County to lease the playhouse from the state. But the property is still mired in debt, and Tuesday's decision marked the start of a tight deadline for the county and FIU to settle it. If the debts aren't cleared and a lease is not signed by Oct. 15, Florida is bound by state rules to offer the property for sale to the highest bidder.

See also: Coconut Grove Playhouse Could Be Saved by FIU, Miami-Dade County, and GableStage

The playhouse, once a grand theater that hosted Hollywood stars, has fallen into disrepair after it shuttered its doors in 2006. (When we visited recently, we noted its "crack den aesthetic.") Last year, protestors organized to preserve the building, and to protest what they believed was neglect and mismanagement by its board of directors, who had racked up millions of dollars in debt against the property.

The plans approved Tuesday would allow Miami-Dade County and FIU to lease the playhouse from the state of Florida, which reclaimed it last year under a clause requiring the property to be used for live performances. This would open up $20 million in county funds earmarked to restore the playhouse to a fully functioning performance space once again. GableStage would manage the operations of the playhouse while partnering with FIU's theater department to give its students real-world experience inside the new theater.

But all that hinges on settling its debts -- and fast. The Miami Herald reports that one of the biggest claims against the playhouse is $500,000 worth of building code violation fines from the city. Not a problem, according to city commissioner Marc Sarnoff -- the city can "do away" with those in order to save the space.

However, Tuesday's Herald story doesn't mention outstanding claims by Aries Group, which once sought as much as $2 million from the Playhouse board.

Even if the county can clear all of the Coconut Grove Playhouse's debts before the Oct. 15 deadline, the building may still be up for major changes. The current plan, according to preservationist group Save The Coconut Grove Playhouse, is based on a report from 2010 that recommends three options for developing the property, all of which call for saving for the boomerang-shaped building that faces the street, but for demolishing the theater behind it and rebuilding a new one from scratch.

"It was realized that the most appropriate solution was to preserve the winged street-fronting building at a minimum," the study states. "This option would preserve the building's civic presence on Main Highway and Charles Street; it would allow for the adaptive re-use of its spaces while allowing greater flexibility and probably lower construction costs for a Playhouse Complex that would meet the needs of a state-of-the-arts regional theater. This is the part of the building which was least altered and which holds the identity of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in the public's consciousness."

Save the Coconut Grove Playhouse is asking supporters to contact their commissioners and FIU's board of trustees to protest the plan. It's not clear, however, that the recommendations of the 2010 study will be put into action if the county and FIU are allowed to lease the property. In a 2011 county commission meeting, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa requested a report detailing the costs to renovate the entire existing playhouse. And in March, Curbed Miami reported the plans of architect Richard Heisenbottle, which would preserve both the facade and auditorium.

Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs Director Michael Spring was not available for comment this morning.

Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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