Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ravenna Kibbutz began in House Aleph, a four-bedroom 1920s craftsman house on the southeastern corner of 23rd Avenue NE and NE 63rd Street. The community expanded both north and south along the block of 23rd Avenue between 65th Street and 23rd's dead end at the ravine.

House Bet was added in late 2008 when one resident of House Aleph moved with two new residents into the upstairs half of the duplex just south of the condo block on the southeastern corner of 23rd Avenue and 65th Street. In early 2009, House Gimel began with two residents of House Bet joining two new residents moving into the donut-shaped house one lot north of the block's southwestern dead end. By mid-year, the downstairs half of House Bet was added, along with a one-bedroom apartment in the building at the block's northwestern end. The residents of this apartment, called Dirat Dalet (meaning "Apartment #4"), were fully incorporated into the Kibbutz's cooperative governance and enterprise, though no part of the apartment was included in the Commons. Similar was Hadar Hay, meaning "Room #5," which a Kibbutz resident leased within the house next door to House Bet.

Though the Kibbutz's block of 23rd Avenue is a quiet cul-de-sac, ravine-enclosed to the east and south, 65th Street between 25th and 20th Avenues is the commercial heart of the Ravenna neighborhood. This puts every house on the block just a few hundred feet from a variety of businesses -- restaurants, bars, cafes, specialty shops, small medical offices, a fitness studio, and one of Seattle's iconic bookstores. Multiple downtown buses run along 65th Street as well, and an interchange with I-5, the city's largest highway artery, is one mile to the east.

Within a one-mile walk are several large grocery stores (Whole Foods, Safeway, and Pacific Consumer Co-op), the University Farmers Market, the University of Washington, the entire Ravenna Park system of trails and recreational facilities, the University Village shopping mall, two high-density mixed-use neighborhoods (the University District and Roosevelt), and several low-density residential neighborhoods (Wedgwood, Bryant, and Maple Leaf). Downtown Seattle is six miles to the south.

Grassroots urban retrofit

In relation to the Ravenna Kibbutz, "urban retrofit" takes its meaning from discussions of cohousing. In that context, urban retrofit is the alternative to the norm, which is wholesale new development. Of course, new development is the norm well beyond the small world of cohousing. Planned residential communities in North America almost always take the form of either a new multi-family building or a new subdivision.

The Ravenna Kibbutz's purpose in building a planned community is to change the prevailing patterns of land use and social behavior within a defined area. In that sense, the Kibbutz shares the human-geographic goals of cohousing: to encourage pedestrian intermingling of neighbors; to create a sense of shared containment within, and stewardship of, a geographic domain; to reduce the house size needed for residents to feel comfortable; to increase the use of shared resources in providing for the needs of "home" (entertainment, hosting guests, food preparation and storage, etc.); and to decrease the dependence of community-engagement activities on facilities owned and operated by third parties, like schools, community centers, and shopping districts. So when "urban retrofit" is invoked in relation to cohousing, its total meaning reflects just what the Kibbutz sought to do -- that is, to change the predominant use patterns or ownership structure, or both, across a cluster of homes, for the purpose of fostering day-to-day interaction, interreliance, and local identity among residents; and to do so by incorporating the existing built environment rather than replacing it with something entirely new.

Though cohousing is by definition a grassroots undertaking, urban retrofit in the meaning used here can be, and is, practiced in a "top down" manner just as well. Washington, DC's 52 O Street Studios, where a tight-knit array of artists and craftspeople live and work together in a converted industrial warehouse, is probably one of many retrofit live-work communities created on the "build it and they will come" plan. Similarly, the vibrant and self-contained Liberties Walk in Philadelphia mixes diverse housing, commerce, and street life with architectural elements of the site's industrial past, but it was all created at once by a single developer. "Grassroots urban retrofit" is distinct in that the community is planned and built primarily by a group of those whose interest is to live themselves in community together.

Rare among cohousing projects, most of which are suburban or rural and nearly all of which are wholesale new development, the N Street Cohousing community in Davis, California is a complete living example of grassroots urban retrofit. Because it was begun in the 1980s, part of the first generation of American cohousing, and it had proven enduring, the Ravenna Kibbutz took inspiration from N Street's success.

Types of buildings, types of organizations

Grassroots urban retrofit proposals generally fall into a "big box" or a "house cluster" paradigm. A big box project aims to repurpose an apartment block, warehouse, retirement community, or even old schools or offices into a complex of private units and shared Commons facilities. One example is the Boulder Creek Community in Boulder, Colorado, where a condominium complex is being converted piecemeal to a variety of units, some with shared and others with private uses. By contrast, a house cluster project connects separate neighborhing buildings, typically houses, with shared amenities like walking paths, gardens, and indoor spaces open for use by all residents. The Genesee Gardens community in Lansing, Michigan, for instance, shares a large garden and also part of a house which all members can access.

