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Lawsuit Once Again Snares Plan To Redevelop Historic Coconut Grove Playhouse

A rendering of the redeveloped Coconut Grove Playhouse at 3500 Main Highway in Coral Gables.

The debate over the historical Coconut Grove Playhouse project has taken center stage once again.

The disputed proposal to knock down a majority of the building but preserve the historic theater had cleared legal challenges from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez but is now back in court, facing a new lawsuit filed by 14 neighbors, Miami Today reports.

The residents sued Miami-Dade County, claiming the county wrongfully allocated $23.6M in bond money to finance the playhouse’s reconstruction. The residents claimed the monies would be managed and used for purposes different from what was originally approved in a 2004 referendum on the matter.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of the county requesting permits earlier this month to demolish and redevelop the playhouse, which was built in the late 1920s. Records show the county plans to tear down roughly 80% of the establishment and bring its seating down to 300 from 1,130.

Additionally, the permit would allow rezoning so two-thirds of the building would be allocated to commercial space leased to other tenants. Under the plan, the county would appoint GableStage to manage the theater logistics and operations when it reopens in 2027, The Real Deal reported.

The county’s proposal also calls for vintage elements of the building to be preserved, such as its original double arch. The plan also calls to revise the 300-spot parking garage to be reduced by two stories, from 81 feet tall to 45 feet.

More than $20M has already been invested in the project, Miami Today reported. The arts institution put down its curtains for the final time 16 years ago.

The residents suing said they support a previously proposed version of the plan that included input from Mike Eidson, former chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and architect Richard Heisenbottle. The residents demand that the entire iconic establishment be remodeled to keep the 700-seat theater layout that includes a separate, 200-seat black box auditorium.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse was delivered in 1927 and designed by Kiehnel and Elliott, a firm credited with transporting Mediterranean architecture and design to the Magic City. Developers Robert Browning Parker refurbished the playhouse in 1955. It closed its doors in 2006 due to financial problems.

City Commissioner Raquel Regalado, responding to the lawsuit, said the county is only proposing to demolish “an addition” that was made to the original structure of the playhouse decades ago.

“There are entire generations of Miamians who have not been able to enjoy this playhouse because of these [lawsuits],” she told TRD.