cohousing on water street

I had an interesting meeting with developer Bill Kinley yesterday morning. We were supposed to be talking about the Riverside Arts Center. Bill is on the RAC board and he wanted to chat with me about a few of my recent posts. The meeting was amicable and the conversation was pretty freewheeling. By the end of it, we’d touched on just about every significant Ypsilanti development in the last 25 years, from the Exemplar plant to the Harriet Street government complex. Naturally, quite a bit of time was spent discussing the stalled development on Water Street and what our remaining alternatives are.

My concern, as I explained it to him, was that, given the fact that the bonds are coming due, we’d sell to the first person expressing interest, perhaps not making the best decision for the City in the long run. He drew a parallel to the Exemplar plant, which was built the last time the City had a large parcel to work with. In that case, it was 10.8 acres adjacent to the highway. There were competing plans for the property, but, for various reasons, we chose to cast our lot with Exemplar. While we picked up some jobs in the short term, the automotive manufacturing firm closed up shop soon afterward, leaving a vacant building on prime real estate. And, as a result of that decision, the front door to our community will, for the foreseeable future, be a loading dock. Kinley wasn’t saying this was a good or bad decision, just illustrating that you have to live with the ramifications of your decisions for decades. And, like me, I think he’s hoping that we do the right thing on Water Street.

He said that one option would be for the City to invest more in the parcel, laying out sewer and utilities, and thus making it more attractive to a developer, but he conceded that it wasn’t likely that such a thing would happen given the amount of debt we’d already incurred. The other option would be to subdivide the parcel, looking for different groups to take on the various elements. We discussed senior housing, retail, condos, and any number of other options. The one that most piqued my interest was cohousing.

I wasn’t aware of it prior to the meeting, but Kinley has been involved in all three of the intentional communities in Ann Arbor, beginning with Sunward. He wasn’t suggesting that such a thing would work on Water Street. In fact, he acknowledged that units in Ann Arbor were no longer moving like they once did. (He said that people still want to move into the developments, but that, in almost all cases, they can’t sell the homes they’re presently in.)

Lisa Bashert, as far as I know, was the first to suggest cohousing on the Water Street site. I remember her raising the possibility a few years ago during the planning of our YpsiVotes forum on downtown business. I liked the idea, and it’s always been on my list of things to pursue, but I’ve never made the time to really dig into it. I’m thinking that now might be the right time. Kinley gave me quite a bit of background on the cohousing movement, and pointed me toward several resources. He also said that he’d be willing to chat again about it. Given how bad the residential housing market is right now, I don’t think that he sees it as being a great idea for Ypsi, but I think he agrees that a downtown cohousing community would be incredibly attractive. (Most cohousing is suburban and somewhat isolated.) The big problem is, again, that people who wanted to live in such a place would generally have other homes that needed to be sold first. If that weren’t the case, I think I’d be closing down this blog and spending my time working on a business plan. I really think if we could bundle a 40-unit downtown cohousing development with something like a new Zingerman’s market/restaurant at the corner of River and Michigan Ave, that we might really be on to something.

I have more thoughts, but I need to crawl toward my elevated sleeping platform now…

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  1. Friendly Fred
    Posted April 28, 2008 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I wonder if you could set up some kind of mechanism in which interested parties could place deposit money in escrow. When you had firm commitments from a dozen or so, you could break ground on the first 15 or 16, and then go from there. Maybe grad students at EMU and UM could be targeted, people starting families who don’t already have homes they would need to sell.

  2. Paw
    Posted April 28, 2008 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Two words.
    Polygamous Compound.

  3. Posted April 28, 2008 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I think those are both good ideas, Fred.

    I think that the potential owners function very actively in the planning process of co-housing developments. Here’s a little summary of the process from the Great Oak Co-Housing page: — I remember hearing about a whole lot of planning meetings and seeing many many iterations of the site-plans when friends of mine were participating in Great Oak.

    The concept of co-housing in Europe is very much an in-town phenomenon. I haven’t been all that impressed with the iteration popular here in the USA, where farm fields become “neighborhoods” in isolated, out-of-town areas (essentially, little different from urban sprawl). Originally touted as accessible (like our Whittaker Library branch), there was a bus route which quickly evaporated. I also dislike the hand-picked concept of “community.” To my mind, the beauty and challenge of true community is figuring out how to fall in love (or at least figure out how to work with) with neighbors who are utterly different from ourselves. Also, the models in Ann Arbor are burdened with excessive rules and are very expensive–I think the hope was that expensive was OK because people would stay due to the community feel. The fact is, their elite market is a pretty transient group.

    All that whiny-ness aside, I do think a co-housing development DOWNTOWN could really work. It would be walkable and truly accessible. If it could be a green development with LEED certification, it could be an incredible model project. If it could somehow be made affordable and not so exclusive, I think it would be a boon to the town. And coupled with some light rail, it would be a really alternative development. I’d especially like to retire in a place like that.

    (I didn’t think Mark even knew who I was back then, let alone remembered that idea from so long ago.)

  4. Posted April 28, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I really think if we could bundle a 40-unit downtown cohousing development with something like a new Zingerman’s market/restaurant at the corner of River and Michigan Ave,

    Mark, I claim prior art. Except that we were using A2’s People’s Food Co-op underneath the 40 units of cohousing, rather than Zingermans. (And, also, the financials for that project only worked with pre-2006 A2 condo prices for the market rate units, not to mention millions in subsidies from the A2 DDA’s parking and affordable housing funds. But that can be gotten around by not doing crazy stuff like wedging second floor parking into a 15k sf floorplate…)

    There’s no particular reason something like that couldn’t be built on Water Street, though – it just requires the builder (Kinley’s got experience) and the buyers. It could have even fit into the Biltmore or Freed plans, replacing any similarly shaped building that happened to have a different ownership model.