The Ravenna Kibbutz came to resemble a house cluster more than a big box, though it did incorporate one unit of an apartment building, and the community considered directing further expansion into that building. The Kibbutz's residential co-op was purposely structured to accommodate growth either across multiple separate properties or within a single building, and indeed both occured. Furthermore, the Kibbutz's location was selected in part because a variety of housing types -- houses, duplexes and triplexes, accessory dwelling units, condos, and apartments -- were all present to be experimented with. It wasn't obvious at first which of these "found architectures" would and wouldn't work well under Kibbutz retrofit. The great diversity of 23rd Avenue's housing stock between 65th Street and the ravine made the location attractive from a standpoint of experimentation.

Moreover, because every facility was rented, the community's institutional substance consisted in the organization of people, not of buildings. In this way the Ravenna Kibbutz exemplifies the spirit of grassroots urban retrofit as distinct from traditional planned communities -- whether retrofit condos or grassroots cohousing -- where communal association is driven primarily by architecture. Given the constraints on its ability to modify landlords' properties, the Kibbutz would not be visible from a map, or possibly even from the street. The Kibbutz's very existence was a matter of collective engagement with an organizational structure -- one that, though abstract, had a profound impact on the patterns of use both within and between all of the diverse dwellings it came to incorporate.

The differences between this organization and a typical renters', condo, or homeowners' association are much greater than any differences between the physical design of the Kibbutz's city block and that of any other. They may also be more consequential than the differences between the physical design of a cohousing neighborhood and that of a typical North American subdivision.

Experimental findings on "found architecture"

However, design does make some things easier and others harder, as the Ravenna Kibbutz learned. When trying to identify, and to identify with, any living place, it is very helpful to have visible borders. Where, physically, does my community end and the outside world begin? Likewise, when trying to maintain a healthy sense of secure personal space within a community, walls and doors are crucial. Where, physically, does my private world end and the community's domain begin? Cohousing and condominium developments alike tend to rely on new development because they seek to reduce the average size of a private dwelling unit -- and this is difficult to do with houses and yards proportioned for a lower residential density.

The Ravenna Kibbutz's first solution was to simply pack groups of adults into houses originally designed for single families. The resulting "dormitory" effect can be fun, but it can also prove exhausting to the individuals involved to have such a constrained sense of personal space and privacy. For this reason the model has limited appeal outside the demographic of pre-family young adults; and even within that group, most would find the arrangement taxing to sustain for very many years.

On the other hand, the Kibbutz's experience showed detached single-family houses to be very effective in three ways. They often include one or two rooms large enough to host community gatherings comfortably while retaining a "homey" feel. They likewise often include generous yard spaces which, in addition to making community gardens and outdoor gatherings possible, also lend the calming and rejuvinating benefits of green space, especially helpful amidst the day-to-day challenges of living in community. Yard space proved to be a major amenity for many Kibbutz residents who would otherwise have lived in apartments.

Detatched houses of sufficient size also offer the possibility of literally housing residents together with the places of their specific shared enterprise, in a way that fosters a sense of sub-group distinction within the community as a larger whole. This idea will be expanded under the chapter on "Multiple centers of enterprise."

The Kibbutz found little trouble incorporating single units within larger non-Kibbutz structures. The two couples who lived in apartments in buildings adjacent to Kibbutz houses, and the one single who rented a room in an adjacent house, were able to participate in community life to the full extent each desired. The three of these kibbutzniks who opted for full, dues-paying membership in the residential cooperative were equally engaged as Kibbutz house residents in group organizing, governance, and enterprise. The only significant point of friction arose from the room-renter's lack of her own kitchen or bathroom in her non-Kibbutz house, leading to some conflict over the extra use of Kibbutz house facilities already stretched to serve house residents plus guests at public events. This can be seen as part of a larger problem of the ratio of bathrooms and kitchens to residents.

The Kibbutz houses, which were built for single families, had only two suites with private bathrooms and only one with a private kitchen among them. In total they had 2.17 bedrooms to every bathroom, and 3.25 to every kitchen. With the additional demands imposed by frequent public events, these ratios were generally felt to be too large, overburdening the kitchens and bathrooms we shared. Kibbutz residents frequently expressed a desire for more and more private kitchens and bathrooms in their homes, as well as for an industrial-size Commons kitchen to use for hosting community events.

