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Monday, February 9, 2015

The Coconut Grove Playhouse Trojan Horse; Part II

Gate [H] left open for the valet parking allowing traffic to
go out onto William and Thomas Avenues. Note the arrow
on the ground directing traffic out onto Charles Avenue.
Part I of The Coconut Grove Trojan Horse presented a capsule history of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the surrounding area, and how a good neighbour's complaint to City Hall led to this long investigative article. 

After researching the parking issues around the Playhouse for the last year and seeing how the residents were being abused by these valet companies, especially following a night of havoc they created on Charles Avenue in December, this reporter emailed [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff a series of questions which have yet to be answered:
FROM: Headly Westerfield
TO: msarnoff@salawmiami.com, rnelson@miamigov.com
Fri, Dec 19, 2014 at 3:36 PM
SUBJECT: ON THE RECORD - PLEASE RESPOND

For the past year I have been quietly researching the parking lots surrounding the Coconut Grove Playhouse. This week I was forwarded an email chain in which your name appears. This seems like a good time to write up the result of some of that research. My forthcoming article concerns more than the illegal parking last Friday night on the empty residential lot on the north side of the Historic Roadway of Charles Avenue.

Since this is not the first time this lot has been used for overflow valet parking -- just the latest and most egregious -- the denials by Daniel Radrizzani ring hollow. I have witnessed this residential lot being used on many Friday and Saturday nights and have taken pictures of it. The neighbours will confirm that this has been an ongoing problem. And, Coconut Grove Village Council Chair Javier Gonzales will no doubt remember the several nights I interrupted his evenings to tell him he should rush on over there to see it for himself.

Consequently, I have a series of questions about *ALL* the parking surrounding the Coconut Grove Playhouse, of which this residential lot is only one piece of the entire puzzle.

1). Why did Charles Avenue resident Cynthia Hernandez have to insist that the police do something after they first tried to tell her that there was nothing they could do since the property owner hadn't made a complaint?

[To their credit, but only after additional phone calls, the police finally ordered the residential lot to be emptied of cars; a process, I am told, that took 45 minutes and created the 2nd traffic jam of the night on Charles Avenue. The first was filling the empty lot with some 40-50 cars in the first place.]

2). When neighbours complained previously that the 45 valet parking spots rented from the MPA would bring additional traffic, they were assured there would be no additional traffic on Charles Avenue as a result. This is clearly false. Why has this been allowed to continue for the past year despite occasional complaints by the neighbours?

3). If there was to be no additional traffic on Charles Avenue then why did the MPA, when it resurfaced the Main Street parking lot, paint a giant arrow on the ground immediately BEHIND the Playhouse directing cars to exit onto Charles Avenue?

4). Some of these 45 spots rented from the MPA are now being used several days a week as a drive-in movie theater. How is this being done? Is there a sub-lease? A contract? A gentleman's agreement? Is the MPA involved?

5). What permits were needed to run a drive-in theater in that parking lot? What are the insurance requirements and who is paying for it?

6). When these 45 spaces are full of cars and/or drive-in movie patrons, where does the overflow parking go now that the gate on the residential lot has been locked again? [It's been locked and unlocked as needed for overflow parking until now.]

7). At the far west end of the MPA parking lot on Main Highway there is a chain-link fence with a double-gate that feeds onto William Avenue. Why is this gate locked most daylight hours, but quietly unlocked and left wide open on busy nights in Coconut Grove, when the Playhouse parking lot is full?

8). What will the City of Miami do about monitoring these valet parking infractions going forward?

9). What will the City of Miami do to reduce all the added traffic these parking lots have caused on Charles and William Avenues?

10). Considering Gino Falsetto is one of the owners of Aries; and considering he also has financial interests in the empty residential lot being used for the last year as overflow parking to the 45 spaces rented from the MPA; and considering he is also part owner of Paradise Parking; and considering it's his 3 restaurants that use the valet parking; and considering that his brother Andrew Falsetto is a part of South Park, the company that took the fall for Friday night's parking fiasco; isn't all this circular finger-pointing just a little too convenient for everyone to duck responsibility by blaming this ongoing situation as a one-time event?

11). And, most important of all: Considering all I have uncovered and written about Gino Falsetto's shenanigans -- his Demolition by Neglect of the 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House; the destruction of the old trees on that property without the proper plans and permits; the interior demolition of the E.W.F. Stirrup House without permit or historic plan on file; the destruction of the wall that separated La Bottega from the current construction zone of the E.W.F. Stirrup lot without the proper permits; the removing the roof of the Bicycle Shop without a demolition permit; his alleged squatting on the Playhouse parking lot for several years; etc., so forth, and so on -- isn't it time that Falsetto, and the series of companies he hides behind, are held responsible for the downgrading of the quality of life of your West Grove constituents who live around his fiefdom?

