“Transformative” Cultural Space Proposed for Ground Floor of Collins Park Garage

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

“Transformative” Cultural Space Proposed for Ground Floor of Collins Park Garage:

Miami New Drama Seeks to create addition to “developing cultural campus”

The ground floor space at the almost complete Collins Park Garage could be used as a “transformative” cultural space that provides day and nighttime activation in an area of Miami Beach that has typically been dark at night. Miami New Drama, a nonprofit professional theater company founded by playwright and director Michel Hausmann and National Medal of the Arts winner Moises Kaufman, presented the City with a bold vision – a cultural center featuring theater, music, dining, rotating visual arts displays, retail and community space.

Miami New Drama manages the City-owned Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road and provides original programming, co-productions with national and international partner organizations, and educational programs.

Nicholas Richberg, Managing Director of Miami New Drama, presented the plan to the Mayor and Commissioners at their last meeting in July. He called the space an “exciting placemaking opportunity… that has the potential to be transformative in the neighborhood.”

Collins Park Garage, rendering Shulman + Associates

In discussing the space with City staff and the Collins Park Neighborhood Association, Richberg said two goals were very clear – creating a diversity of activity and daytime and nighttime activation. His team then took a step back and asked what could be achieved if the use was “holistic instead of divided between retail and culture. What if the elements worked synergistically so that the sum was greater than its parts?”

The answer: the Collins Park Cultural Center, a “dynamic, active, transformative cultural space managed by Miami New Drama.” The concept was developed with Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos, a Miami New Drama Board member.  Richberg noted Norten’s “extensive portfolio of cultural, residential, hotel and infrastructure projects” including the Guggenheim Museum in Guadalajara, the New York Public Library, the National Theater School in Mexico City, and the Rutgers Business School in New Jersey. Norten also designed the parking garage and retail space at 1601 Drexel Avenue where Time Out Market is located.

“It is a real coup for us and we are very honored that he has agreed to be part of this project if it moves forward,” Richberg said.

Describing the area around the Collins Park garage, Richberg said, “You have this beautifully developing cultural campus in Collins Park. You have the [Miami City] Ballet, the Bass, the library. There is room for more pedestrian connection during the day and, most notably, without an evening destination, the area is dead at night.”

“There are also 30,000 sq. ft. of vacant retail space currently on the market just in the immediate vicinity of Collins Park and currently there are 66 vacant storefronts on Lincoln Road alone,” he said. “We’ve developed synergistic programming that will utilize the entire space and activate the neighborhood, very importantly, day and night.”

“The programming during the day is a neighborhood café with indoor and outdoor seating, a welcoming cultural lounge space, a daytime theater for young audiences, educational programs and workshops and afterschool programs and outward facing rehearsals visible to pedestrians,” Richberg explained. “At night, we have a 200 seat, robustly programmed, active theater that’s active year-round driving people to that neighborhood and the garage and the restaurants. Evening rehearsals, gallery exhibitions, and the café serving dinner with live music in the café and also sometimes in Liberty Plaza.”

He made the case for Miami New Drama to program the space. In four years, he said, the group has “transformed the Colony Theatre from an underused rental space that was dark 80% of the year, into a world-class dynamic theater, serving over 40,000 people annually in over 175 active nights.”

“We invest almost $4 million annually to program that space and in our relatively short residency we’ve had an economic impact on Lincoln Road of over $10 million,” Richberg said.

A survey of Miami New Drama’s audiences indicated “86% of them have dinner or drinks on Lincoln Road; 77% of them drive to the theater and pay for parking which is, obviously, very important to this project; over half have incomes over $100,000; and 87% of them are full-time residents proving that we serve and connect with our community,” Richberg said.

“Central to our mission is the commitment to be as multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual as the community we serve and we are proud of the fact that staying true to our mission has allowed us to become one of the fastest-growing cultural institutions in Florida,” he told Commissioners.

