Home Cooking

Several innovative cohousing projects are simmering in Tucson. The first results are already dished up.

Leslie Hunten is relaxing on the couch in the living room of her new townhouse. It's a comfortable white-tiled space with the open plan typical of new houses, kitchen flowing into dining room into living room. But what she most likes about her new place is the view out the big south-facing windows.

"I love sitting in my house," she says. "I can see everything. It's perfect for me."

It's not that Hunten is especially nosy; it's just that what's outside her windows is so entertaining. True, there's no mountain view of the kind so prized by Tucsonans--for that she has to go to her north-facing bedroom on the second floor. And the fledgling cacti and sapling trees have the raw look of new plantings.

Here's what's out of the ordinary. There's not a car or even a street anywhere in her line of sight. In their place is a parade of humans of all ages, venturing out in the heat of late afternoon under cover of clouds, each and every one of them on foot.

Walking across a wide green lawn are a mother and toddler hand in hand, the little one trundling a pool toy. A neighbor who's also a carpenter is puttering around outside the "common house," a straw-bale extravaganza painted a vivid mustard. He's putting the final touches on a sun-dappled kitchen and dining room big enough to serve up to 100 people. A woman on her way home from work stops to chat and gauge his progress, while a white-haired retiree putters around inside, inspecting the new cabinets. And at the swimming pool on the far end of the green, a circle of moms and little kids bounce in the cool water, singing a melodious song whose notes drift back to Hunten at her command post on the couch.

"It already feels like such a strong community or a village or a tribe," Hunten says with satisfaction. "There's such a feeling of closeness and belonging. ... The support for parents here is wonderful."

Though it sounds like a neighborhood where people have been greeting each other from their front porches for years, it's not. In fact, Sonora Cohousing is brand-new, just one year old, the first cohousing community in Tucson; it tied with Manzanita Cohousing in Prescott for first cohousing in the state.

For Americans who delight in the single-family house nearly obliterated by a multi-car garage, cohousing is a challenging concept. Born in Denmark in the late '60s, when traditional villages and urban neighborhoods were giving way to the isolating suburb, the idea is to foster neighborliness through intelligent design. Doing away with the almighty garage and driveway and even street is the practical part, while softening up the harshness of capitalistic private property with commonly held amenities is the idealistic part.

Families own their own houses, which they are free to sell as they please, but they also own a share of the land and such goodies as a common house and pool. They have private postage-stamp back yards, and their own small kitchens, but cohousers typically eat together in the common house several nights a week. Residents plan and run their own neighborhoods, and in intense workshops they start developing the longed-for sense of community long before move-in day.

"That's the way of cohousing, a lot of meetings," sighs Debbie Blackman, a future resident of Milagro in the Tucson Mountains. "But they're also like investing in your friendships."

AN INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY for the post-hippie age, a little closer to condo than commune, cohousing only started taking off in the 1990s in the United States. Current estimates now run to about 60 communities nationwide. The movement has just lately gained momentum in Tucson. Sonora, an urban infill project at Roger Road and First Avenue, opened in June 2000--seven long years after Hunten started trying to interest her fellow Americans in this new way of living. The second one, Milagro, under construction on a piece of pristine westside desert, is expected to open in October, and a third infill community, Stone Curves, is proposed for a slice of land on Stone around the corner from Sonora.

Even Rio Nuevo, the big-ticket project city planners hope will transform Tucson's downtown, has a cohousing component on its list of proposals. (All housing in Rio Nuevo would be funded privately.)

Cohousing is "an encouraging sign that people believe in getting a better quality of life by sharing it with other people," says John Jones, the city's Rio Nuevo point man. He thinks it will fit right in with the pedestrian scale of the project's future paths, plazas and museums on the west bank of the Santa Cruz.

Sonora qualified for waivers of city fees, he says, not only because it's in a low-income neighborhood, but because it embodies the principles of Livable Tucson.

"Those goals include greater accessibility by means other than the automobile," Jones says.

There's nary a garage in sight at Sonora Cohousing. Cars are banished to covered parking in two narrow lots consigned to the far sides of the 4.9-acre plot. Its 36 houses are grouped into townhouse blocks, and pedestrian walkways curve between them. Every day, resident Martha DePauli says, after some mom time, her kids rush out the door--safely--to join the throngs of neighbor kids piloting a collection of plastic trikes and scooters that could rival the wares at Toys R Us.

