Eli Spevak is the coolest condo developer ever.
Get this: After working for affordable housing nonprofits for eight years, in 2004 Spevak and a friend took a huge financial risk and threw every cent they had into transforming a dull cement apartment building next to North Portland's Peninsula Park into a cooperative condo complex. They painted the place yellow, did some major renovations and convinced their friends to buy up the first seven units of the new Peninsula Park Commons at an awesome affordable price of $90,000 to $100,0000. Now Spevak's front yard is full of strawberries and the communal condo-dwellers dry their laundry on a clothesline made from bike parts. This is the life.
As Portland's increasing density means more and more condo projects sprouting up around town, Spevak and a cadre of creative, young Portland architects have pioneered designs that incorporate neighbors rather than piss them off. They put community, not profit, at the center of their plans. And oh yeah, they're selling tons of units while the recession has turned the Pearl District's glass-and-steel luxury towers into semi-vacant condo canyons.
In the last few years, Portland has become a hotbed for architects driven by the design principles of cohousing—the idea that living spaces should be designed, funded, and built collaboratively, not top-down by one aloof architect or firm. In mid-September, 27-year-old architecture student Sara Garrett organized a symposium at city hall that brought together many of the Northwest's cohousing designers with developers and city officials.
"What we're really advocating for is bottom-up, citizen-led development. It's a model that's really engaging people, empowering people to really take ownership of their spaces," says Garrett, who grew up in North Portland and majored in something called "environmental physics" at Portland State University.
"It's like DIY development. My personal opinion is that no one should profit off of someone else's home."
Profits are a hot subject for Portland's cohousing designers. When Terri Huggett, Kristin Wells, and their two partners decided to turn a shabby apartment complex on North Killingsworth into 30 cohousing apartments called Daybreak, they found banks were skeptical about loaning millions of dollars to a communal living project. So the two couples asked their friends to act as banks for them. Everyone looking to live in Daybreak pitched in a $15,000 down payment and friends and relatives loaned the crew $2 million more at eight percent interest.
"It took a leap of faith and a heck of a lot of chutzpah," laughs Huggett. "Frankly, it's really much harder than you think it's going to be, even knowing it's going to be hard."
That was enough cash to buy the old apartments, but to actually get the development rolling, they needed to pre-sell at least 15 market-rate units. People quickly snatched up 19.
"No other condo projects I've heard of in the city are pre-selling anything right now," says Spevak, grinning. "Communal living is not for everybody, but those who want it, want it badly." Daybreak broke ground in September.
What's exciting about cohousing is the ability to build living spaces that create good communities—neighbors who not only talk to each other, but share newspaper subscriptions. Living communally can be cheaper and use less environmental resources.
"I call it the tyranny of idealism," says Huggett. "We have this whole sense of idealism about community, but how do we turn that into practically living with each other?"
"Cohousing is gaining momentum because people are becoming more community oriented," says Grace Kim, the architect who designed Daybreak hand-in-hand with its future occupants. "Twenty- and thirtysomethings are definitely looking to be more connected to the place they live."
Kim looked toward Danish housing design as a model. Low-rise, high-density cohousing developments have received start-up grants from the Danish government for decades.
In Portland, city affordable housing bureaucrats have only recently begun to sit up and take notice. City Commissioner Nick Fish and staffers stopped by Sara Garrett's cohousing symposium in September, where Portland Development Commission planners led several discussions. While there are still no government grants specifically for cohousing projects, it looks like cooperative principles may become an integral part of future affordable housing built in Portland. Planners of the major new North Portland affordable housing complex, New Columbia, took input from Eli Spevak and wound up carving out eight units designed for cohousing.
While there are pockets of progressive cohousing architects in other American cities, Portland has a couple of aspects that put it on the vanguard of cooperative design. It helps that local politicians fall over themselves to drop words like "sustainability" and "community"—but housing code that supports bikes over cars is a clincher. Daybreak's design has no on-site parking and this summer, residents of Peninsula Park Commons finished replacing its car lot with a bike garage and three beautiful new condos. Windows for the new units (don't ask, they're already sold) are from the Rebuilding Center, and the mosaic imbedded in the new exterior courtyard is made from bricks bought off Craigslist and metal fins Spevak found while poking around a junkyard on Ross Island.
"This is an example of infill density that looks good and feels good to live in," says Spevak. "In Portland we could use more of that."