Nohousing: Cohousing project conks out

After spending seven years and several hundred thousand dollars, the Charlottesville Cohousing Association has given up its dream.

"We've decided to sell the property," says Association member Gaye Fifer. "We admitted we didn't have the expertise or time and energy to make the project move forward."

Fifer, a kindergarten teacher at Johnson Elementary School, now rents the model home that sits alone on the wooded five-acre parcel between the Locust Meadows subdivision and the dead end of St. Charles Avenue.

The solitary house stands as a testament to the Association's hard work– and dashed hopes. The gravel walkway leading up to the house is overgrown as Fifer explains that the Association decided to hold off on landscaping until the final grading was complete and the other houses were built things that once seemed imminent.

Inside Fifer's home, a towering four-bedroom structure that is actually split into six levels, sit several architect's models of what could have been. Called Creekside for its location adjacent to Meadow Creek, the cluster of 25 homes would have been the first cohousing development in the Charlottesville area, and would have brought to at least six the number of cohousing communities in Virginia.

The concept of cohousing, in which residents own their own homes but share public areas, arose in Denmark in the '60s as a way to return to "front porch communities." They are not free-love-type communes, but several meals each week are served in the "common house," and recreational activities for the entire community take place there as well.

Back in 1997, the Charlottesville Cohousing Association planned to have most of the homes in its development complete within 18 months. But by 2000, things were looking bleak. Membership had dropped from 20 people to seven, thanks to continual delays and the rising cost of construction, Fifer says.

Real estate expert Ivo Romanesko, president of The Appraisal Group, says there was another issue at play in this planned utopia of distant parking lots and shared dinners aimed at people who can afford to live independently.

"Intellectually, they believe it's a good idea," says Romanesko, "but when it comes time to doing it themselves, it's a different story...."

But former Creekside project manager Tom Hickman, who developed Preston Road's Kellytown neighborhood as well as the new apartment building on McIntire Road, agrees with Fifer: money was the main issue.

"If cash had rolled in," Hickman says, "it would have absolutely worked."

Cash, however, proved elusive.

"We had originally thought we could build for $120 per square foot," Fifer says, which would have put the average cost of a 1,600 square-foot Creekside home at around $200,000. When that cost rose nearly 30 percent, to $154 per square foot or $250,000 per unit– many prospective buyers were priced out. And in fact, the cost of the 2,100 square-foot unit in which Fifer lives could have gone as high as $300,000 more greenbacks than Creekside's green founders ever intended.

Hoping to salvage their plans, members of the Association sold the parcel (which they'd purchased for $200,000) to the parents of project architect Bill Sherman for $260,000 in February of 2000, making it possible for the Association to build the model home, a move they hoped would attract new buyers. They retained the right to buy back the land on which Fifer's house now sits, and in July of this year, that's what they did. They repurchased the parcel and the house for approximately $310,000 the Shermans' purchase price plus two year's interest, Fifer says.

But the road for the Charlottesville Cohousing Association ends here unless they can find a developer who will buy the land and finish the work they started.

"We can offer the architectural drawings and all our work from the past seven years," Fifer says. She hopes to interest two regional developers who have experience with cohousing communities: the first is responsible for the D.C.-area Takoma Village; the second created a successful cohousing community in the Blacksburg area.

If neither of these developers shows interest, the property will go to the highest bidder something none of the remaining group wants to see happen, but which may be necessary in order for members to recoup their initial investments and move on.

"It was very hard," Fifer says of the decision to give up. "Some of us have been there for years, working, planning, dreaming."