MIAMI — The Miami Community Redevelopment Agency board on Wednesday, Sept. 3 tabled a motion to hand over approximately 2,500-square- feet of CRA-owned land adjacent to the historic Lyric Theater to the non-profit.
The move stalled the theater’s bid for a long-desired expansion.
The proposed expansion, which would increase the size of the historic site from 6,000 to around 15,000 square feet, would include additions to the theater's back stage area, encompassing two parcels of land located behind the theater and already deeded by the county, plus a small plot of land directly in front of the theater, where the organization hopes to build an archive center and museum.
The theater, which opened in 1913 (it celebrates its 95th birthday this year,) once played host to the greats of the jazz world, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Aretha Franklin, who came to perform in Miami's "Little Broadway" during "Colored Town's" heyday.
The 400-seat theater at 819 NW 2nd Ave. was built, owned and operated by Geder Walker, a black man from Georgia. In 1915, the Miami Metropolis newspaper described the Lyric Theater as, "possibly the most beautiful and costly playhouse owned by Colored people in all the Southland," according to the website of the Black Archives, History, and Research Foundation of South Florida’s website.
The theater closed in 1960. It was acquired by the Black Archives in 1988, under the direction of historian and archivist Dorothy Jenkins Fields, whose family owned a lot across the street, dating back to the early 20th century.
The theater was designated an historic site a year later, making any improvements or additions subject to the approval of the Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, and more recently the CRA board, which consists of the five Miami city commissioners. The theater reopened to the public in 2000.
The CRA land, valued by the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser’s Office at $133,980, is literally on the doorstep of the historic building and its modern welcome center. The 100 x 25 foot CRA land consists of an open plaza, something CRA Executive Director Jim Villacorta insists is integral to any development plan.
Debating the resolution Wednesday, Villacorta said that plans dating back to the 1990s called for the lot to include "a gathering place," which Villacorta said has been utilized successfully for events including a recent after-party for the MTV Music Awards.
Villacorta and District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff worried that the proposed archive center would be too close to the existing structure. "Four feet from a swinging door," Sarnoff said.
Other commissioners, including CRA Board Chair Michelle Spence Jones, whose district includes the Overtown neighborhood where the theater is located, expressed frustration that the theater's project management team had failed to present coherent plans, including final drawings, something Lyric Theater Project Manager Ted Bachan said was impossible without the land conveyance.
The reason: The $10 million in county-issued bond money allocated to the theater cannot be tapped until the Lyric team can demonstrate that they control the land, Bachan said.
Fields said that requesting new plans would bring a "financial hardship" on the organization, which is relying on county bond funds that would not be released without a conveyance of the land.
Sarnoff expressed skepticism, noting that the Lyric team had previously altered its plan when the preservation board rejected a four-story structure they said was incompatible with the site, without citing a hardship.
"Did you know you had the $10 million (in bond money) when the land became available and you went to an alternate plan?" Sarnoff asked.
The meeting became tense when Villacorta referred to the proposed archive center as a "yellow shoebox."
Only one commissioner expressed unqualified support for the conveyance: District 4 Commissioner Tomas Regalado pointed out the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, since renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, which he said received much different treatment by the CRA.
"When the Performing Arts Center was built by the county," an exasperated Regalado said, "the CRA was not consulted about the shape, a plaza, or no plaza … and yet, we are paying the debt. And we are giving the Performing Arts Center more than we ever gave the Lyric Theater."
The CRA would pay off nearly $500 million in construction debts for the arts center under the "Miami megaplan" proposed by city and county leaders.
"For me, to do anything that will help the Lyric Theater to be economically viable, to me is important," Regalado said.
Other commissioners were more dubious. Sarnoff repeatedly questioned why the Lyric team failed to comply with a previous board demand that the construction not come within 15 feet of the existing structure, something Fields said was nearly impossible at every point, given the restricted space. Sarnoff also quizzed the team about whether they had done private fundraising to supplement the county funds.
Regalado called the fundraising question a "non-issue," saying such a standard had not been set for other projects, including the performing arts center. And, he said, the expansion could help attract tourists to Overtown.
"If we can have a center where the culture of the area is presented, that would be the best thing," he said.
After District 3 Commissioner Joe Sanchez raised the question of whether the CRA could convey the land to the Lyric Theater with the stipulation that its organizers return to the board for final approval of the building plan, board members voted unanimously to affirm their support in principle for handing over the lot, but to table a vote on the transfer until their next meeting in October.
After the meeting, a disappointed Fields and her team said they would be ready.
"We'll go back to the drawing board," she said.
The theater's general counsel, Marlon Hill, emphasized the positive.
"The conveyance will happen,’’ Hill said. “Both the city and the county are inclined to make it happen. It just needs to be synchronized."
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Dorothy Jenkins Fields