Sold off: Cohousing dream goes up in smoke

Two weeks ago, the Charlottesville Cohousing Association's dreams of a planned community with shared common areas went up in smoke, and it may not be long before the model house gets similar treatment.

"We'd like to let the fire department do practice in there," says Southland Homes president Rick Carter. On July 8, his firm– planning to build 24 houses on the site– purchased the five-acre parcel at the end of St. Clair Avenue for $650,000.

For the Cohousing Association, it's been a long and painful road.

Back in 1997, Association members talked of building 25 homes within 18 months. But by 2000, construction estimates had skyrocketed, and membership had dropped from 20 people to seven, Association spokesperson Gaye Fifer said back in September 2002.

Even then, cohousing had come under attack from neighbors, including one who denounced the group as "dinner sharin,' tree huggin,' remote car parkin', wagon full o' groceries pullin', non-TV-watchin' Vermont wannabes."

Former Creekside Project Manager Tom Hickman, developer of the Kellytown neighborhood off of Preston Avenue, says the concept was fine. Money, he says, was the issue.

"It's a great idea," says Hickman. "If we could go back knowing what we now know," he adds, "we'd have put her to bed."

Instead, members of the Association have moved on, grateful to have regained their investments.

As for Southland's Carter, a veteran of more than 30 years in the home-building business, he's thrilled to buy developable property inside Charlottesville limits.

"The City," he says, "is looking for ways to assist developers to make developments a success. Trying to do anything in the County is unbelievably difficult." He cites a development off Polo Grounds Road that he's been working on for nearly two-and-a-half years. "It's likely to be another couple of months," he says, "before we can break ground there."

In contrast, he says the new project on the former cohousing site will zoom from inception to groundbreaking in just six months.

But there's that house to deal with.

Roger Voisinet, the realtor who handled the sale for the Cohousing Association, says he'd like to see the model house given away to someone who would move it.

"It's a $200,000 house for free," says Voisinet, of the structure designed by noted UVA-affiliated architect Bill Sherman.

Carter says Southland wouldn't be opposed to a house give-away, but he thinks it's unlikely due to the house's height more than 40 feet– and position atop a steep bank.

Though the house will most likely be demolished, Carter says he and his company "are trying to do something good here." Prior to the fire department filling the six levels with smoke to train firefighters in handling smoke-filled stairs, Carter says Southland will donate any usable materials to Habitat For Humanity or some other such charity. Architect Sherman is okay with the plan.

"It's always sad to see that happen," he says, "especially with a new house. But firefighters do need training."

Once the Cohousing model home is out of the way Carter can get started on his own homes. He believes he could break ground on the site within the next four to six weeks.

His city-approved plan for the site: 24 single-family dwellings, which he estimates will sell for between $250,000 and $300,000.

"There's pent-up demand for city housing," he says.