"Cohousing is a way for me to bring that thing about extended family that I miss," says DePauli. She and her husband gave up a single-family house on busy Blacklidge in central Tucson in favor of a smaller Sonora townhouse. They wanted to give their two young children an approximation of their own childhoods in close-knit neighborhoods. Growing up in an extended Italian family in New Mexico, she says, "My grandma lived down the street, my aunts and uncles were in the same town. I had a sense of comfort that I worried my kids wouldn't have. This gives us a sense of place."

That place is an eye-catching collection of two-story rowhouses in pungent desert colors: mustard yellow, chocolate tinged with pink, and a slate blue echoing the hues of the Catalina Mountains to the north. Sloping corrugated metal roofs provide a touch of regional architecture. Its two stories are typical of cohousing, whose dense clusters of homes free up open space to be used in common. The wide swath of green lawn at the center of the community has been in only a month, but it's already heavily used by kids. On the day Hunten was looking out her windows a tent was on the lawns, a leftover from a teen sleepover the night before. And in the future community garden at Sonora's north end, some volunteer watermelons are thriving untended.

A teen room where adolescents in angst can boom their music as loud as they want stands alongside the Common House, and so does a craft room, guest room and bath, laundry room, pool and hot tub. Scott Bird, resident dancer, carpenter and tileman, says the common house will eventually host community dinners several nights a week.

"We have dinner clubs for now," he says. Bird, who renovated the property's original 1940s adobe house for himself, complete with sprung dance floor and trapeze, is one of a number of singles who thrive in the family-friendly atmosphere. As his neighbor Freda Johnson, a water consultant, puts it, "This place has a lot of little naked babies running around," but it's good for people in all phases of life. Sonora has empty-nesters like Johnson as well as several sets of grandparents who've bought houses up the walkway from their grown children and grandkids. One family, James Hamilton and Diane DiSimone, even built an in-law apartment on their first floor for DiSimone's father, Jack.

"I feel great about having moved here," Johnson says. "My kids are grown up. But it's family-friendly. It's great. Children come over to visit. I wouldn't like to live by myself without this kind of interaction. It's a nice rich environment."

But an environment this rich and this nice is not easy to create.

BACK AROUND 1987, LESLIE Hunten was marooned in a house in the desolate reaches of Tucson's far suburbs, staying at home with an energetic little boy and a brand-new baby girl. Her husband, Mark, an engineer, went off to work each day, and like many modern mothers Hunten was "feeling isolated and lonely. The northwest side was awful. The houses were far apart." She happened to come upon a new book written by a pair of Berkley architects who have since become the gurus of cohousing in America.

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett detailed the couple's study of cohousing communities in Denmark. Filled with glossy pictures of families desporting themselves in landscaped walkways between charming Danish houses and eating dinner together in rooms full of blond wood furniture, the book explained that "things that people once took for granted--family, community, a sense of belonging--must now be actively sought out. ... The cohousing concept reestablishes many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of late twentieth century life."

Hunten had grown up in Tucson in the postwar years, moving frequently, never staying anywhere long enough to really know her neighbors. She was enthralled.

"I knew instantly that (cohousing) was where I needed to go," she remembers. "I always had a longing for community."

So she set about to create a utopia of a kind most people in Tucson had never heard of. (The word is not misplaced. McCamant and Durrett assert that Thomas More's Utopia, written in 1516, imagined the first cohousing community: an ideal village of 30 households living in joined houses, gardens at the rear.) At first Hunten and a group of friends would dreamily talk about it over potlucks; when that effort petered out, Hunten reached out to strangers. She ordered a slide show from the CoHousing Company, McCamant and Durrett's firm, and placed a notice in the Tucson Weekly classifieds. She held her first presentation June 1, 1993, at the Woods Library, which, in an odd bit of prescience, stands just around the corner from Sonora.

"I got 45 people at the slide show--it was huge. They were so excited to talk about it and think about it."

