Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Update: Building a Community

It's been a while since I've shared an update on how my effort to build a pocket community in Austin is going. Last I mentioned, we had our sights set on seven adjacent lots in a pre-existing neighborhood. Three of the lots weren't buildable, due to floodplain issues, but we would have been able to use them for gardening. The lots back up to 30 acres of City of Austin park land (with a proposed hike-and-bike trail running through it!). The neighborhood is only three miles east of downtown. A huge neighborhood park (with a public swimming pool) is right around the corner.

The coolest part is that we even found a couple (with a baby due in June) to buy one of the plots. They are super-awesome people and would make fantastic neighbors. The timing was perfect for all of us.

We finally got the seller to agree to an expensive and comprehensive survey of the property, so we could have clear data about floodplain issues, trees, set-backs, etc. Once the data came back, we trekked to the Development Assistance Center to sit down with a consultant from the city. He promptly informed us that the land was entirely unbuildable because it all lies in the floodplain.

Womp. Womp.

At that point, the other couple found an awesome house and put an offer down, so now we're back to square one. Honestly, I'm feeling okay about where we are in this process. First of all, I no longer have a clear sense of where I really want to put down roots (neither does Matt). I want Henry's circle of independence to get larger and larger as he grows up, but we're only going to feel comfortable with that if we live in a relatively safe neighborhood. Also, I'm having some feelings of consternation about contributing to the gentrification of East Austin. Also, trying to corral people who are interested in community (and who have a timeframe that perfectly aligns with our own) is very difficult.

I'm starting to realize that making this dream happen by the end of 2012 probably won't work out, and I'm making peace with that realization. Henry's new Montessori school (which he will attend for at least the next two school years) is right up the road. If we moved to another part of town right now, it would be a major pain to get him to school in the mornings and pick him up in the afternoons.

Right now we're just keeping ourselves open to possibility. We're meeting new friends, talking with different people about various neighborhoods, and generally exploring. It definitely makes sense for us. It also means that it will be easy for us to pay for the ridiculously high costs of Montessori childcare and private school (since we have money from the sale of our house in Houston).

That's another thing I really want to keep in mind as we contemplate our next move: I want us to be sure that we don't stretch ourselves too thin. Who knows what the future holds? One of us may lose our job, want to go back to graduate school, decide to stay home with a second baby--the possibilities go on and on! Plus, we want to be able to save money for traveling and retirement. It will probably be very difficult for me to settle for a more modest house (especially because Austin is such an expensive place to buy a home), but it will be important in the long-run to maintain flexibility and security for our family.

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Rachel said...

I'm just a homeowner in the 'burbs, but my 'burb is not too far off your pocket community. We have a pool and a garden and little rec center.

All of this is because as a community we got out and really made efforts to talk to our (existing) neighbors. Of course, not everyone is cool, but many are, and these are GREAT relationships for our kids and for us. Your neighbors may very well be cool people you just don't know yet.

I can see how this would be harder as a renter or in a community of renters, but it's not impossible. Why not use your existing neighbors to create what you want? Just have a block party?

Nora said...

Dear Sara -
I am a big fan of both your blogs. I appreciate your positive attitude and willingness to also talk about challenges that you face. Before getting married this past fall, I spent 4 years of my later 20s living in cooperative houses. When my partner and I moved together to a new city in the fall, we started thinking about how we might try to create a co-housing community or pocket neighborhood in our new city. Do you by any chance have any suggestions for info about people who have created that type of neighborhood by buying/ restoring groups of existing properties in a downtown area? I really appreciate hearing about the challenges you face as you take steps to make your ideal community a reality. Thanks for sharing. This is my favorite topic to read about, and I hope you continue to share what you find.

Kristy said...

Ohhh I just love the idea of creating a "pocket neighbourhood" in an existing area. I may just have to try to organize a block party in my neighbourhood this summer.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, Nora! I love your idea! The two books I've found most helpful are Pocket Neighborhoods:

And this one:

Thank you for your kind words!

katharina said...

Have you heard about the transition town movement? There might be some inspiration to get from them.
Also on moving to a new place: I know everyone is different, so you might experience it differently. I have moved different places/countries four times in a period of six years. (I never think about what I'm doing before I've done it- well not quite but the emotions come afterwards.) I find that the first month everything is new and exciting and then after a month or two I realise what I left behind at my old place, miss friends and family and get really down. I tend to make a promise to myself at that time that if I don't feel at home by a certain time I would move back to where I come from. But then I get to know new people and the new place better and better. It's still a process of ups and downs but if I remember right after about six months I start feeling at home more properly.
I don't know if sharing this experience helps but anyway I hope you don't give up. Good luck!

Susie said...

Don't give up on building a community! It's amazingly hard work - my husband and I have been involved in a cohousing/ecovillage project in Maine ( three years now, and we're just seeing houses built now. Working to build a community - and then working to live in it - is just that: work. Far more work than living in our own isolated homes, even if we are social and have a "neighborhood" we like. The benefits are incredible, however - we're expecting our first baby at the end of May, two weeks after our house is done, and the way our coho community has galvanized around has been fantastic: offers of help moving, meals, childcare, secondhand baby gear... I'm super excited to be a parent in community!

So, keep it up! And if you get tired of building it yourself, there are definitely communities in progress all over - check

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