Monday, July 9, 2007

Only the Names Change

I usually read the New York Daily News to hone my writing skills – it's the gold standard of tight, pithy journalism. But today this headline caught my eye: Factory fight turning bitter - Housing vs. preservation for Domino Sugar plant.

Sound familiar? Check out the rest of the story.

At the heart of the controversy is a closed sugar factory in the northern part of Brooklyn that includes buildings dating from the 1880s. The oldest buildings are likely to be preserved in some form – possibly only the facades.

A development plan, put forward by a builder and affordable housing advocates, proposes to build 2,200 apartments on the site, one third of which will be set aside as affordable housing.

Change the words and you have the BAREC dispute, right down to the Save Domino signs.

A representative of the Waterfront Preservation Alliance says that development is "destroying the fabric of our community. It is important to recognize that Domino is not a relic of Brooklyn's ancient past but a real and vibrant part of its recent past."

As a native Brooklynite, I certainly share their nostalgia. During my childhood, Ebbets Field and Penn Station were demolished. It would have been great for the new Brooklyn Cyclones to have that historic stadium to play in. And New York is still trying to redeem the Penn Station debacle.

But on the other side of the question, there are some interesting things here worth noting.

First, 2,000 apartments are not high density in New York – it's how people live in the most vibrant, exciting city in the United States. (And contrary to what some say, it's a great place to grow up).

Silicon Valley isn't a rural town, so please, let's ditch the boogeyman talk about high density housing. (Well, perhaps you really don't want your children living next door to me – I might encourage them to organize their own un-adult-supervised stickball and Ring-o-levio games.)

Second, note that parking doesn't come into it. When you have high-density population you can have public transportation. With gas headed for $4 a gallon, that's a definite plus.

We're far from this here in Silicon Valley, but it's a great goal to aim for.

Third, note the people that this housing is aiming to serve: Families with less than $25,000. This is a project that’s takes on the hard job of housing very low income families -- unlike much of our "affordable" housing in Silicon Valley which takes the easy route of uncontroversial senior housing.

I would pose the question to groups like the Housing Trust: Why aren't they advocating for family housing and very low income housing at BAREC?

Back here at home in Santa Clara, what I would love to see something truly new.

One of the new approaches is co-housing – developments designed to build community by combining private living space with shared common facilities. Instead of being designed by developers for faceless future residents, these communities are designed by residents together with builders.

OK, the name is unfortunate – it sounds like cohabiting or possibly something even worse. But let's try not to let that get in the way.

Here's a description of one:

North central Arizona's only cohousing community is actively seeking families with children. Manzanita Villagers range in age from less than a year to 80+. Our 13-acre village situated on a hillside (5,000+ feet high) with spectacular views is one mile from downtown in a wonderful, moderate, four-season climate. There are three colleges and many fine public schools, including Montessori and Waldorf schools. Phoenix is only two hours southeast and good skiing can be found in Flagstaff, two hours north. We have 36 households and a 3,000 sq. foot common house with a kids room, laundry, guest accommodations and more. We have two lots left for building your home and some finished houses and rentals available. Check us out on the Internet or call us at 928-445-3015. Better yet, come for a visit, and stay for dinner!

Sounds nice. Sure there will be problems. But then, I was taught in church that only God is perfect, so by definition looking for perfection is a kind of sin and accepting good-enough is grace.

So perhaps instead of perfection at BAREC how about the graceful imperfection of compromise?


  1. Yes, the name "cohousing" may not be the most descriptive... it was coined by a couple of Bay Area architects as a translation of a Danish term that I won't try pronouncing here.

    I like to call it "intentional neighborhoods", to both embrace and distinguish it from the broader "intentional communities" movement that includes coops, communes, and all forms of community. We have our own kitchens, our own condos, but also shared areas, a Common House, meals together, and a design (physical and social) that promotes mutual support and cooperation... you can think of it more as a return to what's normal after our country's strange half-a-century failed experiment with isolation in single-family homes.

    As you've identified, there are many benefits to creating a community with participation by the future residents: we build what we need, not what some developer thinks they need to sell the place, they tend to be greener and more pedestrian-oriented, and they get greener over time, with neighbors getting to know each other better and supporting each other in things like car sharing, waste reduction; meals together and the engagement in running the place is just icing on the cake.

    Of course, people will be people, but since we train in consensus and facilitation and conflict resolution, we can often find powerful solutions quickly, without resorting to violence or lawsuits... solutions that "everybody can live with", not just "what we can assemble a board majority on to impose our will on others" as is stereotypical Home-Owner's Association (HOA) behavior.

    You don't have to look as far away as Arizona to find many fine examples.. there are quite a few in the Bay Area, mostly East Bay and North Bay so far (more in Oakland than any other city in the U.S.)... and there actually is a group looking at options your area that is currently in a revival phase, no particular site identified but regular social gatherings have resumed recently and people are sorting out options. There's one small community on the Peninsula and some forming groups as well, and a couple over the hill in Santa Cruz, and some new and existing developments down the road towards Paso Robles.

    I'd be happy to come down there some time and give a talk/slideshow about how residents can get organized and take part in creating their own neighborhoods.

    Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach
    Planning for Sustainable Communities
    In Berkeley (CA) Cohousing

    P.S. Great to meet you at the Venture Boomer Summit last month, just as all this was coming to a head.

  2. The problem I have with creating concentrated low-income housing projects is that they have a tendency to degrade into slums. It would be much better to intersperse the low-income housing in middle-income housing. The problem with that is many middle income people would take a "not in my back yard" attitude.

    Samantha Davis

  3. Samantha makes a good point. We need neighborhoods that reflect the entire community. It's dismaying to see people self-segregating in over-55 developments, gated communities etc. Especially now that we all have seen how segregating the economically disadvantaged as was done in the 1960s makes them -- guess what? -- more disadvantaged. When we segregate ourselves we all become poorer --socially, psychologically, culturally.