Hunten didn't know then how long it would actually take to get to stucco and stick. By the time the family moved into their new house in October 2000, Hunten was no longer a stay-at-home mom. She was pursuing a master's in social work; her little boy had turned 16 and her baby girl 13. They had missed out on the blissful freedom enjoyed by their new neighbors' little children, whose parents allow them far more liberty than in neighborhoods where cars rule.

"My kids are sort of happy; there are not too many kids in their age group," she says ruefully. "The 2- to 5-year-old crowd really dominates this place. The 10- to 12-year-olds are always out playing on the straw bales."

Sonora Cohousing could be a textbook case of the challenges a prospective community must surmount.

To social critics on the lookout for creeping socialism, the idea is subversive. After Tucson Parent published a story on Hunten's initial efforts, an irate reader complained to its advertisers that the paper was promoting communism. And the group itself, originally called the Tucson Neighborhood Development Corp., got "stuck in discussion mode" for years. Along the way, people who simply couldn't wait for a new home dropped out, or they moved away. Even the pioneering Huntens relocated for a time, to Hawaii, and weren't sure whether they'd come back to Tucson.

There were disagreements over location. Steve Farley, the artist and light rail advocate, and his wife, Regina Kelly, whose nonprofit Voices, Inc. runs oral history projects, were early and enthusiastic participants. Proponents of downtown revitalization, they had pushed hard for a site in Armory Park and dropped out when the group optioned the Roger Road land.

"Nationally, in cohousing, this is where people leave the group--over location," says Kelly. The couple now hope to join the proposed Rio Nuevo project.

People who dreamed of a rural home had formed Milagro. One couple, Sybil Aldridge and John Solso, who constitute a bona fide cohousing love story, switched allegiances. Cohousing advocates both, the pair had met on the Internet ("Cohousing brought us together," says Solso) and decided to seek out a cohousing-friendly city with a warm climate. So they moved to Tucson together and settled in with the Sonrora group.

But after languishing for years in conversation, Sonora finally signed on to a fast-track construction program offered by The CoHousing Company and Colorado developer Jim Leach. (Local architect Marty Floerchinger of FSSB gets co-credit for the design.)

"Sybil and I hung around a little but felt we were giving up too much of the design," says Solso, a retired architect. They turned to Milagro, which had taken the more purist--and financially risky--approach by acting as its own nonprofit developer. (Its architect is Rodney Mackey.)

But at least in the end Sonora's neighbors' were happy to see the cohousers show up.

"We were very intrigued and pleased to have activity of this nature," says 70-year-old Carlos Nagel, a leader in the surrounding Limberlost Neighborhood Association. In fact, Nagel was so impressed he plans on buying into Stone Curves. Sonora "is a community that is very stable, with people who want to be there, from families with small children to a geriatric population. ... All these people struggled to make all these decisions and created a sense of family."

Milagro was not so fortunate. Sonora was a welcome enclave of owner-occupied houses in a low-income ward over-populated by shoddy apartment complexes. By contrast, Milagro intended to put its cohousing-style cluster townhouses on a beautiful piece of desert zoned for three-acre properties. And it is surrounded by neighbors with pricey houses who were none too happy to see them coming.

DRIVE NORTH ON SILVERBELL Road in search of Milagro--the "miracle" community--and you see what cohousing is trying to avoid. On the desert flats on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River, there's a string of the god-awful developments springing up everywhere around Tucson like boxy pink cockroaches. Topped by familiar tile roofs, the standard issue houses have gigantic garage doors as the most significant design feature. Winding roads and driveways as wide as the Great Plains take up most of the land. To make this sorry development, the builders destroyed what neighbor and nurseryman Greg Starr calls a "beautiful creosote desert." They tore out every living plant, piled up dirt as high as 6 feet to counteract the flood plan, Starr says, "and slapped those houses together."

Milagro intended all along to be an aesthetic and ecological haven the exact opposite of the likes of Silverbell's little boxes. The 43 untouched acres the group found along Goret Road are bisected by the Camino de Oeste Wash; the desert here rises and falls in gentle slopes bristling with palo verde, cholla and saguaro. Members committed to what they call their "ecological piece" have even given their little piece of paradise the subtitle "a community in balance with nature."

