Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Submitted Op-Ed

In response to the front page story in the Seattle Times today, I sent in this short essay. I doubt they will publish it (I've had better luck with the P-I) but I thought I'd share it here.

Vlad Oustimovich, the architect who called the new townhouses constructed on the “green crescent” in West Seattle, “vanilla and cookie-cutter,” has a better chance of being elected to public office that I; my description of typical Seattle townhouse developments would be more like “soulless, reactionary relics of suburbia that are invading our city.” I’ve been exercising a lot recently, trying to relax and tone down the rhetoric, but in the meantime, I’m directing these words toward the developers that build these monstrosities and attempting to organize people like myself, whom would like a townhouse, but would never set foot in one of these.

Rather than hoping that the Department of Planning and Development will close loopholes that allow micropermitting, passively venting on neighborhood blogs, and wondering why our city council and mayor thought it was a good idea to relax environmental review regulations, I am proposing that potential homebuyers come together and try to build “green” multifamily housing that fits into the existing neighborhoods (or, even better, coexists and challenges the neighborhood to evolve). This idea isn’t new; collectives and cooperatives have been around for a long time and operate on the philosophy that group action as more effective than individual attempts.

I also envision a development as better housing and a social statement. I believe that forming a community in advance could lead to a stronger community post-occupancy. The way that like-minded people come together, out of the blue, on the internet to form virtual communities, is exactly the organizing principle for which I am striving. Ideally, in the real world, the design of the development would continue to encourage interaction between the residents via shared walkways and patios, low fences, and possibly a p-patch garden (fueled by an onsite composting bin) as part of the open space requirement. The intention is a small, practical, and progressive community that functions harmoniously internally and externally (not to be confused with a secluded living-off-the-land utopia). Oh, and this development would be within walking distance of transit and many of the urban amenities to which we city-folk have grown accustomed (grocery store, coffee shops, restaurants, and maybe even a school in a perfect world).

And, as if this reorganization of a single residential development weren’t enough, the next step would be to form a nonprofit organization to help other groups of people with similar interests organize, design, and build their own living spaces.
This may all be impossible; the traditional process of finding a place that one does not like because of its aesthetics, location, price, etc. may be here to stay. However, I prefer Royal Tenenbaum’s approach to life, where one decides to “mix it up” a little. He meant throwing water balloons at cars (which, come to think of it, I support) and hitching free rides on fire engines; I mean trying alternatives that could ultimately lead to more livable and “green” neighborhoods.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Few Changes

To celebrate the first month of existence, the Green Housing Collaborative is going to implement a few changes. First, the focus on housing is going to be expanded to include other societal elements that pertain to sustainability, such as consumerism, land use, energy, and transportation. I realize there are already myriad blogs out there (see sidebar for a few) that address these issues, but the intent is to contribute to the dialogue and to build a more extensive online community (or, attract more readers) that can hopefully translate into a real life green housing project.

Another idea that comes to mind is finding ways to push for more interaction on the site. I realize that a blog is really a one-to-many information system when what I really envision is a many-to-many system (hence the name collaborative). I'm thinking a transformation to a wiki site may be a way to facilitate this interaction.

I'm also curious about virtual environments and collaborative design programs. I've read that some of these exist but am not familiar with them. I'm thinking of some sort of software where I could 'sketch' a floorplan, then you #1 could modify it, then you #2 could add and subtract from it: kind of like a whiteboard in a design meeting. I'll be looking into this; any recommendations would be appreciated.

In staying true to this new format, I offer you a picture of a sign outside of the downtown Banana Republic.

It reads, "Shop April 22-27 and we'll donate 1% of our sales, up to $100,000, to The Trust For Public Land. This Earth Week initiative is the first step towards our $1 million commitment to The Trust For Public Land." An article on the Banana Republic website highlights their environmental efforts.

While they were the only store I saw in the downtown retail district that was advertising anything green, I couldn't help but wonder where their garments are manufactured. Needless to say, a quick walk through the men's store confirmed my suspicions with those oh-so-common words "Made in China." True, that's unfortunately the contemporary standard but I think a real commitment to "Greener Cities," or a greener planet, would involve reducing trans-oceanic shipping. It's a shame that American Apparel doesn't make clothes for the business casual set.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What is a Co-op?

“What is a Co-op? Isn’t that like a big house where a bunch of hippies live and share a kitchen and grow their own food? That’s what they were like in Austin.”

So went a conversation I had last night with a friend from Texas; if you’ve ever seen the (great) movie Slacker, you probably understand why he had this impression. Nevertheless, he’s a smart guy and his question reaffirmed a suspicion I’ve had for a few weeks, especially after visiting a few downtown banks (WaMu, Wells Fargo, Bank of America) to ask about financing to buy a co-op unit: many people just don’t know what they are because they aren’t that popular in Seattle.

My friend’s wife, who had lived in NYC, knew what a co-op was. Coincidentally, the big banks, and even Countrywide, only make share loans (the type of loan needed to buy in to a co-op) in New York and New Jersey, where this type of housing is more prevalent.

So, to answer my friend’s question, yes, a bunch of hippies/artists/students/slackers or lawyers/scientists/stock brokers/politicians, or any mix of people with varying professions can inhabit a co-op. The only differences that I can see are the legal technicalities and possibly the attitudes toward “community” of the residents. By the latter, I mean to say there is a social element of cooperative housing. The degree of participation is variable and depends on the development but, as I understand it, is typically more than in your typical condo building or townhouse complex.

