The Historic Preservation Board last week deemed the planned redesign of Bramhall Square as appropriate for the Congress Street Historic District. Contributed / Mitchell Associates and Acorn Engineering

Final design work is underway to revive historic Bramhall Square, the small brick plaza at the corner of Congress Street and Deering Avenue in Portland.

Neighbors started work a decade ago to breathe new life into the plaza on the western end of the Congress Street Historic District. Last week, the Historic Preservation Board gave the design plan a certificate of appropriateness, agreeing that the proposal fits in with the historic character of the neighborhood.

The square will have granite benches, new landscaping, an added bus shelter, bicycle racks, new string lighting and new infrastructure work in hopes of making it a safer and more usable part of the Parkside neighborhood. Contributed / Mitchell Associates and Acorn Engineers

The square was the site of the first execution under the federal death penalty in June 1790 when Thomas Bird, 40, was tried and found guilty of piracy and the murder of Cap. John Connor. Today it is the site of several wooden benches, large Linden trees and a bus stop, and it’s largely underused.

The goals of the redesign, which is being funded through a $100,000 donation from Maine Medical Center and $150,000 in city funds, are to make the property a safer and a more attractive place for people to spend time. It includes adding bicycle racks and granite benches, installing new lighting and landscaping and improving storm water runoff. A bus shelter will be added to the Congress Street side of the plaza.

The plan builds off a 2017 design competition that was held to come up with a new vision for the property.

“I think it is going to be a really wonderful improvement to the area,” said Historic Preservation Board member Julie Tate.

Emma Holder, president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association, agreed.

“We are glad to have an improved green space,” Holder said. “One with more light. One with more public art and one that includes another node in the parks along Congress Street.”

Liz Trice, owner of Peloton Labs, a co-working space on Congress Street that abuts the plaza, sees an improved square as a public outdoor place for neighbors and friends to meet, something that is lacking in that section of the city.

“The city is so dominated by cars,” she said. “This can be a little oasis where people can wait for the bus, where people walking by can relax for a minute or could even meet a friend or neighbor.”

Work has been underway for awhile to revitalize Bramhall Square, a small plaza on the corner of Congress Street and Deering Avenue. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Historic Preservation Program Manager Deb Andrews wrote in a memo to Historic Preservation Board members, “unlike the plazas at Longfellow Square and Monument Square, which were formally designed and planned to enhance an important civic monument, it appears that the open space at Bramhall Square was never intentionally or comprehensively designed.”

Braden Drypolcher, a landscape architect with Mitchell and Associates who is helping to redesign the square, said ADA access issues, including uneven sidewalks and a curb on Congress Street, will be fixed with the new layout.

Art on the site could take the form of a customized bus shelter or stand-alone piece. Mike Trembley, an engineer with the Public Works Department who is serving as the project manager, said the city is open to the possibility of using the bus shelter as the art piece, as long as Greater Portland Metro is as well.

A unique piece of plaza art already exists: Local artist Chris Miller wrapped an electrical box with a mural that depicts the history of the square. Trice is excited to see more art in the square, which was something that also created excitement during the design competition, she said.

The proposal for the art piece and a final design for lighting needs further approval from Historic Preservation Board.

Board Chairperson Peggy Pollard said the plan has “evolved beautifully,” but she remains concerned about the plantings that are planned and wants to see them carefully selected and maintained.

“There is a lot of thought about providing green areas throughout the city that are not maintained or appropriate for our climate,” she said. “I can’t figure out what the answer is. These areas ends up looking really shabby if they are not maintained. This is a beautiful design that could be tremendously undermined if the plantings fail.”

Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director said there is no timetable for construction. The plan is currently not listed in the city’s capital improvement plan, but Grondin said “our goal is to have a plan at the ready should funding become available.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” Holder said. “It would be nice to see some movement on it soon.”

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