The houses will have a passive solar orientation; photovoltaic panels will provide cheap solar-powered electricity. Adobe bricks provide for thermal mass, and the community will harvest rainwater and recycle wastewater through their own wetlands. Desert landscaping is the rule, and as many original plants as possible are being preserved. Most importantly, the group is building on just eight acres; the remaining 35 acres will be dedicated to a permanent nature preserve open to the public.

Nevertheless, the neighbors were not impressed. What they saw on the plans were dense townhouses with high rooflines. And they had been burned by a recent rezoning for crackerbox two-story apartment blocks, which had gone up in slipshod fashion just to the northwest of the Milagro land. They opposed the Milagro rezoning.

"There was a fear they'd get the rezoning, the project wouldn't be pulled off, and then they might put in apartments," explains neighbor Carol Starr, a pharmacist.

The city heard the neighbors' objections and turned Milagro down.

So Milagro regrouped and tried to respond to neighbors' complaints. Ultimately, they acquired a right of way from Tucson Unified School District, the owner of a chunk of the land, in order to move the driveway east, away from a dangerous curve in Goret. They proposed to camouflage the 24-foot houses by building them in dirt-colored adobe and giving them muted, desert-green metal roofs. They offered the nature preserve as a public resource, and welcomed the neighbors to walk and ride horses through Milagro's land.

Two sets of neighbors were so persuaded that they decided to sell their houses and buy into Milagro. Carol Starr says that in the end she "really like[s] the idea. It saves energy and is a very environmentally friendly way to live."

The city changed sides, and granted the rezoning. But Starr's husband, Greg, an avid bicyclist, remains concerned about the extra traffic Milagro will generate on Goret's narrow two lanes. And he thinks that Milagro overstates its case on the nature preserve.

"They can't build on the wash anyway," he points out. But the place is now under construction, with the first houses expected to be ready in October.

On a recent blistering noonday, no-action-jackson monsoon clouds drift fitfully overhead, moving toward a Tucson Mountain peak just to the west. Construction vehicles congregate in the cleared patches of the future Milagro, and workers perch high on platforms near the rooflines. They're layering adobes brick by brick, intermittently begging for "agua" to their colleagues below. Earlier in the morning, some stalwart future residents had come out to help build a piece of their own community, digging out water-conserving "swells" along a path to the parking lot. In the heat of midday, TUSD schoolteacher Ellie Crosfield arrives to show some friends the patch of earth where her house will soon rise.

The mother of a grown daughter, she's pleased that the semi-rural community is an easy drive to her job in the city. And she likes the energy-efficient houses, the desert preservation, the permaculture, the passive solar construction. But most of all she's excited about the prospect of living in close communion with neighbors of all ages.

"This is a great idea," she says. "This will be a real community."

SUCH TREASURES DON'T COME cheap. The energy-efficient Milagro houses should benefit by low utility bills in the future, but the up-front price is high for relatively compact townhouses. They range from $200,000 to $350,000, says Debbie Blackman, who will move in with her husband and two sons. Milagro has only 28 houses, compared to Sonora's 36, making each one pricier. The large piece of land and the rezoning battle and resulting construction delays also helped push up costs.

The Blackmans are true believers in cohousing--Debbie Blackman says that she and her husband had actually imagined starting such a community before learning that the idea had already been tried.

"We had the idea we'd like to move out into the desert, but not by ourselves. We thought about a big piece of land with clustered housing and shared facilities like a pool."

So when they heard about the Milagro group in 1996, they joined. And they're willing to leave the tight-knit La Madera Park neighborhood where they've lived for 17 years, bringing along Ken's 80-year-old mother to live in a casita in their back yard. Her biggest concern about the move, says Blackman, is "the price of the houses going up."

The high ticket prices exacted social costs as well. Though cohousing most often attracts young families, the average age of the Milagro residents skews high. Young parents buying their first home could more readily afford Sonora. Houses in the in-town community, though priced above its surrounding low-income neighborhood, came in at a more affordable $90,000 to $240,000, says Leslie Hunten. Thus Sonora became a play-group paradise.

And the two groups fit the standard profile of cohousers as solidly middle class and highly educated, more white than not. Such issues trouble the residents, who tend toward progressive politics. ("I think we have one token Republican," a Sonora resident jokingly confided.)

