OGUNQUIT, Maine — The Select Board will hold a second public hearing next week on a proposed zoning change that would pave the way for a major renovation and expansion at the Ogunquit Playhouse.
The board held a first public hearing earlier this month, during which the Ogunquit Playhouse’s Executive Artistic Director Brad Kenney explained that existing zoning regulations prevent the “ability to expand and renovate the Ogunquit Playhouse.”
“It’s been enhancing our community and beyond for generations. This legacy must be preserved,” Kenney said. “It is symbiotically with this community. We need to preserve it, our property, our historic resources, and also our natural resources.”
The proposed zoning ordinance amendment would create a shoreland general development district, that would preserve the Playhouse properties on Route 1 for use as a “nonprofit performing arts theater or ancillary uses.” Business/professional office use would also be allowed to accommodate the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce, which sits in the proposed district.
“We must change the zone to take care of this unique and cultural resource,” Kenney said.
The Playhouse hopes for the proposed zoning amendment to go before voters in June. The Select Board’s second public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16 at the Dunaway Center.
The Ogunquit Playhouse Foundation board has been working on a strategic plan for the past several years, Kenney said, that includes updating and expanding facilities. In creating the plan, the foundation held a number of charrettes and workshops, speaking with stakeholders, businesses, residents, volunteers, and others about the future of the Playhouse, he said.
The strategic plan includes specific action steps, Kenney said, including enhancing the physical facilities and infrastructure “to support the best possible experiences for our audiences, actors, crews and staff while preserving the Playhouse as an historic landmark,” providing a “distinctive high-quality theater experience that attracts exceptional artistic talent and patrons of all ages and diverse backgrounds across the region and beyond,” and offering “exceptional and accessible” educational programs that “engage young people and broaden their perspectives.”
This all must be done while meeting ADA requirements and basic life and safety standards, he said. Currently, there are no sinks in the restrooms backstage, the “tight” lobby offers no restroom facilities for someone in a wheelchair without having to go outdoors, and the Playhouse’s housing facilities are aging rapidly and there are not enough of them to house actors, he said, citing some of the issues.
“It’s certainly one of the most famous summer stock theaters in the country. We’ve been looking very closely at where we are going to take our community and stewardship of this Playhouse. It is a stewardship of not only a cultural building, but an historic infrastructure and foundation and also an environmental stewardship of the property that we sit on with so many acres sitting along the beautiful Josias River,” Kenney said.
The plans Kenney discussed are a “concept,” he said. “These are not building drawings, we are not breaking ground. We cannot save our Playhouse in the current zone. We’ve got to fix the zone first and so we had to get a plan together to think about what was possible,” he said.
If the zone is approved, proposed designs would have to go through the town approval process, he said. Plans currently include returning a fly tower to the Playhouse, Kenney said, that is estimated at 85 feet in height. “From Route 1, you’re talking 67 feet from current grade,” he said.
The lobby space would be enhanced and expanded, Kenney said, with ADA compliant restrooms.
The Playhouse’s current set shop sits in the resource protection zone. Kenney said the plan would be to relocate it to what is currently the field to the right of the Playhouse. “We’re going to preserve that building. It will be reworked as a multi-purpose use,” he said.
Set and costume creation, which now happens off site, is envisioned to be returned to the Playhouse property, Kenney said. There would also be appropriate offices for administrative staff, he said.
Parking areas would be “grass and pervious materials, if feasible,” Kenney said. “Think of beautiful grass but you’re able to park on it. We do not want you to have to deal with paved parking. I don’t believe it’s right for the town and neither does anyone on behalf of the Playhouse. There is technology to do pervious, green surfaces. Let’s use them.”
The Ogunquit Playhouse opened in 1937, Kenney said, and was “built to be a state of the art building rivaling theaters of its day. Our stewardship here is to carry that message forward.” The current structure is actually the “second of two Playhouses.” In November of 1950, a storm destroyed the rear of the Playhouse, including the original fly tower which Kenney said was built to “rival Broadway theaters of its day” but was never restored to what it was.
The strategic plan includes “need-based renovations to the Playhouse,” Kenney said.
“It will not continue the way it is. It cannot do it,” he said. “We’ve got to improve this building in a way that you’re proud that you’ve left this behind for your kids or your grandkids or whoever buys your house next. These are needs-based.”
During the Select Board public hearing, some community members urged the board to let the voters decide, while others asked for more time to review the proposal.
“One of the things that makes this town special is the fact that we have a lot of love for it. I can’t think of anything in this town that symbolizes that love more than the Ogunquit Playhouse,” said one Perkins Cove Road resident. “Move this onto the ballot. Let the voters decide.”
Resident Barbara Ferraro asked why a zoning ordinance amendment is proposed, rather than a contract zone. “This decision to move ahead now should not be a popularity contest but one that looks at what is best for this project, what is best for the Playhouse, what is best for the town,” she said. “Let’s move forward together and look at that together. To do this and put this off until November won’t be a crime. It will be a responsible decision for both parties involved.”
In a letter read by Marsha Northrop, resident Patience Sundaresan said if the zone is approved and the Playhouse project moves forward, “there is no going back. We will not get a do over.” She expressed concern that a fly tower at 85 feet “will forever alter the roofline of the current historical Playhouse” and asked whether the relocated barn and other buildings will “dwarf the historical building that is the actual Playhouse.”
“We must fully consider the implications of this project and how it may impact the town before any vote takes place for a permanent zoning change,” she said. “Productions at the Playhouse are truly world-class. So I must ask, is there a way to have world-class Broadway on the inside of the Playhouse while creating an exterior aesthetic that still looks as if it belongs in Ogunquit?”