The Kibbutz's one duplex essentially provided an attached one-bedroom apartment, which was regarded by its residents as serving their needs very well. It provided privacy and independence while at the same time being very "close to the action." Plans were discussed, though ultimately never enacted, to add entrances and kitchens to the Kibbutz's other detached houses, in order to effectively create more multiplexes. Likewise, high hopes were held for the block's one A.D.U. ("mother-in-law cottage"), but it never came on the market.

Geographical barriers

The Kibbutz's outer walls, so to speak, were provided by the built geography of Seattle city streets and the natural geography of the Ravenna ravine. As a house-cluster retrofit, the Ravenna Kibbutz could not feasibly be bounded by a gate or an entrance sign as with typical planned communities. Consequently the community's borders are fuzzy and different people might draw them in different places. Natural barriers tend to make convincing boundary lines, so most would agree the Kibbutz's eastern and southern limits are set by the ravine.

The city of Seattle, similarly convinced, drew 23rd Avenue to a cul-de-sac at the ravine, and this was the primary reason for locating the Ravenna Kibbutz on that block. Even cul-de-sacs without ravines tend to produce the impression of homes being pooled together and contained as a group -- hence architect Stephanie Smith's "Cul-de-sac Communes" -- so the Kibbutz's initial search for a location sought out cul-de-sacs wherever they appeared in the street grid. Because Seattle's layout includes relatively few cul-de-sacs (usually at natural barriers like ravines or waterways), this desire to have the Kibbutz physically enclosed by a cul-de-sac significantly narrowed the field of candidate locations.

In practice, however, 65th Avenue proved an almost equally effective boundary. Whenever opportunities arose to expand the residential cooperative north across that busy street, community members objected that it would feel much less natural for the Kibbutz to straddle a traffic arterial than to be contained by it. Though we brainstormed many numerical definitions for our geographic limits -- three blocks, fifteen houses, a quarter of a mile -- the standard we always returned to was phenomenological: would it feel easy to walk there carrying hot food or a folding table? Most felt crossing a busy street would fail that test.

Some felt that crossing more than one quiet street would fail the carrying test as well. For this reason it was proposed that the Kibbutz try filling into the rectangular area bounded by 23rd and Ravenna Avenues east and west and 63rd and 62nd Streets north and south. This area contains no interior lanes or alleyways, so the backs of adjacent houses could be opened up to each other and connected by pedestrian pathways -- with the bounding streets forming a sort of mote. House Gimel, our top prospect for a dedicated commons house, is neatly central to this rectangle, its yard abutting five of the others. If these interior yards ("back" yards) were all connected to form a unified greenspace, that car-free center could replace the street's conventional role as the meeting and mixing place for neighbors. The street, in turn, would become the community's outer shell and its interface to the larger metropolis.

This use of streets as a physical wrapper is how N Street Cohousing maintains its sense of geographic containment. That the method has proven to work well in that case bodes well for future retrofit projects, given how many city houses are clustered within rings of four intersecting streets. By comparison, city houses clustered around cul-de-sacs are relatively rare. In hindsight, though the ravine was a beloved amenity from the start, it was probably never necessary to the Kibbutz's need for a palpable boundary, and neither was the cul-de-sac. Locating the Kibbutz inside a sufficiently large rectangle of streets may have been just as effective, and provided a variety of less-expensive location options.

Don't sweat the big stuff

These realizations point to a larger lesson for urban retrofit planning: given sufficient social "buy-in," the micro design considerations matter more than the macro. To be short a bathroom, for a kitchen to be slightly too small, to lack a door between a private hallway and a shared space, or for a bedroom to need more daylight or sound insulation -- any of these shortcomings can lead to serious fatigue and dissatisfaction among residents. By contrast, we found the community's social "togetherness" did not correlate significantly to whether our homes were or weren't all enclosed within the cul-de-sac, nor to whether they faced each other, whether they were freestanding or parts of larger unaffiliated structures, or whether they were directly next-door or a few doors down.

Much of the theory of planned community design, including cohousing, has been formulated by architects, who tend understandably to emphasize the visual experience of place. From this standpoint it makes sense to prioritize a community's ability to look like its structures and landscaping form a coherent unit. Though design considerations such as walking path placement and  facades' orientations to each other surely matter, the Ravenna Kibbutz found them to matter much less than the configurations of rooms inside or the effectiveness of the community's social systems. Architects with communitarian values may chafe at the typical layout of urban homes, slotted along straight lines intersecting at right angles, facing not each other but curb-side parking along the street. It doesn't take much re-engineering of the landscape, however, to turn the area within four intersecting streets into a cluster of homes oriented toward the center they already share in common. All that's needed is to re-imagine back doors as front doors, back yards as the central green, and to remove the fences in between.

