Economic reality spawns new Portland workplace

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PORTLAND — If necessity is the mother of invention, imagination is often its father.

Take the developer Peter Bass, who, as he cast around for a new project in the fall of 2009, found his prospects looking bleak. He had a great deal of experience building affordable condominiums as live-work spaces for artists, but not much experience dealing with tanking economies.

People were losing homes, not buying them. Retail and office tenants were fleeing their buildings in droves.

Like many others, Bass began to rethink his business model.

“In a market where you have few tenants,” he said recently, “you have to operate differently.”

As a developer, Bass tends to work backward in his planning, from identifying a location that captures his attention – in this case the former Binga’s Wingas site at Bramhall Square on Congress Street – to figuring out the site’s best use.

His answer, it turned out, was to build from scratch a new space where the self-employed could work together in a so-called “coworking” community. Though the idea of people sharing workspace is old, coworking as a hot new concept has taken off around the world in just the last five years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 1,200 people in the Portland area work at home. Though there were already a few coworking spaces operating in the city – including Rob Landry’s WYCWAH (“When You Can’t Work at Home”) and the self-described Newbury Street “Collective,” in the old Shaaray Tphiloh synagogue building – most of them were filled to capacity and some had waiting lists.

Bass figured that the coworking market was far from tapped out. He also figured he could turn a profit.

The idea would be to offer a range of options to working people with widely different needs – from those who want a permanent desk (under $400 a month) to those who require nothing more than space at a community table for a few hours a day ($35 for a two-days-a-month gig, for example).

By providing such amenities as wireless internet and copiers, a variety of conference rooms, and a kitchen with an espresso machine, and by selling memberships not unlike those required to work out at a gym, he reasoned that he’d be adding value beyond what the space could net if he were renting to commercial tenants.

Because Bass is an avid bicyclist – he rides from his home in Gorham to downtown Portland whenever possible – he decided to name his venture Peloton Labs, after the scrum of bikers in a road race.

To get a sense of what sort of place he wanted to create, Bass set off with a consultant, Elizabeth Trice, to look at the most innovative such spaces in the country. He and Trice viewed Affinity Lab in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia’s Independents Hall. But it was in Portland, Ore., where the penny dropped the farthest.

“We were inspired by what architects and developers were doing there,” Bass said. “They were purposefully locating buildings to spark redevelopment of neighborhoods and doing really interesting things architecturally.”

He believed that developers were beginning to look seriously at opportunities in the Bramhall Square neighborhood, and did not fail to note that Roxanne Quimby had just redeveloped the old Roma Cafe building down the street. He also believed that he knew the perfect architect – David Lloyd, whose designs include the Blake building near the Customs House in the Old Port.

“That’s what I wanted,” Bass said. “I wanted to have a really striking modern building. I wanted people to drive up Congress Street and say, ‘Oh my god, who put that building up?’ whether they liked it or didn’t like it.”

Once design was underway, Bass hired Trice to create a website and to generate interest in the project, an effort that thus far has managed to bring in nearly 60 members who are interested in the idea.

One of them is Franklin McMahon, a web designer and video producer, who has worked from coffee shops and out of his home for years.

“The advantage over a coffee house is that you can have some permanence,” McMahon said. “You can have lockable offices. You can have a desk-top computer tower, a home base where you don’t have to carry your laptop around. It’s a huge inspiration just to bounce ideas off of people. The beauty is having people doing different things.”

Bass expects Peloton to be up and running by February, and said he can’t wait to see the results.

Beyond the innovative architecture, beyond calculations of the profit necessary to make the building work, it’s the environment produced by the coworking concept itself – the “inspiration” as McMahon calls it; the “bouncing ideas off of people” – that most excites the developer.

“We’re trying to build a community, Bass said, “not just a place to go to work.”

Sidebar Elements

An artist’s rendering of the Peloton Labs building now under construction at Bramhall Square in Portland.

Peloton Labs developer Peter Bass, left, outside the Bramhall Square project with Bill Cuddy, Dorian Tarling and Bill Hart of Portland Builders and architect Kevin Gough.