Re: Rhapsodizing about Retrofit (Stu)
From: Fred H. Olson (
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 13:16:57 -0600
Stuart Staniford-Chen   stuart [at]  (or stanifor [at]
is the author of the message below but due to a problem it was posted
by Fred the list manager: owner-cohousing-L [at]
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Fred H. Olson wrote:

> On Sat, 7 Feb 1998, Joani Blank wrote:
> >
> > I've visited N Street, and I think it would be an thoroughly delightful
> ..
> > But I have some words of
> > caution for those of you who occasionally rhapsodize about N Street or read
> > here the rhapsodizing of others.
> Joani,
>   Thanks for the dose of realism.  I agree that the time required to

Having lived in N St for a number of years, and having been peripherally
involved in Marsh Commons building process (building houses from scratch),
I'm perhaps better placed to comment on this than most people.  Enough
anyway to drag me out from what I had promised myself was retirement from
this list. 

I concur with Joani that there are things about N St's location that are
necessary to its success.  The one I'd highlight is a high density of
rental property - that makes the houses turn over rapidly which means the
community can grow quickly.  Don't try this in an area which is 90% owned
by people in their 50s.  N St had key burning souls at the outset - Kevin
Wolf and Linda Cloud - but my observation is that most communities have
and need such burning souls.  Certainly Marsh Commons would not have made
it without Joyce Plath.  As well as being necessary to the success of the
venture, the burning souls make a lot of difference to the flavour of the
eventual community. 

I believe that if you want to do organic cohousing, you should conduct a
site search just as you should for a built-from-scratch community.  You
should look for somewhere that has high turnover and where you can find
two or three houses next to each other which are currently for sale or
rent so you can get a decent sized foothold.  City records are your friend
(you can use them to find out whether a place is owner-occupied or not),
as are MLS listings (now on the web at least in my area). 

As to whether it's riskier or not to try an N St style process - there
isn't a simple answer.  To my mind, it's a little less likely to lead to a
successful community, but also much less personally risky for the people
who try it.  If you buy individual houses at market rate and take fences
down between them, you aren't taking much of a personal financial risk. 
In the worst case, you can always put the fences back up and sell the
houses for the same price as you bought them for.  Similarly, buying an
apartment building is something many investors do out of rational
self-interest.  As long as you don't overpay, you are at no worse risk
than them.  This is not the case with conventional cohousing developments
which involve a significant personal financial risk to those involved (I
admit Marsh Commons probably colors my view on this and they are about the
worst case - finding toxic waste on the site while digging the foundation

One very important advantage of the N St process is that, although it may
take 10 years to get to maturity, those involved are living in community
from the beginning - as soon as there's two houses (or even one house!),
people can be eating together, gardening together, deciding together with
their neighbours how they want their community to evolve.  In contrast,
the conventional process involves an average of four or five years from
initial slide-show to move-in.  During that lengthy time, you have a lot
of meetings, uncertainty and worry, and limited benefits of community. 

The most important decider will be this though:  how upscale do you want
your place to be?  Organic cohousing must (I believe) happen in low -
moderate income neighbourhoods, apartment buildings, etc.  As a result,
and because of it's nature as an ongoing process, it's going to have a
certain funky, hand-made look. 

By contrast, most new cohousing developments are kind of
dream-house-architect-big-splash places that cost a lot of money.  They
are beautiful, but you have to be in the small fraction of the population
of this country that can afford to buy a house, and not usually on the
very bottom rung of that ladder either.  (I know there are exceptions such
as Southside Park, but they are just that, exceptions). 

So if your dream is at least in part about living in a beautiful
architecturally impressive neighbourhood, you should definitely stick to
building something new (or very extensively converting existing buildings
a la Doyle St). 

If you are more interested in creating community quickly or in
low-moderate income areas and don't care about looking somewhat upscale
(or even have some reverse-snobbishness about that), the organic route has
to be worth a serious look. 

(Of course, the alternative for low income communities is to persuade
government to subsidize you to build houses you otherwise wouldn't be able
to afford - more power to you if you can pull that off). 

(I note that there's also the lot development model which is different
again, but I don't have any personal experience with it). 

I think the reasons there are a lot more conventional cohousing
communities than organic ones has a lot to do with how much better
conventional cohousing fits into the economic aspirations of middle class
folks.  It's also much easier to market with glossy pictures (it's no
co-incidence that many groups begin with a *slide show*).  I think these
factors are more important than the relative viabilities of the two paths
in making a community. 


Stuart Staniford-Chen.
Asst Adjunct Professor of Computer Science, UC Davis.
Resident, Arcata, CA
Out on the bleeding edge of the telecommuting revolution

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