    One issue could be that cohousing happens pretty slowly, and is rarely built on spec; as Lisele mentions, there’s a lot of meetings and cooperative plan revision ahead of the actual construction, even after you’ve got buyers lined up. But that could be a sort of advantage. (Sort of.) Long lead time means more time for people to sell their existing homes. Also, I’d advise raiding the Ann Arbor student housing co-ops for potential buyers. I know plenty of people who moved out after several years feeling they needed to get out to “real life”, but would have really loved an urban co-housing community as a way to keep the good parts of being co-opers.

    Kinley’s comments mesh with what I got when I asked a developer type who actually lives in Sunward – cohousing’s not immune from the housing downturn. But I think that a coho group proposing to build the first urban cohousing community in the region would certainly be able to attract some buyers, as a unique product. (Even with housing market conditions, the A2News notes that the just-opened Ashley Terrace has two-thirds of its units sold…)

  5. Posted April 28, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I think the hope was that expensive was OK because people would stay due to the community feel.

    Lisele, I think part of the priciness was due to rapid appreciation. From what residents told me, those cohousing clusters increased in value pretty rapidly, even relative to Ann Arbor’s generally over-inflated market. But, again, I don’t know how much of that value they’ve lost in the last two years.

  6. Elph
    Posted April 28, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    I live at Great Oak Cohousing and think it would be exciting for Ypsilanti to develop an urban cohousing neighborhood. One of the often listed downsides of the Ann Arbor cohousing communities is that they are on the outside edge of town (5 miles from downtown) and it isn’t as easy to get to fun things happening in town as our friends can who live in town. It has not been possible to build urban cohousing inside Ann Arbor with the high costs of space.

    On the other hand, one of the benefits of being on the outside edge of town is the access to green spaces, the quiet, the wildlife, and outdoor spaces for kids to run around in.

    But with the number of times I hear, ‘it’s so far outside of town’ I suspect that building an urban cohousing in Ypsi would tap a pent-up demand, especially as part of a package of positive urban development with forward thinking businesses.

    For more info on cohousing see and for an urban based cohousing community that started in 2000 see Swan’s Market Cohousing in Oakland at and

  7. mark
    Posted April 28, 2008 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for your thoughts on this. That especially goes for you, Elph. I like knowing that I have at least one reader in the Ann Arbor cohousing community.

    And of course I remember you, Lisa. I have a terrible memory for faces, but I tend to remember people with good ideas.

    And, Murph, I guess we’ll never know. It could also be possible, I suppose, that I mentioned the idea to you several years ago, and you used it as the inspiration for your class project.

    Thanks again, everyone, for your thoughts on this. I’d love to find a way to make cohousing on Water Street work.

  8. Ol' E Cross
    Posted April 28, 2008 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    So, the thing that’s appealing to our imaginations (be it cohabitation or ball parks) seems to be the potential acreage of this project. A long time ago I mentioned the idea of an “architectual gardens” where we got numerous significant architects to contribute a home design and built a gallery of homes of lasting significance. Flights of fancy.

    As much as I’m down with the en vogue redevelopment kit, it’d be nice to add something that will be uniquely important in a hundred years as opposed to a cash-and-burn Costco or standard new urbanism. But that’s my ideology. I also can be pragmatic.

    My primary concern is that I want a project that utilizes/protects the riverfront. After that, I’d like it to be coherent (I’d prefer to subdivide parcels as last resort). Ultimately, I want it done.

    So, I like this among many potential creative/alternative uses, but, at this point, I’m increasingly ready to except less.

    In its favor, “cohousing” does sound rather kinky.

  9. Bob Doyle
    Posted May 1, 2008 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I’m getting started on a new community Master Plan for the City of Lansing, and in the intial effort of meeting key stakeholders in town I came across Jessica Yorko, who heads up a local non-profit community based organization and is involved in many cool initiatives. She’s smart and energetic and reminds me of many people who live in Ypsilanti. In general conversation I learned she lives in a cohousing development that is located an a neighborhood near downtown and Old Town- our equivilant to Mid Town, Riverside or the Historic South Side.

    Their cohousing project renovated a series of adjacent existing homes. It’s called “Genessee Garden Cohousing”, which you can google and get some data on. I have a copy of the brochure if someone wants to look up my number and call me off-line.

    Anyway, it was exciting to learn of an urban, midwestern cohousing project that is up and running in a place that is very analagous to Ypsilanti, and perhaps, Water Street. I think it is an idea that could create a real asset to Ypsilanti and contribute to our interesting stew of a community.

    Jessica expressed a willingness to have people visit their community, if there is an interest. I know a great mexican restaurant within walking distance…


  10. Chaely
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve actually stayed in Sunward (while dog-sitting) and loved everything about it except for the fact that I couldn’t afford to buy a tiny walk-up condo that wasn’t within walking distance to anything. I’ve been renting month-to-month for ages & can’t find anything I want to buy in my price range (100k), so since I have no property to dump I’d be very willing to rent or lease in a cohousing type setting. The location of Water Street alone would appeal to me more than Sunward, despite its A2 address. If they could hook up some detached condos with garages I’d be on that like white on rice.

  11. Citywatch
    Posted August 12, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    I had a friend in Sunward who loved everything about it. This is a real possibility.
    Laying out the infrastructure on this site goes way back…..far enough back that when it was first suggested we could have afforded to do it and might have had some of the property developed before now.

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