Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 14, 2011

Cohousing community taking shape in Mountain View

Residents hope to occupy new homes by fall 2013

by Jeff Carr

Designing one's dream home is a lengthy process when 13 families have to agree on everything. So how does the Mountain View Cohousing Community expedite the process? Find six more.

Nineteen households are needed to occupy 19 condo apartments in the innovative new community on Calderon Avenue, the first of its kind on the Midpeninsula.

Even while the group seeks its final few members, though, the project recently crossed a major threshold that may have the concrete pouring sooner than later. After the members received the pass from their development review committee, zoning administrator Peter Gilli officially gave his endorsement on Aug. 24. The Mountain View City Council then gave its approval on Sept. 27, according to Susan Burwen.

The next six months will see the residents bid for a general contractor, seek construction financing and obtain the necessary permits. They hope to accomplish those steps within six months in order to begin construction in spring 2012. Burwen said she and the other residents hope to occupy their new homes by fall 2013, a full decade after the idea was conceived.

In 2003, Burwen and her husband David began discussing the desire to live near friends — a conversation that took on new purpose once they learned about cohousing. Somewhere between a retirement community and a traditional block of single-family homes, cohousing is not particularly new or radical. Burwen called the Mountain View project a "new old-fashioned neighborhood," meant simply for people who wish to engage with their neighbors and reduce their resource consumption.

Freedom runs high in cohousing developments because the residents and the owners are one and the same. That means those who buy into such projects have complete autonomy to design their own floor plans, amenities, common spaces, even laws and policies — as long as everyone agrees.

Like most cohousing communities, units in the Mountain View project will be completely independent and private, with full kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and the works. Residents will have access to common areas, such as a fitness center, media room and gardens, and may participate in communal meals at certain times, but only if they choose to.

At this point, the most fundamental elements have already been determined, though Burwen said many minor features and regulations are not yet set in stone. Each time the group receives new direction to comply with certain regulations, or receives new insight from architect Chuck Durrett, the 13 households must return to the drawing board to tweak their plans by consensus. Tedious as it may be, it's drawn the future neighbors together.

"The process of designing the community together is very bonding," Burwen said.

Denise Pitsch, a retired software engineer, had been interested in cohousing for years, so she was naturally intrigued upon learning of the Mountain View project last year. She said she wanted to stay nearby, yet downsize from her large house in Palo Alto's Crescent Park neighborhood, and she also wanted the security of having a network of friends nearby in case she falls ill. Pitsch joined the community in January. She said she's glad to have jumped on board after most of the initial planning had taken place, and she loves what's been done so far.

"I've enjoyed the meetings, being able to see how these people work together," she said. Burwen noted that the members don't share any specific values, except perhaps an appreciation for close community and environmental responsibility. Naturally, the group is self-selecting. For instance, none of the current parties have young children, so they didn't include such provisions in the plans. Now, young families aren't likely to be interested.

Burwen said the youngest households signed on so far have high school students at home. Most, though, are retirees. There is no age requirement, however, so the residents scoff at terms like "senior housing."

Each of the 13 committed households is local, with none coming from farther away than Half Moon Bay. Even that person is a former Mountain View resident, Burwen said.

Pitsch noted that the location near downtown Mountain View is a major draw, offering local cohousers the opportunity to remain in the area, and giving each the freedom to walk to stores and restaurants.

In order to gauge and gain interest, the community holds monthly socials and informational meetings that are open to the public. Burwen said an important element to the functions is to help prospective members determine for themselves whether or not the existing cohousers are neighbor material. The socials have been effective in attracting potential residents thus far, and the community boasts three or four "very interested parties" at present. Burwen said another purpose of the meetings is simply to educate the public, and especially the rest of the neighborhood, as to what they're up to.

"We're trying to be as open and transparent as can be," she said. "The response has been very positive."

There have been several attempts to form cohousing communities in Silicon Valley, including "at least four or five" in the 1980s, Burwen said. In each instance, the would-be developers had a difficult time finding land. Burwen discovered the Bakotich house on Calderon Avenue in 2007, negotiated with contractors, and purchased it in July 2009. The Burwens then held an outreach event in conjunction with a book-signing by Durrett, the architect, who is somewhat of a cohousing guru, helping to design and advise on such communities worldwide.

Prices for the Mountain View homes will be commensurate with the location, with target prices hovering between $750,000 and $1.25 million. Those who purchase units will own them outright and be able to sell them whenever and however they wish. Estimated square footage runs from about 1,350 to 1,980, with several distinct floor plans.

For further information, visit www.mountainviewcohousing.org or contact Denise Pitsch at dpitsch@gmail.com.

Building collaborative neighborhoods

A presentation on cohousing communities will be offered on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 4 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church, 505 East Charleston Road, Palo Alto.

Katie McCamant, a cohousing expert, will be joined by spokespersons from the Mountain View Cohousing Community and Wolf Creek Lodge, a cohousing community in Grass Valley, Calif.

"Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhood. It is like building a new 'old-fashioned neighborhood.' It combines the benefits and features of private homes with design that fosters social contact and community activities," Denise Pitsch wrote in an email.

Sign-in for the free event begins at 3:15 p.m., and advance reservation is recommended. To reserve a place, call 650-479-6822.

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