BRIAN AND MICHAEL WEAVER moved to Portland to build a playhouse from scratch. In 2008, the brothers (along with Brian's wife, Nikki) took over the former Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on NE Prescott. At the Portland Playhouse's first show, the high-pitched melodrama After Ashley, the audience sat in a makeshift assortment of couches and comfy old armchairs. The free beer, courtesy of MacTarnahan's, only completed the cozy, we're-all-just-hanging-out vibe. Later, the walls were painted, the floors refinished, and the old church began to feel something like a real theater. (The free beer remained.)
But last spring, all that came to an end. Thanks to a snafu over permits, the Weavers and their company—by this point, one of Portland's most successful mid-sized theaters—found themselves in danger of losing their home. And now, in an unusual twist for a land-use dispute, it's the neighbors who have rallied to keep Portland Playhouse in the neighborhood.
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 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—as do schools, churches, and community centers. 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 one idea: arguing that attending a play can constitute a religious experience. So, lacking the proper permit, 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, "in this case, there is no opponent. Everybody's on the same side. So hopefully it gives city council a chance to be heroes."