Giving thanks for community living

West Highlands and Chaffee Park —“We’re really good at Thanksgiving,” says Suzanne Leff, a resident of Hearthstone Cohousing Community in Highland Gardens Village. “We have some really good cooks, and it’s great to celebrate with our Hearthstone family.”

Future residents of the Aria Cohousing project, under construction in the former Marycrest Convent at 52nd and Federal, are thankful to be able to develop their new community from the ground up. “We are developing how we’ll support each other and live together,” said Deborah Clendenning, a 31-year resident of Northwest Denver and a founding member of the Aria group.

The two communities are among 20 such cohousing communities in Colorado, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Cohousing is growing and attracting people of all ages. “The generations that grew up in the ‘burbs, or raised their kids there, have seen what isolation does. They don’t want to live on a cul-de-sac anymore,” said Susan Powers, president of Urban Ventures, developer of the Aria project.

Cohousing is an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single-family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen. Shared spaces typically feature a common house with a large kitchen and dining area. Shared outdoor space may include open space and gardens. Neighbors also share resources like tools and lawnmowers.

Cohousing encourages interaction among neighbors for social and environmental benefits. Households have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors collaboratively plan and manage community activities and shared spaces. Community activities include regularly scheduled shared meals, meetings, and workdays. Neighbors gather for parties, games, movies, and other events. Cohousing makes it easy to form clubs, organize child and elder care and carpool.

Hearthstone Cohousing, started in 2001, is comprised of 33 townhomes nestled around a shared green space. The community includes about 70 residents of all ages, including families with kids, single parents, singles, and seniors.

“We live closely; we want to interact with each other,” says Leff. “We cook meals together several times a week, and we make business decisions together about the landscaping and the common house. We have active clubs, like our climate-change group. Some of our members formed a band that plays at the open mic at Tennyson Tap.”

Leff, a resident since 2004, is an attorney and the mother of two children, ages 16 and 11. “We moved here because we wanted our kids to play outside after dark like we did,” she said. “Our parents weren’t hovering, but we knew that eyes were on us. It’s collective community care. All of us know all of the kids.”

Hearthstone Townhomes range between 900 and 2,400 square feet. Leff and her children live in a 1,500-square-foot unit. “There’s not a lot of space to be alone, or to have guests, but the common house has a guestroom with a full bath. It’s a good way to extend our living space.”

The 4,800-square-foot common house also has a kitchen, dining room, laundry, playroom, storage, and a cubby for clothing or other items to share with the community. The mantle in the fireplace room displays photos of all the community’s families.

Leff says the community, celebrating its 15th year, is about helping one another. “We rally around people who need food or care. A single bed traveled between homes for people with ankle or knee injuries, so they could sleep on their main level without climbing stairs. We provide meals for neighbors after surgery, or when a child is born. For new babies, a handmade quilt is presented.”

Of the 20 cohousing communities in Colorado, six are in the Denver area, and nine are in the Boulder area, with others in Lyons, Paonia, and Colorado Springs.

The Aria Cohousing project, slated for completion in April of 2017, is part of a 17.5-acre Mixed-use, mixed-income development in the Chaffee Park neighborhood. The $ 7.2 million cohousing project is 28 condos, including eight designated affordable units. Twenty-three units have been sold, and several more are under contract.

Simon Leff (right) and Noah Alleman tosses a ball in the shared green space at Hearthstone Cohousing.

Simon Leff (right) and Noah Alleman tosses a ball in the shared green space at Hearthstone Cohousing.

Aria is developer Powers’ first foray into cohousing. “It’s a fascinating and wonderful process,” she said. “The future residents meet every Monday, some of them by Skype, to discuss everything from forming committees to where they want the kitchen to be.

“As a developer of condos, I see the benefit of having the ultimate occupants involved from the beginning—even though it takes longer because the design process is more inclusive. This cohousing project is different from some because the homes will be in one building. So there will be even more community contact in the hallways. It’s good for social cohesion.”

Powers said the founders of Aria cohousing are four women who found each other through the National Cohousing Association (co-housing.org). “Some are local, and others are from Philadelphia and Boston. They have family here, and they were attracted to the development, which includes a production farm and a greenhouse.”

Future Aria resident Vicki Rottman said it helps to work with a developer. “Usually a group forms first, buys land and hires an architect, etc. We’ve avoided some of the usual challenges with starting up because our project is being built by a developer. We’re forming our community at the same time that planning and construction are taking place.”

Powers likes the sustainability of re-using the historic convent, first opened in 1958. “This building was built to last hundreds of years—I would never have demolished it. The contractors are taking it apart gently and putting it back together for its next life. The outside will look much the same. This property has a blessed, powerful feeling because of its history with the Sisters of St. Francis. It’s special, very different from new construction.”

The cohousing concept, started in Denmark in the 1960s, is inherently sustainable, says Leff. “Our shared values include saving resources. We live smaller, and we have no air conditioning—instead, the buildings are well-insulated to stay cool when it cools off at night. One boiler in each building heats all three to six homes and provides hot water. The floors in our shared spaces are Marmoleum, which is linseed-oil based rather than petroleum. We share resources, like cars and rides, and we make sustainable food choices. We recycle our clothing for other community members. Our landscaping does not use pesticides or herbicides, and it includes more xeriscape plants. We’re not unique, but any decision we make has the sustainable piece as part of the discussion.”

Leff said cohousing is growing because people are looking for connection. “People want to connect in person. We have more opportunities to connect digitally, but what do those connections do? I need face-to-face interaction. Cohousing is not all rainbows and unicorns; you have to interact, and you can’t run away from issues. It’s an opportunity to engage on a level we don’t always encounter. In a mobile society, it gives us roots.”

To learn more about cohousing, see cohousing.org. For more about the Aria cohousing project, see ariadenver.com/living-spaces/co-housing. For more about Hearthstone Cohousing, see hearthstonecohousing.com.

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