I will publish when I think my story is ready and would like to include your response. A prompt response ensures that.
My questions to [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff were punted to the Miami Parking Authority, which has still yet to answer.

The area surrounding the
Coconut Grove Playhouse

[Click map to enlarge]
LEGEND:

A). Grove Gardens Condominiums;
aka The Monstrosity;
B). Regions Bank;
C). The E.W.F. Stirrup House;
D). Zoned residential lots, used
for illegal parking;
E). Part of the 45 parking spaces
leased for Valet Parking;
F). Blue Star Drive In & remaining 45
spaces leased to Valet parking;
G). Playhouse Parking Lot
operated by the MPA;
H). Unlocked gate directing traffic
onto William and Thomas Streets
and location of arrow directing cars
to exit onto Charles Avenue;
I). Main entrance/exit for main
Playhouse parking lot;
J). The Bicycle Shop;
K). The Barnacle, now a State Park,
once belonged to Commodore Ralph
Monroe, a contemporary of E.W.F.
Stirrup;
L). Rich people in gated enclaves;
M). Far less well off people in West
Grove, which has remained
predominately Black and depressed
during the last 125 years;
N). Commodore Plaza, named after
Ralph Monroe, is lined with pricy
eateries and more expensive art
galleries, meant for people with
more disposable incomes than
those on the surrounding blocks.
In the meantime, I emailed back [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff to re-ask questions 1, 2, 8, 9, 10, and 11, since those questions could ONLY be addressed by an elected representative on behalf of his constituents. The response from Sarnoff's office, paraphrasing, "As we told you before, the neighbour is satisfied her complaint was resolved within 2 business days. We're done here."

While I didn't get a response from people paid by the City of Miami to answer questions, I did get a response from Regions Bank [B], which is treating this issue seriously.

The Regions Bank parking lot is another small piece to the parking puzzle. On many occasions I watched the valets zip cars in and out of the bank parking lot after hours. After asking a few discrete questions I was told the local Regions manager had an informal agreement with the valet parking company to use the bank's parking lot at night. Consequently, I contacted Regions' HQ and asked several questions about its Coconut Grove branch:
1). Is Regions Bank aware of any arrangement between the manager of your Coconut Grove branch and the manager of the 3 restaurants next door (Calamari, La Bottega, The Taurus) to use the bank parking lot for the restaurant's valet parking during the bank's off hours?

2). Is there an [sic] written agreement on this arrangement or is it just an understanding?

3). The valets get $6 per car. I have counted more than a dozen cars at any given time in this parking lot, with cars constantly being brought in and out as I watched. These valet fees represent several hundred dollars on the busy Friday and Saturday nights that I have witessed [sic] myself. Is any of this money shared with Regions Bank? With the Coconut Grove Regions Bank manager?

4). Has liability insurance has been arranged for the shunting of cars in and out of this parking lot? If so, who is the provider and who pays for the insurance? If not, who would be responsible were there to be a fatality as cars zip in and out on this residential street?

5). Why is your parking lot being used to secure profits for a valet company, and customers for 3 restaurants, who would otherwise eat elsewhere were it not for the valet parking?

Please respond as soon as is convenient because I plan to post my story when it's finished and would like to give Regions Bank the opportunity to respond.
Once I started asking questions about this arrangement, it was formalized: 
Headly,

You can attribute the following to me:

We do have a license agreement between Regions and the valet parking company.

We do not receive any financial compensation.

What Regions and our customers do receive is that the parking company helps manage the lot after hours.  Before this agreement, there was an issue with cars parking in the lot after hours and blocking access to the night drop and ATM.  This kept customers from being able to access their funds – or make deposits in their accounts – in an efficient manner.  The agreement was developed to help remedy that issue and to help people in the community access the ATM and night drop as needed.

You would need to consult with the valet company regarding insurance arrangements covering their activities on the lot.

Thank you.

Jeremy D. King
Corporate Communications
Regions Financial Corporation
205-XXX-XXXX
jeremyd.king@regions.com
So ... While Regions Bank has seen fit to reply to me, neither [allegedly] corrupt Miami Commissioner Marc. D. Sarnoff, nor the Miami Parking Authority have answered any of my questions. Which brings us to this:



The Parking Problem at Charles Avenue and Main Highway
~~or~~
Why Is The Playhouse a Trojan Horse for a Huge Parking Garage?


A sign on the Regions Bank parking lot.
If you want to see some hard-working men and women, wander on over to Main Highway and Charles Avenue and watch the valets at work.

Diners pull up in their cars in front of The Monstrosity [A] because they are going to one of the 4 restaurants on the property: The Taurus; Calamari; La Bottega; and the member's only, private wine club, La Cava. These restaurants were forced to offer valet parking because they were struggling from a lack of customers. Blame it on the Broken Window Syndrome; people were loathe to walk past the boarded-up Coconut Grove Playhouse to get to Falsetto's restaurants. In fact, you will rarely see pedestrians walk any further south on Main Highway than The Greenstreet Cafe, Falsetto's biggest competitor just up the block. Everything south of that is a virtual No Pedestrian Zone.

