Developing Community in Portsmouth’s North End


For the past few months, SOMMA Studios has been hard at work reshaping 30 Maplewood Ave. in the northern tip of Portsmouth’s downtown. Formerly home to the administrative offices for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, this beautiful old brick-walled building is being transformed on the inside from drab cubicle space into an exciting and vibrant mixed-use space that will be home to new restaurants and COVE, the new center for cooperative working. On its own, this is an exciting project. But what makes this project even more exciting is how it is playing into the bigger picture of this area’s overall reshaping.

SOMMA Studios founder Jen Ramsey gives an in-depth look at what all this means for the future of Portsmouth’s north end.

Question: With the opening of 3S ARTSPACE, the new Sheraton, and the adaptive reuse project at 30 Maplewood Ave., there’s a lot going on over on the northern tip of town. As one of the designers involved, how do you foresee this area of town shaping up?

Ramsey: It’s interesting. There is a thought that this may become a distinctly cultural end of town. As a vibrant venue for art and music, 3S ARTSPACE has already begun to draw a lot of people in, and with the addition of COVE, we believe even more creative-minded people will begin to frequent the area. We imagine that the Whole Foods project will add to this as well. Overall, we see an area of town rich with cultural activities, colored by public art, inspired by bright, young, creative minds, and that boasts multiple options for fresh, local food.

Question: What has the process looked like behind the scenes so far? With two other design firms also hard at work in that area, has there been a general consensus as to how this area will reshape?

Ramsey: All these things that are happening simultaneously are quite unique, because it is unusual to have three major projects, with three different design teams all focusing on one very small area at once. But yes, the communication has been very open. We are all working together in a way that is collaborative and synergistic. There have been strong, focused efforts to bring new life to this area of town, and we all agree on elements such as public art, green space, and making the area pedestrian friendly. It is really exciting to be working together to build a vibrant, new hub to add to our community.

Question: What have been some of the challenges in redeveloping this area?

Ramsey: There’s a lot of opportunity over there. Which makes everything more exciting. But it also makes everything a little more challenging because you have to give it a second and third thought. In this area, we’re not just trying to fill in little spots amidst pre-existing buildings. There’s a lot of open space, which is to say, it’s more of a blank canvas. Our job, and our responsibility, is to shape what the area will look like for the future.

Question: Could you expand a tiny bit in regards to some things that are different when working with so much space?

Ramsey: Well, for one, more space allows for the buildings in this area to be pulled back off the street a bit. This will allow for more room for sidewalks, and also more room for landscaping. I think we’ll see this area evolve into a really pretty corner of town that is vibrant, green, and open. Also, I know that Whole Foods has planned for a great deal of plantings around their space, and the building will include an outdoor café and a rooftop garden.

Question: Some members of the Portsmouth community have voiced concern over the amount of new development that is occurring throughout the city. They feel that the quaintness and small town feel may dissolve somewhat as newer, bigger developments come into town. What would you say about this is regards to the north end?

Ramsey: Well, one of the things I love about our project at 30 Maplewood Ave. is that it feels very homegrown. So far, everyone involved is very dedicated to the Portsmouth community. As a local design firm, SOMMA is very invested in making this a space that is community-oriented. So far, all of the downstairs tenants are going to be small, local businesses that are cognizant of the fact that Portsmouth is a community that values its local industry. And the upstairs will be residential rental units that will become people’s homes. I think the building will become an extension of an already amazing community, not one that stands to take away or alter it.

SOMMA Studios prides itself on being a vital and complimentary player in their humble Portsmouth community. With strong philosophical ties to adaptive reuse as an operative must, SOMMA will continue striving to create a lasting impression that celebrates the past while existing in the present and looking into the future. The revitalization of Portsmouth’s north end is historic. It’s an exiting time for the community, the region, and all involved in aiding the implementation of this project.