Miami New Drama also has strong educational programming, according to Richberg. “Currently we serve over 20,000 Miami-Dade County students by bringing them to the Colony and sending especially creative productions to the schools, but the primary limiting factor for the growth of this program is space because we program the Colony so robustly. One of the major achievements of this [proposal for the Collins Park Garage] is creating a home for the aggressive expansion of our educational programming and youth programming to serve Miami Beach.”

Through “inspirational photos,” Richberg provided more details on the concept. “We want to reconceive the idea of a lobby, not just make it a space that people walk through to go to the theater at night, but this would be a gallery space with rotating art installations from partner non-profits, the City, partner galleries and, really, what we call a cultural lounge that’s open all day with comfortable seating and complimentary wifi. A place you can buy a coffee, buy a book, have a seat, have a meeting, a space that really connects the community and creates a relationship with them, not just a space that is active at night.”

In neighborhood discussions about a café for the space, he said, “What we heard over and over again is they wanted something approachable, something comfortable, a real neighborhood café that’s affordable. One of the features they feel is most important – that distinguishes Collins Park – is the ability to have live music, so we conceived of this neighborhood café that is open all day from a bagel and coffee in the morning to an affordable lunch to having pre-theater dinner and drinks at night with live music. You could have a curated jazz series in here and you could program events out on the plaza as well.”

“We’re in the process now of developing a partnership with a restaurateur and his fast-growing coffee brand and James Beard award winning chef who are interested in partnering with us to create this arts-focused café that is available to residents all day,” Richberg said.

An education and rehearsal studio would feature classes, workshops, educational programming and summer camps and serve as a rehearsal area for the Colony Theatre, something that will be needed “if the Colony is going to operate as a real operating regional theater” with the main stage in greater use. The space would be “outward facing to the street so pedestrians can see how the work is developed inside,” he said.

A 200-seat flexible black box theater would provide, “the height of nighttime activation,” according to Richberg. “This is what’s going to bring people to the Collins Park neighborhood on a regular basis” providing “experiences that are more geared to this intimate setting.” The Colony has 415 seats. The smaller theater, Richberg said “would be better suited” for many of Miami New Drama’s partners including South Beach Jazz festival, American Black Film Festival, Cinema Italy, Miami City Ballet, among others.

The black box theater “would also be home to theater for young audiences. On the weekend primarily this would host film screenings and special events,” he added.

Also included in the proposal, a costume design studio which, Richberg said, would bring jobs to the Beach. “Currently we send a lot of these jobs away to Orlando and other places. We could also create artist residencies in textile arts and feature that in the lobby gallery.”

Finally, there would be offices for the theater company. Richberg said Miami New Drama has ten full-time employees in 250 sq. ft.  A larger space would “provide a healthy, productive work environment which is very important in these times.”

Miami New Drama estimates the economic impact to the City of a Cultural Arts Center at the garage to be “over $5 million” from 50,000 people who come to the theater in a given year. “That’s people coming to the theater,” he emphasized. Additional impact would be realized by people visiting the gallery, eating in the café, participating in educational programming, and parking in the garage. “And that doesn’t even take into account the power that a project like this would have to attract other businesses and support existing restaurants and other businesses which will be recovering [from COVID-19] for some time to come.”

Ray Breslin, president of the Collins Park Neighborhood Association, said simply, “To me, this is an absolute no-brainer. We’re thrilled to have it and we hope that you will let it go forward.”

The vision was a no-brainer for the Commission. How to pay for it, however, is not.

Commission Finance Committee Chair Ricky Arriola, a past chairman and current Board member of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities under Barack Obama, said, “This is the right concept and we don’t have too many opportunities like this where the government owns the real estate [and can] curate what we want in there.”

“The last thing I want to see go there is a tenant that can pay the most rent,” he said, “because that will be a bank or someone like that that literally kills neighborhoods. We have an opportunity here to place make.”

“This is a bold, ambitious plan by Miami New Drama,” Arriola said. “I have great respect for the organization and Michel [Hausmann] and his team and I hope they can pull it off.” Arriola said he’ll now wait for the details on the financial terms “because this is a big step for them to do something bold and ambitious like this and I support it. I admire boldness but we need to make sure that they can actually fulfill the vision we just saw.”