While Rio Nuevo's cohousing would likely follow the standard format of townhouses and common house, John Jones says he doesn't see why other downtown cohousing communities couldn't be structured as low-cost, owner-occupied apartments. Regina Kelly suggests a little creative thinking to incorporate Section 8--the government subsidy housing program--into cohousing.

James Hamilton thinks he might have another answer. Originally project manager for Milagro, Hamilton switched to project-managing Sonora and ended up buying into the community. On a hazy morning, he sits in the upstairs study of his house, which enjoys a view both of the Catalinas and the periphery parking lot, and outlines a plan for a fast-track community at Stone Curves. The twin goals would be to keep the costs down and attract a more diverse population.

"At Stone Curves, to ease the process, and to ramp it up to full participation, we picked the site," he says, referring to his partners, Colorado developer and local builder Ross McAllister. "I put together the concept and the site plans. And I put together a 70-page process manual" to lead the Stone Curvers through the planning. "What we're saying to the new group is we're not gonna start at ground zero."

For years Hamilton worked with the late legendary architect Judith Chafee, supervising construction of many of her buildings, including her pièce de résistance, the much-admired Rieveschl House. And he hopes to use the lessons she taught him about designing appropriately for the climate. "I got that from her in spades," he says. Confiding that he finds the Sonora design a little too Danish, he wants Stone Curves to follow the Colonial Mission Revival style, along the lines of the Geronimo building on University Place, highlighted by arches and front porches.

Yet to cohousing purists, Hamilton's well-intentioned plans subvert the sacred process, even though he says the buyers will have a chance to discuss all his proposals. Critics argue that residents create emotional community while they plan their future neighborhood themselves. Berkeley architect Charles Durrett has even e-mailed cohousing communities around the country, warning that such schemes smack of co-optation.

"My experience after 30 projects is that the least group involvement the more Brand X. ... The marketers of America will call anything anything in order to sell it. Like the industrial park without the park and the business plaza without a plaza, it is not cohousing without the co."

John Solso, the future Milagro resident, even goes so far as to declare that "Living there is not so important. The process of building is what's important to me. The journey is the thing."

By contrast, Steve Farley, having gone through years of meetings with Sonora without getting a house in the end, says he's not eager to repeat the process.

"I was a true believer," he says. "I became less enamored. I saw it work so badly on a number of issues."

What's most important, he says, is to hammer down a basic design that fosters community, and get people moved in so they can start actually living together as neighbors. And if developers start turning out approximations of cohousing design, so much the better. At least it would be superior to their current ticky-tacky monstrosities.

"If developers do cohousing, that's great," Farley says. "Now they're only doing the three-car garage [neighborhoods]. If it goes mainstream, if it's not pure, it's still better."

IT'S A WET SATURDAY NIGHT, and Tucson's cohousers are partying down. The Sonorans have invited their Milagro confrères to the first-ever, all-cohousing, all-you-can-eat bash. Tables are laden with potluck food, and houses are open for inspection. But a sudden, fabulous monsoon cloudburst crashes down on the Sonora community, scattering cohousers in all directions. The sheets of rain immediately pool into the basins that have been dug everywhere all over the community, a gratifying demonstration of a water-saving project by landscape architect and resident Grant McCormick. Water soaks immediately into the grassy green, a non-desert nod to the community's children; it's been dug as a deep basin that also absorbs water.

The rain stops, and the desert plants, prospering everywhere along front porches and pedestrian pathways, glisten wetly in the glow of twinkling footlights. Desert dwellers that they are, the cohousers are delighted by the rains and the evening grows more giddy. Soon they're in the not-yet-finished common house sharing building horror stories. Then they begin to sing cohousing songs that somebody's typed up for the occasion.

Based on "The 12 Days of Christmas," there's a "hopeful version" and a "disaster version." The latter runs along the lines of "three weird new neighbors ... four zoning hassles ... five cost overruns," while the hopeful ruminates on "eight darling children ... nine painted faces ... 10 common meals ... 11 builder wonders ... and a certificate of occupancy."

Leslie Hunten, a few days earlier, had mentioned cohousers' penchant for silly songs.

"There are so many funny, goofy things that go on. We have pool parties at night at 9 p.m. and floating candles in the pool."

She smiles.

"I've been missing this all my life."

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