A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Public Space meets Work Space in Bramhall Square

Bramhall Square is a neglected public space on the West End that's had a hard time living up to its potential. It has a lot going for it: it occupies a prominent place at the junction of several neighborhood streets, and is a kind of gateway to the historic West End for anyone coming into town from the west. It's also a short walk away from the Maine Medical Center, the city's largest employer and a 24-hour hub of activity.

But it also has serious shortcomings. A dense thicket of trees and 70s-vintage park benches make the Square feel dark and neglected. Even though there are lots of historic buildings in the area, the Square's pedestrian space, along the eastern edge of the square, is defined by squat, uninteresting buildings. Things were a lot better three years ago, when Percy's Cycles provided a public gathering spot for people who could drop in and learn a few things about bike repair, and Binga's Wingas next door was a boisterous neighborhood pub. But Percy moved out (he's just partnered up to start a new shop on Parris Street) and Binga's burned down. For the past couple of years, then, the Square's been characterized by a string of marginal businesses and this burned-out eyesore:

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Now, independent developer Peter Bass is putting together a creative new project that would replace the fire-damaged Binga's Wingas building with something that could go a long way towards re-invigorating the Square with new life.

Above: a sketch plan of the proposal from the City's Historic Preservation Board, by Archetype Architects. Bramhall Square is to the left.

Bass is proposing Portland's first office building that would be solely dedicated to "coworking" - shared workspace for freelancers, consultants, and other individuals who need an alternative to working from home. Users would save on overhead costs by sharing things like a conference room, kitchen, wifi, and office equipment, and benefit from an increase in social and professional interactions.

The Cooltown Studios blog has written a lot about coworking projects elsewhere, and how buildings like these can cultivate a city's creative economy by giving freelancers and other workers a more formal, affordable, and collaborative place to do their work.

By replacing an empty eyesore with a dynamic working space - one where workers are likely, on nice days, to bring their flexible, wireless offices outside into the Square - Bass's proposal could also do a lot to bring life and vibrancy back into Bramhall Square.

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