A cluster of partially developed blocks in the Lower 9th Ward could become home to a development that uses shared space for activities such as meals, child care, gardening and recreation, in an effort to build a sense of community that backers say is all too lacking in traditional neighborhoods.
The idea of cohousing, where residents own or rent traditional homes but also buy into communal buildings and spaces, originated in Denmark in the 1960s and has since spread to include about 150 developments in the United States.
Earlier this month, Lacy Allen, Bonnie Garrigan and Ann Barnes submitted a proposal to the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority that would bring cohousing to the Lower 9th Ward.
With the development they call “Jourdan Valley,” the women want to buy 13 lots and build duplexes on them, interspersed among existing homes along Jourdan Avenue between St. Claude and North Claiborne avenues. They also want to construct a 3,000-square-foot “community house,” a recreation center and a parking lot.
The community house would include a children’s playroom, shared office space, guest rooms for visitors, a kitchen and a dining hall, where residents would take turns cooking for the entire group.
“It’s pretty simple,” Allen said. “It’s just like a good, high-functioning, engaging neighborhood, just that the people who move in this community have a commitment to having that connection with their neighbors.”
Allen said Jourdan Valley has six signed commitments from prospective buyers.
Pentek Homes would be the contractor, and if NORA accepts the proposal in the next few months, Allen and her partners will have a year to build out the first phase at a cost of $2.8 million.
Allen, 32, said the idea that became Jourdan Valley started a few years ago. She was approaching the end of her 20s and knew that her idea of “settling down” was not going to involve moving to the suburbs or even to one of New Orleans’ traditional neighborhoods.
“I grew up with the feeling of community, and I felt like I was supported in the environment I was raised in,” she said. “I moved to New Orleans, which is community-oriented, but I felt like something was missing.”
So one day in 2013, Allen decided to do some research about whether those yearnings aligned with anything concrete.
The obvious starting point — a commune — was not what she was looking for.
“We didn’t want to share income or make hammocks,” she said, laughing. “There’s no Kool-Aid involved. We just wanted something that was more like a community than just a suburb.”
It wasn’t long before she came across cohousing, which started as a way to provide a more supportive, communal approach to raising children, and uses architecture and design to encourage community. The movement was popularized in the United States by Kathryn McCamant, who is consulting on the Jourdan Valley project.
Allen is also using a cohousing neighborhood in Davis, California, called N Street, as a model.
That project has a looser development process that can sometimes take longer but lets residents opt in over time as they choose.
Garrigan and her mother, Barnes, were familiar with the concept, and the trio set out to find a way to make it happen.
Allen, who has mostly worked in disaster recovery housing since moving to New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, said the Lower 9th Ward seemed like a perfect place for cohousing because of the many available lots and the overall feel of the area.
The first step was purchasing a rental property on Jourdan Avenue.
But Allen ended up letting the renters stay, opting to move into a home purchased by Barnes nearby.
Allen, Garrigan and Barnes set about discussing the plans with neighbors, who Allen said have been receptive to the idea.
Allen said anyone living in the neighborhood who doesn’t want to be part of the communal aspect of Jourdan Valley doesn’t have to be. For those who do, landscaping and design will be used to add a sense of connectedness between their homes, which provide the privacy people need, and the common areas that provide the community many naturally crave.
The houses will be sold at market rate, with the 26 new units offering between 700 and 1,200 square feet.
Allen said cohousing can be an affordable option because homes don’t need to have extra bedrooms, laundry facilities or office space because of what is provided in the community building.
While the communal aspect of a cohousing development may be radically different from a traditional neighborhood, legally speaking, it functions much like a condominium or homeowners association, and there really aren’t any significant zoning hurdles to the project, Allen said.
Jourdan Valley won’t have any kind of selection process for the people who want to live there, she said.
She said the point is that it’s a cross-section of the community — people of all ages, races and creeds, in various stages of their lives, with children and without.
All that matters is that they buy into its philosophy.
“Humans aren’t meant to be solitary creatures. We’re tribal. We thrive in communities. It’s only in the past few centuries that we have isolated ourselves. The traditional institutions that provided community support in the past … are disintegrating in the modern world,” Allen said, adding, “Facebook isn’t going to replace that.”
Editor’s Note: This story was changed on Jan. 24, 2016 to correct the spelling of Pentek Construction and Ann Barnes.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.