The reason I’m drawn to the co-op arrangement is twofold: I think it would be a way to finance the construction (pool our money) and, secondly, I like the idea of a more interactive community. As previously stated, I intend to spend some time with co-op residents (I know of three buildings near my apartment) so that I can make a better comparison between their living arrangements and mine.

Do you have any questions for one of these “hippies”?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Medhane Alem

The neighborhood church I wrote about before was reported sold today on The Stranger's blog. I'll be curious to see what comes of the property.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

In the Family

My maternal grandmother's cousin and her husband bought this house in Fremont right after World War II. It's immediately north of 36th on 1st Ave. NW (about 50 yards from the Tacos Guaymas that is soon to be housing - the lot immediately left of the NW on The Stranger's map is their house). They have recently moved to retirement housing and their sons are looking to sell the house.

The area is zoned L2 and the lot is 6000 sq. ft. The development across the street is four green townhouses built on a 5000 sq ft. lot. Only of these units is still for sale; it is a 2 bed, 2.5 bath, with a 1 car garage for a cool $480,000. Reactionary architecture and ridiculous price aside, I think this is an okay development. I'd really love to put something beautiful across the street from it though...

According to the density requirements, I believe 5 units could be built but 4 may be optimum. The 4-plex immediately north sits comfortably on its lot and has a small yard out front.

There is an issue with improving the alley behind the property that has kept other developers away. My relatives are researching their options but it gives me some time to try and organize. Let me know if this is interesting to you. I may start exploring more traditional development options since I have this opportunity in front of me.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Brainstorming Session

Late saturday afternoon I met up with a fellow from Chicago who had contacted me about this project. Stephen was in town, apartment-hunting for a possible move to Seattle. Though his decision to move isn't final, he has some experience with collectives, and was kind enough to help me organize some ideas over a few beers at The Hopvine.

Some criteria that we (well really, he) came up with as aspects of an intentional community are:

Size and Composition

Since communities can organize in ways that range from left field (commune/monastery) to right field (typical condo association/suburban neighborhood association), we felt that it was important to orient ourselves within the context of these two extremes.

For example, let's take economy. We could call a hypothetical commune an internal economy since it could be totally self-sufficient. Members could garden and scavenge for food; they could sell artisan wares to bring in some money. The opposite of this would be the external economy of a typical condo building. Everyone, except for maybe a manager, works outside the building. They all pay their monthly dues to the association to take care of building maintenance, etc.

Our vision of what this project could be like were similar and we both agreed that organizing the community of people before embarking on the construction process was crucial for philosophical reasons as well as practical.

A quick synopsis of our nascent vision is as follows:

Economy: Mostly external with an internal component. By this I mean that everyone would likely have some sort of external income, except for possibly a manager, but would also actively participate in the community.

Qualification: I believe Stephen stated a major part of this best when he said "eco-goal compatibility." Goals that would likely be ubiquitous: recycling, composting, eating local when it's "best" (see Avoiding the Local Trap here), minimal reliance on cars, etc. Of course, the degree to which people share goals would differ, but would typically reinforce eachother. Other qualifications such as tolerance and desire to strengthen the community at various scales (development, neighborhood, city, etc.) would likely be shared.

Purpose/Mission: In today's buzzwords, to live with a smaller ecological footprint. We also considered the possibility of helping to spread the word. Attending events like the upcoming Green Festival, blogging, attending events/readings or any other form of public outreach would qualify.

Size and Composition: Regarding size, I see this project starting as a discrete unit but welcoming the possibilty of expansion, whether it be physically manifested or ideologically; whether we built more units on an adjacent lot or shared our gained expertise with a group of individuals in Austin. By composition we mean that it must be decided whether members have to occupy a unit in the development or if they can be included by association (the Phinney Eco-Village, I believe, functions by association).

Association: How much time would we spend together? Less than a commune but more than condo building is the easy answer. Are we going to be a little sphere that neglects every "typical" development around us? I hope not. The growth of community on scales beyond our legal boundary would likely be in our best interest.

Leadership: Democratic, basically. Electing a board would be a way to focus everyday decisions to a group that wanted increased responsibilty while larger decisions would include everyone. Similar to a typical condo board.

These ideas are all conceptual but I believe they encompass what I/we have in mind. I'm searching for middle-ground where we can move forward, ahead of the curve, be a living example, but not come off as extremists. Is that possible?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Know a Co-op Resident?

If so, could you point them my way?

I'm looking to meet some people who have lived in a cooperative so that I can get some insider information. My wife and I took a look at a unit inside the Lorington Co-op, on 11th and Denny, this afternoon and several of the residents were congregating for a board meeting. They were all friendly and the real estate agent told us that they actually hang out together at times. I know he's a real estate agent, and it's his job to make the place sound appealing, but I believed him. I'm going to try and contact the board and see if they can give some testimonials about how co-op living differs from standard arrangements.

In planning news: a gentleman from Chicago who is relocating to Seattle will be in town this weekend. We're going to meet up on Saturday and bounce around some ideas about this project. If anyone else out there is interested, let me know, and we can get a bigger table.