From left: Todd Hanson, principal; North Sturtevant, CEO; and Anne Weidman, director of community engagement. Photo by Christine Carignan.
JSA Design’s mission is to make communities accessible to all. And when COVID-19 shut down indoor dining, it used that expertise to help restaurants survive the pandemic.
For the past 40 years, this architecture firm has been located in Portsmouth, a hospitality hub with more restaurant seats than residents. When the pandemic forced eateries to close except for takeout, Anne Weidman, JSA’s director of community engagement, joined and became the spokesperson for a team of 25 local architects, planners, engineers and other experts, dubbed them the Portsmouth Design Professionals Alliance, and provided pro bono design services to help the city and its restaurants develop safe outdoor dining.
Under the leadership of Weidman and landscape architect Robert White, the Alliance helped the Portsmouth Citizens Response Task Force hold nightly charettes, and produced a 50-page workbook for re-opening Portsmouth, allowing the city to approve outdoor dining areas for 26 restaurants. In 2021, JSA is refining these spaces to be accessible for those with disabilities and making them usable during winter.
North Sturtevant, the CEO of JSA, shepherded Popup NH, a COVID-safe arts, entertainment and food venue hosted in a public parking lot in downtown Portsmouth. After only 11 weeks in operation, that project injected $132,707 into restaurants and breweries and resulted in ticket sales totaling $49,024. “There is a lot of passion among our people here to support our community,” Sturtevant says. When the pandemic transformed the once bustling streets of Portsmouth into a ghost town, Sturtevant says, “The vibrancy was not there.”
“Restaurants and the arts are the heart and soul of the city. These parallel efforts moved the needle for our community. It was a shot in the arm that was desperately needed,” he says, adding outdoor dining is likely to stay even after the pandemic.
Much of this initiative began in 2016 when JSA Principal Todd Hanson, who uses a wheelchair, and Weidman, with the help of IT Director William Tucker, launched Access Navigators, to help people with mobility challenges plan a visit to Portsmouth. By early 2020, Access Navigators had examined hundreds of restaurants and attractions across New England, reporting on the accessibility of the entry, the usability of the interior space, the accessibility of the rest rooms and the best accessible parking.
JSA and Access Navigators also work with business owners to educate them about best practices and that accessibility brings them new customers. “It opens up a whole world that is largely shut off to people with mobility issues,” Sturtevant says.
Despite the pandemic, JSA, which has 25 employees, has remained busy. The firm is also known for its work designing senior living communities, which took a hit this year, but the firm has a diversified portfolio that includes hospitals, colleges and universities, affordable and market rate housing, and more than 2,500 homes for military families on bases around the country.