Cohousers, neighborhood association face off over commercial development 

Growing pains accompany community building

click to enlarge Members of the Colorado Springs Cohousing Community on their "village" site. - SCOTT LARRICK
  • Scott Larrick
  • Members of the Colorado Springs Cohousing Community on their "village" site.

Friction surfaced last week in a heretofore congenial relationship between Upper Shooks Run residents and a group intending to build an "intentional living community" on a 4.7-acre tract in the neighborhood of Columbia and Corona streets.

The Colorado Springs Cohousing Community has made a down payment on the million-dollar property -- formerly the site of Pikes Peak Greenhouses -- and filed a development plan that includes 30 to 40 residential units, a "common house" for communal functions, parking areas and a community garden.

Many neighbors, however, were upset to learn at an Aug. 22 meeting with the cohousers that the development plan also proposes up to 12,000 square feet of office and retail space.

"Most of the neighbors support the project and like the people involved in it," explained Robert Macri, president of the Patty Jewett Neighborhood Association, which represents the area. "At the same time, few us want to see 12,000 square-feet of office and retail space brought into the neighborhood."

"The neighbors threw a fit," said Becky Cramer, another area resident. "Of the 50 or so present at that meeting, only four or five were OK about the [proposed] commercial use."

But City Planner Steve Tuck, also a Shooks Run neighbor, notes that cohousing projects have raised neighborhood property values wherever they've gone up, and argues that limited, low-impact commercial usage will be an asset to the neighbors.

Urban villages

Neighbors worry that a booming downtown is driving a wave of commercial expansion that could sweep into their long-established neighborhood and destroy its residential character, bring about school closures and result in loss of historic structures and affordable housing.

Their anxiety is fueled in part by a recent Downtown Partnership proposal to expand the Business Improvement District into a 90-block area that would encompass most of the near North End.

The Colorado Springs Cohousing Community, however, is not a commercial enterprise. It is part of an "intentional living" movement that promotes intergenerational, kid-friendly, ecologically responsible urban "villages" -- typically 15 to 35 residences -- laid out around a "common house" where everyone can meet, interact and share communal meals several times a week.

Cohousers differ from the '60s-style communards in that they buy their residences (which typically cost from $150-270,000) and pay monthly dues of $100-150.

Cohousing strives for a middle-class lifestyle grounded in ethnic, economic and social diversity, cooperative problem-solving and consensus decision-making. With a shared perception of the irrelevance of traditional single-family housing developments designed for the 1950s family model, cohousers foster an extended family paradigm of intergenerational, cooperative living.

The movement is growing by leaps and bounds. There are 44 cohousing villages in the United States with another 160 under construction and a waiting list of 15,000 people.

To date, the Springs group includes 17 households. Among their number are two M.D.s, a technical writer, a retired Army careerist and business owner, a Web site designer, a UCCS prof, a D-11 teacher, a retired hospice nurse, a feng shui consultant, a communications specialist with the city, a pharmacist, a corporate secretary and a couple of naturopathic psychotherapists.

A good fit

The property owner, Tim Haley, says that a number of individuals, groups and commercial interests were competing to purchase the land, including a developer wanting to put in prefab housing. Haley opted for the Cohousing Community because he believes "they're a good fit for the neighborhood."

"I like these people," he said. "They put a higher value on community than on hot tubs and three-car garages, and I think it's healthy that they have a variety of incomes and backgrounds. I cut them some slack on the price and negotiated with them more than I would have with a lot of other people."

Glen Nagel and his wife live two houses away from the cohousing community site, and they plan to live in the project once it's built. As both a longtime neighbor and prospective cohouser, Nagel defends the projected commercial-use aspect.

"Speaking as a cohouser," he said, "this is prime urban infill close to downtown. It was appraised at $1.2 million. We included a commercial component because if we don't find to find a way to hold down costs, the units could end up costing $250,000 and up, which would exclude a lot of lower-income people we'd like to see included.

"Speaking as a neighbor," he continued, "I like the old-fashioned mixed-use neighborhoods like the kind that had a mom-and-pop corner grocery store, a bicycle repair shop up the block, and a delicatessen across the street. As it is, Butch's Auto Repair has been in our neighborhood for years. A lot of neighbors use it and consider it a community asset."

In response to the neighbors' concerns, Nagel reports, the cohousing group has decided to scale back the commercial footage, and they've pledged that whatever ends up there will be neighborhood-friendly. "The ground floor will be low-impact retail like a florist or coffee shop, with professional offices on top," he said.

"Keep in mind," added fellow cohouser Tim Burke, who is a communications specialist for the city, "that we want this to be the most wonderful neighborhood we've ever lived in. We'll be living there, too. Whatever goes in will be closer to us than to anyone else."

The cohousers have hired Boulder-based Wonderland Hill Development Company, the nation's foremost expert in cohousing construction, to design and build their "village," and they report that the purchase deal could be closed as early as next month.

"Our community can be a showpiece of the New Urbanism," said Nagel. "We should be thinking about growth issues in these terms."

"I think this can be a really good thing," added Macri. "It's a matter of making it work for both of us. I believe it will. I'm hoping it will."


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