Drive Cowork at District - New Haven, CT

Whatever Works

Working at home in your PJs sounds pretty great. On the other hand, “after two or three times watching The Price Is Right and… having done all laundry and done all the dishes but having done none of what were supposed to do for work,” you might think twice, says JoHanna Hamilton, who wrote her MBA dissertation on coworking. She now serves as community director of Drive Cowork and chief operating officer for District, a 100,000-square-foot campus in the old CT Transit bus terminal at State and James Streets, where Drive is located.

As Hamilton tells it, coworking began with telecommuting in the 1970s and ’80s. “People loved the idea that they didn’t have to go to the office and that they could work from home.” But for many, loneliness, anxiety and depression set in. Coworking’s second iteration involved setting up camp in a coffee shop or other public space. The trouble is, “when you go to the coffee shop, you put your headphones in. You don’t actually talk to anybody,” Hamilton says. “And we’ve all been on that conference call with the person who forgot to mute themselves at Starbucks, and all you hear is the espresso in the background.”

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Enter coworking 3.0: shared spaces meant specifically for work. New Haven’s offerings run the gamut from small and cozy to big and industrial. What they all have in common is quiet yet communal spaces in order to—as a Drive handout puts it—“GSD,” or “get sh!t done.”

The least expensive and newest of the city’s coworking options is the New Haven Free Public Library’s Ives Squared, a combined business meeting place, maker space and cafe on the building’s main level. On a recent weekday morning, a few patrons could be found in each area, including Robbin Benefield, who, with the help of library technical assistant Celeste Tapia, was working within a virtual reality program on a large, sleek monitor. Tapia says a few people come in regularly to work. In the four months since it opened, Ives Squared has hosted nearly 150 programs about entrepreneurship and technical training as well as 126 one-on-one business consulting sessions, says Ashley Sklar, the library’s public services administrator. The Ives Squared services and spaces are free.

At nonprofit MakeHaven on Chapel Street, where making has always been central to the mission, a coworking pilot program has indicated there’s more demand for work space. Executive director J.R. Logan says four entrepreneurs currently rent dedicated desk space ($250/month) at MakeHaven, and seven more desks are planned for early 2019. But most of MakeHaven’s 250 members work and play with the space’s myriad tools and machinery—woodworking equipment, sewing machines, laser cutters, an injection molder, even an ink printing press—building for-profit projects such as prototypes as well as hobby crafts. “Really the desks are an effort to help people take it to the next step,” Logan says.

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The Range at Lotta Studio in Westville has an artier vibe and a relaxed atmosphere that’s announced on a small chalkboard sign on the front door: “Coffee—photo house—co-workin’.” Here, among cozy upholstered furniture and natural wood surfaces, photographers, videographers, designers, makers and others can bring their own laptop and sit at a communal table for $40 per month or rent a dedicated desk space for $300 to $400 per month, depending on whether they need access to a calibrated monitor for color-correct design and photo work or the flexible studio/gallery space.

At Agora on Chapel Street (formerly The Grove), “art meets social justice.” Co-owner Matt Loter, a.k.a. game designer Matt Fantastic, says Agora is more than just a space for people to rent a conference room, office or desk. He sees it as a “next-generation community center,” a place for “weirdos and artists and creatives” to build community. The name Agora is Greek for a central square or marketplace, setting the communal tone with a nod to Fantastic’s Greek heritage.

Located in the former Horowitz Brothers department store building, Agora’s space is historic and warm, featuring intriguing staircases, creaky floorboards, a painted tin ceiling and the black and gold shaft of what Fantastic says is Connecticut’s oldest operating passenger elevator. At the top of the main stairway is the library and retail space for Elm City Games, which gets rolling at night when many—but not all—of Agora’s coworkers have finished their day. Fantastic and his business partners, Trish Loter and Alex Cutler, took over on September 1 and are renovating and creating new spaces, including a podcast room and an art studio. Social activities include potlucks, game nights and a doodle club. Fantastic says Agora has about 200 members, though the number fluctuates. “My biggest goal with the space is to have one empty chair,” he says. “I want everything to be utilized as best it can.” Monthly coworking costs $200, with dedicated desks starting at $300 and offices at $450.

Social justice is part of the mission at nonprofit hub Whitneyville Cultural Commons, too. Located in Hamden’s Whitneyville neighborhood within a former church and parish house, WCC offers what executive director Robert Sheiman describes as “mission-driven coworking.” WCC, open for coworking on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. ($15 day pass, $75/month, $150/month for a dedicated desk), includes several rentable meeting spaces and is currently home to four churches, seven nonprofits and about 10 individual coworkers with day passes. In the past year, Sheiman says, the space has hosted 100 nonprofit events including trainings, forums, workshops and conferences and 50 arts events, from community theater productions to private music recitals.

Drive Cowork at District, where JoHanna Hamilton works, appears to be the city’s largest coworking space, with 20,000 square feet of small private offices accommodating from two to seven people as well as conference rooms, an open kitchen, plenty of drop-in workspace and some dedicated desk space in common areas. A monochromatic steel-and-glass ambiance is softened by tucked-away padded benches, throw pillows and restaurant-style booths with cushy vinyl seats. Small phone booths scattered throughout provide first-come first-served privacy for phone calls. At Drive, which Hamilton says is 80% occupied, the cost of drop-ins is $29/day or $199 monthly; dedicated desks are $399/month, and private offices are $499 and up, including adjustable desks, small storage units and chairs. Drive’s monthly calendar is mounted on the reception wall, with one clipboard for every day listing activities including a monthly breakfast meet-up, “Lunch and Learns” where companies showcase their work and weekly noontime meditation sessions, to name a few.

Still other coworking spaces abound. Regus, an international “network of workspaces,” lists space in the Connecticut Financial building at 157 Church St as well as other locations around Connecticut. Desk Crashers, located at 129 Church, offers coworking space and, according to its website, a gym. At S*Park Innovation Hub in Science Park, shared work space is available outside several tech-oriented company offices, including access to a conference room, kitchen and wifi. At least two more spaces expected to include coworking are currently in development: the not-for-profit arts incubator NXTHVN at 169 Henry Street and the Hamden Business Incubator on Newhall Street in Hamden.

Coworking may just be a newish twist on an old desire to get out of the confines of traditional office culture, but there’s lots of energy out there. One can only wonder what big ideas are brewing along with the coffee.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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