Kensington-Cedar Cottage: Cohousing coming to the neighbourhood

Ericka Stephens-Rennie was raised in small-town Rossland, B.C.

“That life was really appealing to me — the idea that you knew all your neighbours,” she told the Courier. “I grew up sharing toys with my neighbours. My dad shared tools with the neighbours. Canning in the summertime and neighbourhood block parties were a reality of my life. I’ve always lived in big cities since moving away from home and was looking at a way to establish that again.”

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The 29-year-old has figured out how to return to small-town living in Kensington-Cedar Cottage, where Vancouver’s first cohousing community will be built.

Last March, the city approved a rezoning proposal to allow for the cohousing complex to be constructed on three properties on East 33rd Avenue near Argyle Street.

Vancouver Cohousing appealed to Stephens-Rennie, in particular, because of neighbourhood amenities, including the Kensington Community Centre, Kensington Park, shops and restaurants on Kingsway and Victoria, and proximity to schools and transit on 33rd, Victoria and Knight.

“Overall, we are very excited to get back to living in the neighbourhood — my husband and I rented in the area when we first moved to Vancouver two years ago — and to getting to know our neighbours better both within the cohousing and within the broader neighbourhood,” she said.
The cohousing complex will include one level of underground parking and five buildings ranging from two to three storeys above grade.

The four residential buildings will be separated from each other, but have a common courtyard in the centre, and there will be a 6,510-square-foot common house at the back of the property to encourage and promote interaction between residents. 

The 31 residential units range from studios to three-bedrooms. They will each have their own kitchen, living and dining rooms, while the common house will have a large kitchen and dining room, laundry facilities, a multipurpose room, a children’s playroom, two guestrooms, meditation space and an office with room for about six desks. There will also be a common deck and garden space outside.

The Urban Design Panel didn’t support the project at the rezoning stage, but the revised design is being finalized and will go before the UDP again, likely in October, before the project can secure a development permit. Construction could start as early as next spring with residents taking occupancy in the spring of 2015.

Charles Durrett, the project’s design architect who lives in the United States, was in Vancouver last weekend for a workshop on sustainability issues. Durrett is passing the project on to Timothy Ankenman of Ankenman Marchand Architects who will be the architect of record.  Eighth Avenue Development Group Ltd. is managing the project.

The latest building techniques will be incorporated into the design and a LEED Gold standard is being sought.

The building will be a regular strata development like other condo buildings, but there will be a covenant on the land so it remains a cohousing community in perpetuity. Residents will be required to follow house rules which exist in all cohousing communities. The rules outline how the community lives together on a day-to-day basis, including matters like participation guidelines, how maintenance is done, frequency of common meals, rental privileges of owners, as well as how conflict is managed between residents. Decisions will be made through consensus. 
Price per unit is expected to be approximately $550 a square foot on average. While figures haven’t been finalized, that could translate to anywhere between $280,000 for a small studio to upwards $600,000 for a three-bedroom, all with access to common space.

Stephens-Rennie works for the federal government, but is on maternity leave with her six-month-old son Jacob. Her husband Andrew works for the Anglican Church, largely from home, and plans to use the complex’s common office space.

“It’s that common amenity space that really facilitates, in the long term, much more affordable housing. We’re talking about doing common meals together in our common kitchen several times a week. There are common guest rooms and common office space,” Stephens-Rennie said.

“We don’t need to have an extra little den or space in our home. We can afford to buy just exactly what we need, which is two bedrooms.”

Her family is considering sharing a car with another family in the complex and they’re looking forward to the possibility of help with childcare.

Twenty-eight family groups have bought shares in the Vancouver Cohousing development company at this point. Regulations prohibit selling units until the city approves a development permit.

“Ultimately it will be the shareholders that will make a recommendation to the company to sell the units in a particular way and so we’ll market to our own shareholders first,” Stephens-Rennie said.

“For [my family], it’s about the value of knowing your neighbours, having a sharing economy at your fingertips and the ability to cut down on expenses…. All those things that make life a bit smoother and easier on a daily basis when you know not just two of your neighbours, but 30 of them.”

Darcy Riddell, has been a member of the project for about six months. The 40-year-old is finishing up a PhD in social innovation and sustainability. She’s married and the mother of a five and a two year old. Her husband runs his own business installing electric charging infrastructure. The family doesn’t own a car and they currently live in a sought-after neighbourhood — they own a Victorian house with a two-bedroom basement suite in Mount Pleasant, yet they’re prepared to move eastward for cohousing.

“We really want to have the experience of living in community. Where we live right now there are a lot of apartments,” she said. “We could sell our house and buy a house in a more community-oriented neighbourhood, but we really like the idea of having communal meals, having shared play areas for our children and the community supports that will come from knowing our closest 30 neighbours really well.”

Both Riddell and her husband plan to use office space in the complex and she noted that two of the units will be owned but rented out as part of the city’s affordable housing strategy.

Riddell, meanwhile, is a fourth-generation Vancouverite and grew up on the West Side. She never thought about moving to Kensington-Cedar Cottage before cohousing became an option, but looks forward to exploring the culturally diverse neighbourhood.

She’s not worried about conflict developing between residents as she’s involved in the “process” committee and does facilitation work as part of her livelihood.

“I think conflicts are inevitable, but conflict can help make a community healthier if you know how to work with conflict,” she said. “…It’s just like a family, a place of employment or a friendship. Of course these things arise, but I think one of the problems in society right now is that there’s so much isolation and fragmentation so people don’t have to live close together and work with conflict as it arises. This creates much more healthy and skillful people, families, communities.”

noconnor@vancourier.com

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