In short, future retrofit community endeavors would be well advised to pick locations with the right assets inside existing structures, and to worry less about whether those structures already look like a community.

Rental vs. real estate market pricing

From the start, the Ravenna Kibbutz was an income-diverse community. We strived to maintain reasonably affordable housing options for any current or future residents who needed them. Furthermore we were dedicated to always providing at least some housing on a rental basis. At the same time, some emphasis was placed on being a "nice" place that would make an attractive home for community members of greater means, and for those in it for the long term. Because the plan was to first rent all of our homes from third-party landlords and to buy them later, after the community was established, the Kibbutz's initial location search based "affordability" on rental prices, not sale prices, and we settled on a neighborhood where very attractive amenities were offered for moderate rent. This became a problem down the road.

As we learned, the distribution of rental prices across a city does not always correlate to the distribution of sale prices. A neighborhood of mostly middle-aged homeowners -- well-established, perhaps able to rent at a loss, and only willing to sell for a premium price -- may have low rental compared to sale prices. A neighborhood primarily of homeowners nearer to end of life may have more bargains on home sales, yet rents pushed high by a central location or new multifamily developments.

Many (perhaps most) Seattle neighborhoods in the 2000s had average house rental prices well below what it would cost to finance and properly maintain the same properties. In the Ravenna neighborhood, this disparity was especially acute south of 65th Street, where the Kibbutz ultimately located. Most rental properties in Ravenna had been purchased and financed prior to a big jump in neighborhood property values. A new owner could not rent at anywhere near the average existing landlord's rate without operating at a loss. Consequently, when the Ravenna Kibbutz made plans to purchase houses as a collective and then re-rent them to the current residents, we discovered that doing so would force a big rent hike.

The lesson learned is that, when purchasing real estate meant to provide non-luxury rental housing -- without some big outside subsidy -- the prevailing ratio of rental to sale prices needs to be as large as possible. Unfortunately, in the Ravenna Kibbutz's location, that ratio was found to be too small for the collective to purchase homes and offer them for rent at competitive prices.

Accommodating different age demographics

For years the Ravenna Kibbutz pushed to include a wider range of ages and life stages among members, with some success and some frustration. Our location played into this effort through its housing architecture and its proximity to other parts of the city.

The Kibbutz found older single-family houses -- those with a large number of bedrooms sharing the common spaces -- can work well for groups of college-age and young adult singles, who tend more to benefit from the social stimulation of a dormitory-like atmosphere than to suffer from having limited private space. We found apartments and duplexes and triplexes make the most attractive homes for couples living together and for small families with children. We avoided housing children together in any housing unit shared with residents outside of their immediate family, anticipating that this would be socially challenging, except possibly in the case where two small families with children of similar ages chose to share a large house together. What we did not anticipate was the difficulty of couples without children sharing living spaces with their single peers. Both the couples and singles in this arrangement complained that it was awkward and led to friction over the use of shared living spaces.

The Kibbutz's location in the Ravenna neighborhood purposely struck a practical compromise between the needs and aspirations of different age groups. We began with a hunch -- call it self-congratulatory -- that graduate students would have the right balance of pioneering flexiblity and responsible seriousness to do the work of establishing a new community. So, where do graduate students like to live? Of course, proximity to campus resources is key; but most college graduates prefer not to live at the center of undergraduate social life. Every university can be imagined to cast a halo of neighborhoods, beyond the college bars and frat houses yet within a reasonable range of access, where grad students, professors, researchers, and other members of the academic community prefer to live. In the case of the University of Washington, a school of over 42,000 students, that halo seems to be fairly wide. We found that Ravenna, though a mile and a half from the edge of campus, is well within the range university affiliates consider convenient.

Indeed Ravenna is just close enough to "the action" -- a 15-minute walk to the commercial district at the heart of extracurricular life for UW students -- that some undergraduates, and many very recent undergraduates still savoring that lifestyle before their next steps, found the Ravenna Kibbutz an attractive place to live. It is also true that many young adults found the location less than attractive. One 22 year-old prospective resident explained her decision to opt out by saying, "At this time in my life, I need to live around more tattooed folk."

The Ravenna Kibbutz's choice of location sent a kind of signal to all prospective members, that this would not be a community of concentrated immersion in the experience of any one life stage. The location thereby served to attract some residents and to dissuade others. It is easy to find city neighborhoods dominated by young adults or by undergraduates or by young families or by retirees. The Kibbutz opted for a location without a reputation for marked demographic emphasis, and what we found was that the only prospective residents who cited location as an obstacle were those who specifically wanted a non-age-diverse environment.

