Earlier this afternoon, City Council voted unanimously to allow Portland Playhouse to return to the church its called home for fours years on NE Prescott Street and Sixth Avenue. At issue was a zoning technicality by which a city code hearing officer, in one of the most sympathetic denials likely ever issued, determined that Portland Playhouse, as a theater, was a commercial enterprise operating in a building not zoned for commercial use. As a result, the playhouse has been without a home since July 2011 while it appealed on the grounds that it is a community center, which is allowed under its conditional-use permit.
Supporters with blue “Support Portland Playhouse” signs crowded City Hall. One by one, from the King Neighborhood Association president to St. Andrews students, they testified to the incredible value the theater brings to the Northeast through its commitment to diversity, equity, and community. “Nowhere have I heard a more powerful discussion of gentrification and race than in the Portland Playhouse hall after a Radio Golf performance,” said Charles Gordman, a neighbor and former vice president of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, which has engaged many such discussions. Several individuals spoke to the playhouse’s commitment to people with disabilities, both in its programming and its accessibility (artistic director Brian Weaver admitted that they’d had to remove their wheelchair ramp because, ironically, it was built without a permit, but said they would reconstruct it as soon as a permit was green lighted), and others joked that you only had to look at the theater and its staff to realize it was not a viable “commercial” enterprise. No one spoke against the appeal.
The city commissioners agreed that the playhouse was an arts center for the neighborhood and explained that city code cannot anticipate every situation. “I am so overwhelmed by this testimony and the value to community this playhouse brings,” said commissioner Amanda Fritz, who jokingly admitted a potential conflict of interests as her daughter is currently a college theater major. The council will craft a narrow finding that allows the playhouse to continue in the church in time for the March 29 opening of The Brother/Sister Plays.