Multi-neighborhood Cohousing - are they Ecovillages??
From: Chris ScottHanson (
Date: Mon, 10 Apr 2006 09:21:38 -0700 (PDT)

Several years ago we found HUGE unexpected interest in a large mixed use project in the town of Lawrence, MA, just north of Boston. It was going to be called the Duck Mill Ecovillage (in an old building where they used to make the cotton duck for WWII tents), at a bridge called the duck mill bridge.

With the help of Jeanne Goodman and Patti Lautner, we developed the concept for a mixed use, adaptive re-use, 100 unit project, for a large five story old brick mill building (about 140,000 sf) on the Merrimack River (at the heart of the original industrial revolution in the United States.) The site is on the north side of the river, at an interesting old pedestrian/auto bridge, and 420 steps from the new commuter rail stop on the south side of the river. (50 minutes north of Boston by train, 30 minutes by car.) The site also had the potential for significant on site micro-hydro power UNDER the building, using existing penstocks.

When the owner of the building (Chet Sidell) was referred to me he asked me about doing cohousing in his old empty building. I told him it was too big for a cohousing project, but that it might work for a larger, mixed use, multi-neighborhood ecovillage concept. I had no idea at the time that we would get as much cohousing interest as we later did get. I think we had enough people for three coho neighborhoods right from the first meeting.

Demonstrating the interest is a huge first step, in my opinion. Property owners, lenders and civic leaders all needed to see that this could actually work. We invited people to attend a kick off night, presenting the project as a green, sustainable, transit oriented ecovillage, using the cohousing model for the individual neighborhoods within the project.

Yes, I believe strongly that there is an ideal size range for a cohousing neighborhood... 18 to 36 households in my opinion, with a sweet spot at 24 -30 units, and of course there are successful projects out beyond this theoretically ideal range. This ideal range is affected, in my opinion by the urban or rural location of the project, as well. (I think very urban projects can be smaller successfully, and rural projects can be a little larger successfully.)

In Lawrence, we were hoping 20 to 30 people would show up for that intro event. On the evening of the presentation, we lost track as the count went well above 200 people, with standing room only. I think Jeanne Goodman still has the interest data collected that night as about 180 people filled out cards and told us where they heard about the project (NPR sponsorship, newspaper articles, website, etc.), and what they were interested in (lofts, live-work, cohousing, townhouses, environmentally green, etc.)

The initial plan for the project was to create 3 or 4 distinct neighborhoods within the one building, as Patti suggests in an earlier post to this list, each with their own common house, sense of an entry point and sense of identity. I visualized these either as neighborhoods on one floor of the building, or as neighborhoods in a wing of the building - on multiple, spatially connected floors.

Sadly, in the end, the owner backed out, deciding he did not want to participate after all. His building went on the market a year later as part of a three building package, nearly 300,000 sf of space, complicated by parking issues. We looked for sponsors and funds to purchase, but we had no luck putting anything together. The owner had decided that he wanted all cash, no participation, and a short closing. There were a lot of frustrated people, disappointed that such a potentially great project had fallen apart. (Chet Sidell still owns all those vacant buildings as they never sold, and whether or not he will ever get what he wants for them is good question.)

Last price on the package was $4.5 million, if you know anyone interested in backing such a project. It could easily be resurrected.

I think this would be project hits at the heart of a the true definition of "ecovillage". Mixed use, multi-neighborhood, green, sustainable community. What is more green than recycling an old building?

In my opinion, the right size for an ecovillage, if there is such a thing, is likely bigger than 100 units. I would say the ideal would start at around 400 units, with at least 15% commercial mixed in. There are lots of these projects underway right now all across the country. But they are not green sustainable communities, with a cohousing neighborhood component as a part of the fundament plan for the housing.

The time has come, I think, for these bigger - green sustainable community oriented projects. It is going to happen when a large developer out there makes the leap. If you find something that looks like it might come together financially, let me know if I can help.

Chris ScottHanson

Cohousing Resources LLC & Ecodevelopments LLC
Ecovillages, Cohousing & Sustainable Communities
Development and Consulting for a Sustainable Future
   based on the Natural Power of Community

8721 Rosario Place
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

(206) 842-9160 Bainbridge
(206) 260-2800 eFAX
(617) 894-7661 Boston
(617) 344-8563 eFAX Boston

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.