Commissioner David Richardson said, “One of the biggest problems I see in the Collins Park neighborhood is that the area north of Collins Park is the Ballet and the library and it is completely dead at night. It has no activation, zero activation, and so I’m not going to be in favor of anything that doesn’t provide real community activation.”

“I was excited to see that they want to have a café that’s morning, noon, and night, basically, and also that there’s a black box theater so that to me would be true community activation,” Richardson continued, but he said he wanted to be careful that a new theater and cultural center does not detract from what’s happening at the Colony. “I wouldn’t want to start a new theater and then destroy another one in the process. They’ve been doing a great job and they’ve been activating that theater and I wouldn’t want whatever their plans are in Collins Park to take away from what they’re doing there.” He also asked questions about where the money would come from for the buildout and the rent structure, knowing they wouldn’t be paying commercial rent prices.

Commissioner Michael Góngora said, “In my mind this complements the Colony since what they’re planning in this building would be roughly half the size so my assumption is at the Colony they will continue to book main programs and theatrical performances and this could run smaller, more experimental type shows.”  

“Something I’m excited about,” he said, “is the opportunity for bilingual theater. Theater in Spanish, which would typically draw a smaller audience, would work better there.” 

Current plans, upon completion of the garage, call for the ground level space to remain raw with dirt floors pending needs of specific tenants. A memo from City Manager Jimmy Morales accompanying the discussion item indicated a “vanilla box” buildout with “cement floor, ready-to-paint walls, working electrical outlets, lighting, plumbing, finished ceiling, and air conditioning” would cost the City an estimated $1.5 million.

“However, for a cultural arts tenant relying on City funding for the buildout, a customized ‘turnkey’ product that is fully finished and functional will likely result in double the cost of improvements,” according to the memo.

Mayor Dan Gelber said, “I think Collins Park has become something so special except for the area north of the Ballet. This is going to be the perfect sort of animator for that area… We’re not looking for great rent here. We’re looking to create something that when people come to our community or residents want to go somewhere they’re going to see something they’re not going to see somewhere else.”

He said he worries that cultural institutions are finding “cheaper places to go to... They’re finding places with low rent. They’re finding things that are interesting. They don’t have beaches near them and they don’t have the kinds of restaurants we have here, but they’re pretty interesting and they’re finding it and they’re going there.”

“One of the things I think we need to do is solidify this community’s art and culture profile by making sure we’re providing something that other places can’t provide which is office space, performance space, activation space that is unique and is supported by a city with our bandwidth. So, I think this is absolutely critical that we do this the right way.”

“I trust Miami New Drama,” he said, pointing to what they’ve done at the Colony. “I sort of feel like when you have a center of excellence that you’re already familiar with, growing that and giving them responsibility makes sense so I’m very comfortable with Miami New Drama’s role in this.”

“As a Commission, we have to make sure that this vision is not their vision but all of our vision and that we make it happen,” Gelber said. “I don’t think that there’s any other option. I think Ricky’s right, if there are a bunch of banks and phone shops there, we’ll have wasted and squandered, we will have committed malpractice. So, we have to make it happen and it’s not a lot and I don’t care – some of you may jump up and down – I don’t care if they give naming rights to elevate the construction there.”

“It needs to be done in a first class way because anything we don’t do first class, we’re going to regret walking by in 20 years as old people and wonder why we didn’t do more,” he concluded.

Morales said the City has $6.8 million in Redevelopment Agency (RDA) money that was being considered for use toward the Lincoln Road Master Plan and part of that could be allocated to a buildout of a cultural space.

Following the direction from the Commission, City staff will come back with a more formal proposal for the space. 

The Collins Park Garage spans an entire block of 23rd Street from Park Avenue to Liberty Avenue immediately adjacent to the Miami City Ballet.  It will contain 513 parking spaces and 15,000 sq. ft. of ground floor retail space and a public plaza when completed.


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