When cars pull up the valets collect $6.00, give it a parking tag, and zip them on over to parking lots [B], [E], or [F] as quickly as possible. Then they run back for the next diner or to retrieve a car for a satiated diner. At the end of a hot night the valets are drenched in sweat. I have absolutely nothing against these people and actually admire their work ethic. [In fact, some of them have become quite friendly and provide me with background information even though they know I am working against their boss' interests.] However, there is no denying these valet companies are destroying the quality of life for the residents on Charles, William and Thomas Avenues.

Recently I was SHOCKED to learn something I hadn't discovered in the 6 years I have been researching West Grove: The Monstrosity has 2 underground levels, one a parking level and the other the private, members only faux wine cave known as La Cava.

I can hear a gigantic "So what?" to that news, except this is Florida. Dig a small hole in the ground with a spoon and it fills up with water. That’s why basements are not built here, as dry basements are hugely expensive in South Florida.

When The Monstrosity was built there were obviously concerns about residential parking, as is standard for any project. To that end the building was designed with an underground parking lot for the residents in the condos above. Not having to share any above-ground space for parking allowed Aries to build a structure with more residential and restaurant space for the footprint and height for which it was zoned. However, it's clear that the City of Miami, or anyone else, did not anticipate sufficient parking for the building's multi-use -- the restaurants -- which is why the valets are forced to use every available parking space in the area.

Last year, when Miami-Dade County Cultural Czar Michael Spring cut the deal that gave Aries Development the Bicycle Shop [J], another part of that deal was that the valet companies could rent 45 parking spaces [E & F] at $6.00 p/day p/space from the Miami Parking Authority.

The Blue Star-lite Drive-In at night
There's one last player to be introduced into this story and that's the Blue Star-Lite Drive-In, which uses parking lot [F] several nights a week to project movies onto a screen attached to the back wall of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

When I first heard about this new use of the parking lot, I thought it was a great idea to help revitalize the neighbourhood, not only bringing movies back to that corner, but creating a fun event for the neighbourhood. However, I have since changed my mind for the following reasons:

1). To begin with, this is an expensive night out. Just like the rest of Coconut Grove, to be honest. A normal night out at the megaplex is barely more expensive than the Blue Star-Lite Drive-In and you don't have to bring your own lawn chairs or cars or bug spray. This is not priced for the families that live in the areas marked [M].

I'll take a Sliders Basket and a Hot Dog Basket, please.
2). My next thought, because I know how these things work, was, "How does Gino Falsetto make money off this deal?"

Falsetto's valet parking company rents these spaces from the MPA. Is the Blue Star-Lite Drive-In paying any rent to Paradise Parking or the MPA? I still don't have the answer to that question from the MPA, but I didn't have to search very far to see at least one way that Falsetto is making money off the drive-in. He's selling overly expensive hot dogs and hamburgers to the people who have enough disposable income to pay these crazy rates for a movie in a parking lot.

The Blue Star-lite Drive-In during the day
The Blue Star-lite Drive-In during the day
3). Josh Frank, owner of the Blue Star-Lite, has turned his portion of the parking lot [F] into a junk yard, complete with rust imported from other locations. Admittedly, all this junk gives the drive-in a funky, street- level feel, despite its sky-high prices. However, if any of the homeowners along Charles, William, or Thomas Avenues [M again] loaded up their property with this junk, they'd be cited by the city for creating a hazard and/or an unsightly mess. The Blue Star-Lite Drive-In is allowed to load up this property with everything from camper trailers to porta-potties. The only thing missing is the junk yard dog.

The fine facilities at the Blue Star-Lite Drive-In
4). The first time I met Josh Frank I gave him my card and he was friendly, quite open, and willing to talk. The second time I tried to talk to Frank he was not only rude, but told me where I could line my car up to pay an admission to see a movie. I declined the offer. However, I couldn't help but wonder whether he had seen any of my posts on Falsetto posted here in the interim.

I have now spent many hours over the past year just observing these various parking lots and the traffic patterns along these streets. As well, I have interviewed valets, security guards, and neighbours at properties surrounding the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Consequently, I now have answers to some of my questions. 

The answer to Question #7 above is this: This gate is opened to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights so the valets working the restaurants on Commodore Plaza [N] -- which I never knew about until this all blew up -- can zip in and out the back way [H and pics above and below] without having to drive out onto Main Highway. Therefore, the valets are entirely responsible for the added traffic onto William and Thomas Avenues because they are the only reason that gate is left opened on busy Friday and Saturday nights.

