Groups envision cooperative living in cohousing design

Living spaces are privately owned, supplemented by common areas.

Anchorage Daily NewsApril 28, 2012 

Two groups in Anchorage are designing a new type of neighborhood that aims to recapture the community feeling many American towns used to have when houses were closer together and neighbors often socialized together.

One group already has a contract on a six-acre piece of land on Abbott Road near Lake Otis Parkway. A second set of people wants a location closer to downtown, and is looking in Midtown and West Anchorage.

The plans call for smaller-than-average houses to be clustered next to green space, natural areas and paths with parking and possibly garages on the perimeter. Participants will own their homes but everyone will share the ownership of the land, a community house and whatever else the residents choose to build.

It's called cohousing.

"Cohousing is really just a neighborhood designed by the future residents to encourage the neighbors to run into each other and therefore to get to know each other," said Terri Pauls, an environmental educator and one of the first Anchorage residents to begin working on cohousing.

This is part of a national movement that Anchorage founder Mary Miner, a longtime civil engineer, learned about when she came across a book on cohousing at Title Wave Books last summer. She called the authors, who agreed to come to Anchorage to make a presentation last November, which led to the birth of an Alaska branch of the movement.

Miner said she and her husband, Mark, a Trailside Elementary School teacher, have been looking for a place to live for four years. They live on the upper Hillside. They have a son who for medical reasons can't drive, and there's no bus service where they live. But they haven't been able to find the new home, closer to bus routes, they were looking for.

"I realized we weren't looking for a house so much as a neighborhood," she said.

She thinks they found it in cohousing.

To help get a development going, Miner put down money on a six-acre piece of old homesite land that sits between subdivisions on the north side of Abbott Road. It's about halfway between Lake Otis and Elmore Road.

Their goal is to put together 30 households. So far they have 10, including her and the Miners, committed to the project, Pauls said, They're scheduled to close on the purchase of two of the six acres in June. After that, they'll have 15 months to buy the rest.

From June 2 to 5, they'll have a workshop to lay out what goes where on the site, Pauls said. Their targeted move-in date: spring or early summer 2014.

Susan Orlansky, a lawyer in the cohousing group looking for a west-side location, said that group has about 15 households, and members are negotiating on two sites.

Both groups are after the same thing, she said: a neighborhood where you do things with your neighbors.

She said she is an empty-nester and divorced.

"I love the idea of waking up Saturday morning, wandering over to the common house, seeing somebody at the bike rack, and saying, 'Can I go along?' "

The cohousing units will be treated as condos in a planned unit development, a classification that allows for customized development, said senior city planner Karen Iverson.

The Abbott houses are expected to range from about 800 to 1,600 square feet, Pauls said. They will be more expensive than similar-sized houses elsewhere because you have to take into account the shared green space, community house and any other amenities. At the same time, householders won't need as many rooms because they'll have the use of the larger building, she said.

The group is still working on its budget and doesn't have cost figures to share yet, she said.

A community house with neighborhood dinners at least twice a week is at the heart of cohousing, Pauls said.

The Abbott community house will feature space for all to join in dinners or meetings, a kids' playroom, likely guest bedrooms, maybe a workshop -- the exact plan depends on what the residents decide.

Typically teams of people in cohousing developments are responsible for different aspects of the community, like landscaping, group dinners and setting pet policy. For example, should cats be allowed to roam or kept indoors? Decisions are made by consensus, Pauls said.

Dealing with pets is a common problem at cohousing units across the country, Miner said.

So how do they handle it when people blow up at each other?

"That's a real opportunity," Pauls said. "People actually agree to try to work out conflict responsibly."

A consensus style of decision-making means you have to listen to everybody, she said.

As the founder of the Alaska Earth Institute and a co-founder of Bioneers here, a conference on sustainability, she would like to see the Abbott project be a model for sustainable living, both physically and socially.

California architects and authors Kathryn McCamant and Chuck Durrett are given credit for bringing the idea of cohousing to America and coining the name. They discovered it while in Denmark in the 1980s.

Since then, they've designed about 50 such neighborhoods out of about 120 in the U.S., Durrett said. They are the ones who sparked the cohousing push in Anchorage with a presentation that drew more than 200 people.


Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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