City rejects boutique hotel idea for Olympia Theater, opts to wait for college's offer

Miami Herald |

--Miami city commissioners on Thursday unanimously rejected an unsolicited proposal to renovate the Olympia Theater and turn its residential tower into a boutique hotel. Instead, they want to wrap up talks with Miami Dade College -- which manages other historic buildings -- that began 15 months ago.

"The truth is we are not being a good steward of our historic structure," said Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents District 2 where the theater sits. "We really need to kick ourselves into gear here to make sure we do right by this historic structure. The asset is just too important."

The city owns the Olympia Theater, which originally opened as a silent movie theater in 1926. Currently, the theater and its residences on the floors above the auditorium are operated by the nonprofit Olympia Center Inc., which signed a management agreement with the city in 2011.

In , the commission urged the city manager to explore a possible partnership with the college to operate the theater and possibly convert Olympia's residences into student housing, but more than a year later, the city has yet to receive any formal offer from the college. Those talks are still ongoing, said Juan Mendieta, an MDC spokesman.

"There might be a lot of good ideas, but unless we're going to lose a tremendous amount of money, it would make a lot of sense to go with Miami Dade with the possibility of student housing," Commissioner Joe Carollo said.

At Thursday's meeting, Russell urged city manager Emilio Gonzalez to make sure the city gets a proposal from the college by September.

"We can do it by the first meeting in September," Gonzalez said. "We're ready."

Commissioner Keon Hardemon said the prospect of turning Olympia's tower into student housing didn't sit well with him, but did not explicitly say he's against a partnership with MDC.

"Students abuse housing," Hardemon said. "This being the historical site it is, I don't really like the idea of it being student housing."

Daniel Rotenberg, director of the city's Department of Real Estate Asset Management, told commissioners Thursday: "We have sent Miami Dade College agreements, and we are waiting on a response. They are willing to be the stewards."

Miami Dade College currently operates historic landmarks such as the Tower Theater, Koubek Center and the Freedom Tower.

The proposal to convert the residential tower into a hotel was made by New Urban International, a real estate asset management company that manages a number of other projects in Miami-Dade County. New Urban said historic preservation of the site along with theater renovations would cost at least $15 million, to be paid for through grants and selling of development and dwelling rights, while hotel conversion would cost about $6 million. New Urban would have managed the financing and construction, while third parties would have operated the hotel and theater.

"The theater is unique," Commissioner Manolo Reyes said. "How it is going to be managed, and how it is going to be used is extremely important. You can do hotel, student housing [or] you can go commercial, but we have to preserve and utilize it."

This was the second unsolicited proposal the city has received in the last two years. In 2017, the Related Urban Development Group proposed the demolition of the residential tower above the theater and the construction of 200 to 300 affordable housing and workforce units in conjunction with renovation of the theater. However, due to opposition from residents and preservationists, the group withdrew its proposal.

The commission's decision not to approve New Urban International's proposal was a win for the Flagler Business Improvement District and the Downtown Neighbors Alliance, two community organizations who didn't think a boutique hotel would be an appropriate match for the Olympia.

"Let the theater be center and forefront in everything you want to think about the tower in general," Amal Kabbani, president of the Downtown Neighbors Association, told commissioners Thursday.

Russell said if the city were to enter into a partnership with Miami Dade College, the city would still be responsible for handling the restoration of the Olympia's deteriorating facade. Scaffolding is wrapped around the theater's entrance to protect passersby from pieces of brick and tile falling from the building's exterior.

Commissioners said if they do not receive an offer from Miami Dade College that they like, they will take the necessary steps to preserve the theater and pursue a partnership with another body. But as of now, the city has idled too long on deciding the theater's future.

"It was 15 months ago that we passed a resolution to work with Miami Dade College," Russell said. "This is our deadline to say by the second meeting in September to bring something back to us solid that we can make a decision on."

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