Other factors, such as the age range of initial members, recruitment strategy, membership and guest policies, and publicity language, likely have a bigger impact on how welcoming a community will appear to a diversity of age demographics -- but it has certainly made a difference to the Ravenna Kibbutz's 20-, 30-, and 40-something enthusiasts that the neighborhood outside is not all swing sets nor all keg parties.

Enterprise- and culture-specific needs

The Kibbutz carried two specific missions: to provide a venue for Jewish cultural programs and to create an opportunity to live in a place of immersive cultural affinity, similar to the ethnic neighborhoods of immigrant families. Both missions were affected profoundly by the choice of location relative to existing Jewish community institutions.

One mile east of the Ravenna Kibbutz is Seattle's largest and most diverse cluster of synagogues. Our location search focused on and near this area because of a desire to provide the community's more religiously-affiliated with ready access to places of worship. This accommodation certainly made the Kibbutz more accessible to some members -- however, it carried a more fundamental benefit we did not foresee. With religious Jewish services of all kinds available nearby, residents had relatively little motivation to duplicate those services at the Kibbutz. Because religious affiliation and practice are divisive matters among many who otherwise share a common bond with Jewish culture, having organized activity at the Kibbutz naturally tend toward other, less-well-served interests spared the community from conflict and discomfort, thereby increasing its capacity for a diverse membership.

Another lucky break lay in the decision to locate not in Wedgwood, the neighborhood with the synagogues, but rather somewhere nearby. The rationale was that Wedgwood itself was too exclusively family-oriented, and too distant from commerce, the university, and transit connections -- in a word, too "suburban." Though these assessments were all fair, we could have added one important item to the list: in the words of Hedley Lamarr, "too Jewish." Unanticipated probably because it is counterintuitive, what we found was that being outside the neighborhood popularly associated with established Jewish institutions afforded the Ravenna Kibbutz greater freedom to define a fresh and independent identity as a provider of cultural programs. A modest distance from "the establishment" freed the Kibbutz's social enterprise from the appearance of affiliation, which many participants identified as an attraction of the Kibbutz's offerings.

Transportation modes and access

One mile from Interstate 5, Seattle's largest highway, the Ravenna Kibbutz is approximately 15 minutes from downtown Seattle and about 5 minutes from the University of Washington by car. It is 45 minutes from downtown and 15 minutes from the university by bus; 40 minutes from downtown and 10 minutes from the university by bicycle; and 30 minutes from the university on foot. At least seven bus lines are within a ten-minute walk, and via the university and downtown transit hubs most of the city and much of the region can be reached by two buses or by one bus and one train or ferry.

Many Kibbutz residents have lived car-free and relied on a combination of walking, biking, and transit. However, enough residents and guests have complained of the location's transit accessiblity to suggest that it lies somewhere near the outer limit for a community aiming to be accessible to people without cars.

Synopsis of lessons learned

  • The layout of built structures is not the only way to foster community interaction. Non-physical organizational structures can do so as well.
  • Single-family houses can be repurposed to provide shared community spaces. They can also be used as multifamily "group houses," but only for the limited time before this arrangement leads to burn-out.
  • Couples, families with children, and singles more than a few years out of school tend to prefer housing units with separate entraces, bathrooms, and kitchens.
  • Individual rooms and apartments within larger buildings can be incorporated into an urban retrofit community a la carte, without involving other spaces within those buildings.
  • Physical boundaries are helpful to providing a sense of geographic scope and containment, but they needn't be visually dramatic.
  • It may be fruitful to re-imagine the backs of houses as front-facing, if doing so would create a cluster of homes facing each other.
  • If a community seeks to own and rent out housing, it is crucial to select a location where property can be purchased for a price permitting locally-competitive rental charges.
  • Whereas a community located very close to a university campus may have difficulty attracting non-student residents, a location 15 to 20 minutes away may still be attractive to students as well as faculty and staff.
  • If a community shares an enterprise or a specific cultural focus, it is beneficial to be located at a slight distance from established third-party institutions releted to that cause.
  • If a community's makeup is such that certain activities or services would be desired by some residents and could also prove a source of conflict, a solution may be to locate near to third-party institutions providing such activities or services.
  • For a community to accommodate non-car-owning residents, it may be best to be located within 45 minutes by bus to the urban center and 15 minutes by bus to the nearest significant center of employment and commerce.
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