The New(berry) Place on Belknap Hill

Steve Faber isn’t just getting to know his neighbors. He's building a home with them. This fall, Faber and his wife Nora will join sixteen other families to break ground on Grand Rapids' first ever cohousing project. The group's collective goal is to develop stronger bonds with the friends and neighbors that live around them, lead a more rewarding lifestyle, and perhaps find some creative solutions to the environmental, economic, and social challenges facing society today.

Those are lofty and laudable goals. But what the heck is cohousing? The online info source Wikipedia defines cohousing as an "intentional community composed of private homes with full kitchens, supplemented by extensive common facilities. Common facilities vary but usually include a large kitchen and dining room where residents can take turns cooking for the community. Other facilities may include a laundry, pool, child care facilities, offices, internet access, game room, TV room, or a gym."

Co-housing was pioneered as a modern concept in Denmark in the 1970s. Today, nearly 5,000 people live in 85 co-housing communities across the United States, with almost 80 more communities in the planning stages. Which brings us back to the Fabers and the sixteen other families who soon will begin construction of Newberry Place in the Belknap Lookout neighborhood.

The concept of Newberry Place, now in its fourth year of planning, is similar to that of a condominium association, except the development is owned, managed, and designed by the people who will live there. And while each individual unit will be self-sufficient – complete with a kitchen, bathroom, living areas, and bedrooms – a common house will serve as the “heart of the community,” Steve Faber said.

In it Together
So far, that community includes a diverse mix of families with children, singles, married couples, older adults, and non-traditional households. They will make decisions together, play together, and eat regular evening meals together. The community will also share tools, chores, and perhaps even cars. “When you’re building a $4.5 million dollar project together, sharing a car is nothing,” Faber said. The hope, too, is that by sharing in the daily grind of life members will have more time for community involvement, activism, parenting, and just hanging out.

The group’s motto is “design gives form to values," suggesting that when you look at a building you can tell what a community values. In this case, the people of Newberry Place value environmental stewardship, as evidenced by, for example, the native plantings on the property; quality building design, as evidenced by the building's brick façade; and getting involved in neighborhood issues. Several members of Newberry Place already are taking an active role in helping to accelerate the redevelopment of Belknap Hill and surrounding areas.

“People don’t realize there’s more than one way to build a neighborhood,” said Brian Hoekstra, a member of Newberry Place. "We’re building a network of people to rely on.”

"If some concern arises in the neighborhood, we can quickly mobilize 20 households around it," Faber added.

Newberry Place residents are open and upfront about their core values. Consider the group's purpose statement, which reads "we have come together to plan for and live in a co-housing community because we believe that people who have connections to others in a community context live richer and more fulfilling lives. In today’s culture, with its fragmented and often isolating lifestyles, many neighborhoods do not serve the supportive function that they did in previous generations. An intentional, collaborative community can contribute to an individual’s personal sense of belonging and ability to contribute to the well being of others and society as a whole."

So what about people relying on one another? Can it work? Faber suggests that the 'co' in 'co-housing' stands for communication. "That’s what I love about the group," he said. "All the people involved are willing to have the tough conversations.” The group has yet to live together, but they've already made plenty of potentially life-changing decisions together.

“Imagine building a home with 15 other families,” Faber said. "There are plenty of tough choices to make."

Moving In
All committed urbanists, the members of Newberry Place purchased empty lots located in the Belknap Lookout neighborhood on the city’s northeast side. The development is within walking distance of public transportation, and close to numerous schools, parks, and businesses, including the booming medical corridor along Michigan Street.

Design-wise, the development will balance public and private spaces. It will consist of 20 private households and the shared common house, all accessible to people with disabilities. Green spaces and public gardens are planned as shared gathering places. The group has designed a space that they believe will promote physical, emotional, and spiritual health as well as the security of all its members.

They have made it a priority to blend their development project seamlessly into the surrounding community, a traditional neighborhood with homes dating back to the 1880's. And Newberry Place will also showcase the basic principles of sustainable building. For example, the residential development will conserve energy using a state-of-the-art radiant heating system and passive solar technology.

Individual ownership will make Newberry Place a lasting presence, said Steve Faber, noting that all finances are kept separate and that there is “no common purse." When someone wants out, they can sell their unit to someone else ready to join the community.

“It’s a dynamic community, people come and go,” Faber said.

Currently, four of the 20 units planned remain unsold. Prices range from a two-bedroom unit starting at $125,000 to a 5-bedroom unit priced at $215,000. Those interested in exploring membership can attend a monthly meeting, they are also encouraged to google 'cohousing' and learn more about the way of life.

Prospective members will be paired with current members to help familiarize newcomers with the group and its philosophy. Becoming an equity member requires a $6,000 down payment, which ensures full voting rights and influence over future development decisions.

“You have to have skin in the game to have a voice,” Faber said. “The money makes it real for people.”

The targeted move-in date is Fall 2007.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved


Future Newberry Place owners (left to right) - Brian Hoestra, Josie Ippel, Hendrik Ippel, Marie Ippel, Steve Faber & Kate Miller

Rendering of Newberry Place courtesy of Destigter-Smith Architects

Steve Faber heads up Newberry Place

Rendering from above courtesy of Destigter-Smith Architects

Steve Faber and the aforementioned new cohousing residents of Newberry Place

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