At 3:30 pm tomorrow, City Council will determine the fate of Portland Playhouse. Since last spring, the company has been without a theater, thanks to a permitting snafu that forced Portland Playhouse out of their home at the former Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on NE Prescott. I don't always love Portland Playhouse's work—sometimes I do—but their trajectory over the past four years has been impressive, from out-of-town upstarts to a popular and well-regarded mainstay of the local scene. Part of their initial charm came from their venue: The Church was a comfy space with couches instead of theater seats, free beer, and a refreshingly unpretentious atmosphere.
But all of that changed last spring, when the company abruptly found themselves homeless.
The saga began during a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, when a neighbor complained about parking issues stemming from the often sold-out show. That complaint was resolved, but it led the city to take a closer look at the way the church is zoned.
Because the theater sits in a residential zone, it requires a special permit to operate. The Weavers thought they had it.
“When the current owner bought the building, he was told that the building had kept its assembly permit,” explains Brian Weaver, “and that as long as he kept using it for assembly, it wouldn’t expire.” But the permit was for religious use only, and “because more than five years passed without the assembly being religious, the religious use permit had expired.”
The Weavers quickly rejected the idea of arguing that attending a play can constitute a religious experience (PHEW). So, lacking the proper permit for nonreligious activities, Portland Playhouse was found to be “operating a commercial business in a residential zone,” and received a cease-and-desist order.
This is where things get even stickier.
Portland Playhouse applied for a new conditional use permit—this time as a “community service.” (Portland Playhouse is a nonprofit; in addition to plays, they hold workshops and classes and do community outreach.) The Portland Bureau of Development Service (BDS) approved every portion of their application except the performing of plays. Theater, they said, constitutes a “commercial/retail/sales” operation and therefore isn’t a community service. According to the city code, Portland Playhouse is no different than a Regal Cinema or a strip club.
“If ‘theater’ is in the code, they can’t make any exceptions,” explains Matt Grumm, a policy adviser for Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees BDS. “And it’s patently clear that theater is prohibited.”
Now neighbors are asking Saltzman’s colleagues to step in. The King Neighborhood Association appealed BDS’ decision, and on Thursday, March 1, city council will hear from the King Neighborhood Association and Sabin Community Association as well as the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, and other supporters of Portland Playhouse.
Says Brian Weaver, “What’s unique about this is [land-use hearings] are normally a developer against a neighborhood association, but in this case, there is no opponent. Everybody’s on the same side. So hopefully it gives city council a chance to be heroes.”
Portland Playhouse has performed their last three shows in alternate venues, but if their appeal goes as hoped, their next show will open back in the church at the end of March.
Portland Playhouse encourages their supporters to attending the hearing tomorrow.
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