IRONY ALERT: It was actually the valets on Commodore Plaza [N] and not The Monstrosity [A] that caused the mess on Charles Avenue which led to the neighbour outrage. [Which is a distinction without a difference because all these valet companies are owned by Falsetto and/or companies owned, in part, by Falsetto.]

On December 12th there was a big event at the Cruz Building -- the fake New Orleans structure on Commodore Plaza [N] rumoured to have been built with cocaine money -- and the valets needed a place to park all those cars. Gino Falsetto graciously lent the 2 residential lots across the street from the E.W.F. Stirrup House that had been used for overflow parking for the last year. They had been getting away with it for so long, but they finally overplayed their hand by trying to park that many cars at once.

And so finally we come to how all of this leads the Not Now Silly Newsroom to conclude that the Playhouse rehab is really the cultural Trojan horse to build a huge, misshapen glass and steel parking structure -- the kind Arquitectonica is best known for -- with a 300-seat auditorium attached.

An artist's rendering of a massive development on Main Highway at Charles Avenue hiding a parking garage, possibly 2 theaters, and what could turn out to be condo-style residences for thespians and others who might eventually work in the theaters. A secret source tells me I can discount the rumour that there will be retail on the premises because it's all State of Florida land, despite Miami-Dade County running all the backroom deals, and the charter prevents retail. However, that's assuming a gift shop doesn't count and the rules don't change.

Another view of the arrows on the ground directing
traffic out to Charles Avenue. Picture was taken from
the approximate location of the unlocked gate [H].
To begin with all of the valet parking machinations have proven 2 things: 1). Parking is the only thing generating money at Charles and Main Highway; 2). There's a growing need for parking surrounding the Playhouse. [I don't want to get too deeply in the weeds, but there's also a plan for nearby Ransom School to use these parking lots for overflow.]

Second, it always struck me as odd that the MPA was on the committee making decisions about the future of the Playhouse. It had a place at the table by virtue of [G], the parking lot it wrestled away from the squatting Paradise Parking.

I was recently able to get my hands on the Notice to Professional Consultants, the document that lays out the criteria to which anyone bidding on the project should adhere [emphasis added]:
Providing a master plan which may include both immediate and future development based on the existing property’s historic designation, programming goals for the facility, and the available funding. The components envisioned for the site include a state of the art theater (target capacity: 300-600 seats), including all required front-of-house and back-of-house spaces necessary for the successful operation of the theater, parking, and future compatible development that may address the need for additional parking, a second theater (target capacity 600-900 seats) and complementary site amenities such as retail, restaurants, etc.;
No sooner had I acquired that document than Cultural Czar Michael Spring announced that Arquitectonica won the bid. In an email to Javier Gonzales, Chair of of the Coconut Grove Village Council, Spring put the best shine on all the backroom machinations. One paragraph stuck out [emphasis added]:
The 5-person CSC appointed by the Mayor to evaluate the teams included: the Executive Director of the Black Archives (who has overseen the renovation and expansion of the historic Lyric Theater in Overtown and who currently serves as a member of the City of Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, and was its chair from 2007 to 2009); a representative from FIU, the co-lessee of the Playhouse property (a senior university executive who has expertise in finance and served on the committee that negotiated the eventual contract with Arquitectonica); the CEO of the City of Miami’s Parking Authority (who will be involved in assessing the potential for a parking garage on the site and who has extensive experience managing and improving Gusman Center for the Performing Arts); the capital projects manager from my department who will be the lead in managing the architectural process (who has a background in architecture and extensive experience in building and renovating theaters); and myself.
When I talk about backroom decisions, I am not talking about the selection process that just ended. I am talking about all the backroom decisions that were made before the process was set out for tender. Even before any designs were considered Michael Spring downsized the size of the theater from 1100 to 300, and added a possible second theater. The presence of the MPA assures there will be a giant parking structure on the property and the choosing of Arquitectonica,increases the likelihood that it will be some gigantic glass and steel structure that will look totally out of place viewed from the quiet residential neighbourhood marked [M] on the map.

And, I am willing to place a bet that when this new monstrosity is being argued in front of whatever baords are going to vet it, they will point to Gino Falsetto's Monstrosity as the thing that opened the door to this kind of over-development at Main Highway and Charles Avenue and, OH, BY THE WAY, we just gotta solve the parking problem around the Coconut Grove Playhouse if it is ever to be taken seriously as a tourist destination for the kind of folks who have the kind of money it takes to live in Coconut Grove.

And that, dear readers, is why I believe the Coconut Grove Playhouse renovation is a Trojan horse for a big, huge, honking garage. I would love to be proven wrong.

Another rendering of a potential structure to replace, not renovate, the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Save The Coconut Playhouse is a Facebook group not affiliated with the Not Now Silly Newsroom. It has far more detail about the backroom machinations of the current plan to renovate and/or tear down the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Please join if you care about historic preservation.