The Tyranny of Idealism (or, Condos That Don’t Make You Want to Barf)

A few years ago, Portland took an old, run-down, meth-infested chunk of downtown full of nothing but abandoned warehouses and turned it into one of the country’s premiere “new urbanism” sites. The area is now a densely packed neighborhood of high-rises, mid-rises, streetcars, restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, nightclubs, you name it. Of course no one can afford to live there, but I like the neighborhood. It has a genuine “neighborhoody” feel, there’s a lot of vibrant street life (especially on weekends), and a true eclecticism. Naturally a lot of the old-timey Portlanders hate it, but I don’t really see why it’s worse than a crime-infested wasteland that wasn’t good for anything. I guess parts of it can feel really “plastic-y,” but downtown Portland is the first downtown I’ve ever been to in the United States that I would actually love to live in. All parts of the city are more accessible from downtown than they are from each other, everything you need is within walking distance (from dives to upscale restaurants, to gyms, to Safeway and Whole Foods and farmer’s markets, to boutiques, coffee shops, dusty bookstores, parks, a multitude of movie theaters), and most of this revitalization is due to the Pearl District being born.

The Pearl

The cost, however, as I mentioned before, is the problem. Apartments downtown, but not in the Pearl, are pretty surprisingly affordable, and if I move again while in Portland, I’ll probably try to land downtown somewhere, but forget about purchasing a condo. Which is where North Portland’s Peninsula Park comes into play. It’s a co-op started by several friends who wanted to invest in the idea of communal living for people who don’t make a million dollars a year, and still want to live the urban lifestyle. According to the Portland Mercury:

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.

These “projects” are popping up all over town, and the urban planners and local politicians of Portland are taking notice. While the government isn’t giving cooperative housing any grants anytime soon, the principles of it are taking root in new affordable housing projects being built around the city.

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.”

I really like the idea of this a lot, and think it’s something that could really start catching on around the country, especially in hot beds of progressive youth culture like Portland, Austin, Asheville, and other places.

And at the Peninsula, there is no on-site parking for cars – only for bikes. In fact, this past year, a two-car garage was reconstructed as two more living spaces directly behind the original. And they look really cool.

Links to some more of Portland’s co-housing developments, and a kind of old article from the NYT about Peninsula Park.

Peninsula Park (foreground) with new construction behind it.


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