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Community by design: Spokane Cohousing seeks to build a village in the Perry District

Mariah McKay looks forward to sharing dinners with neighbors most evenings, along with having elders around to mentor future children.

That’s because McKay, 34, her husband, Jim Dawson, 37, and about 15 adults are planning a cohousing community in the Perry District.

The Spokane Cohousing group includes families, singles, empty-nesters and seniors seeking a village-like setting and options for residents to interact. It would join 165 cohousing communities nationwide, and another 140 in planning stages, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.

Cohousing projects are planned by residents who join in a vision to create a neighborhood with a mix of private living units and common spaces, including space to eat meals together.

“Much of our society is isolated,” said McKay, whose mother also plans to be in the neighborhood.

“People are maybe part of a church community, maybe they have a casual relationship with the person in the house or apartment next door, but as far deep, trusting relationships, a lot of people are missing that.”

So far, the group has 11 households signed up – about 17 adults and four children – who have paid a $500 membership fee and initial $2,000 toward a home’s down payment.

They’re sharing in paying costs toward design work and neighborhood development.

Spokane Cohousing started a year ago on development concepts. They’ve hired an architect and formed a limited liability company to buy about 2 acres near Hartson Avenue and Garfield Street.

McKay and Dawson own an adjacent 1-acre property next to Eighth Avenue. Members regularly meet to decide on construction expected to begin next year, with a move-in expected by April 2020.

Current plans call for about 34 living units, within multiplexes facing an interior courtyard, pedestrian paths and green spaces. The site also has a decades-old urban garden for growing organic produce.

Members want to incorporate one structure already on-site, the Haystack Building, which has several residential units. New construction would add 27 units with two-story and single-floor designs in separate multiplexes.

The group also has agreed on ideas for a centrally located common house with a kitchen, wrap-around fireplace, kids’ play room, shared laundry and gathering spaces. Residents can opt into a shared meal program for dinners six nights a week, or less often as desired.

“My husband and I have been interested in cohousing for many years, and we’ve visited cohousing developments while on vacation throughout the West Coast,” McKay said.

“We’re looking forward to having multiple grandparents and adopted grandparents to help with math homework and trombone lessons, and teaching kids how to cook or doing crafts together.”

McKay describes cohousing as legally structured similarly to a condominium association, so the living units are privately owned.

The common house is designed to see use by about 48 individuals, McKay said, and more tables can be brought out if most residents gather for events a few times a year.

“There is a constant option to engage with people,” she said. “If you’re on the meal team once a month, you cook for average number of people who are signing up for meals.

“There are some minimal requirements. Everyone needs to serve on at least one committee and do a certain number of service hours. Otherwise, the community is designed for people to opt into doing what they enjoy.”

The concept is attractive to Nikki Lockwood, 49, who said cohousing would offer health and social benefits for her family, including husband Bill Lockwood, 56, and two teenagers.

Lockwood said they expect more opportunities for social interactions, especially helpful for a 15-year-old daughter who has high-functioning autism and a husband who is busy with work.

“I think it will be a great way to live for families to support family life, really,” Lockwood added.

Watching the documentary “Happy,” which includes a segment on cohousing, made Lockwood realize how helpful support can be, pooling efforts on cooking and chores. That gives people more time to develop relationships, she said.

“I’m looking forward to having less house to take care of,” Lockwood said. “My husband has worked hard, and he hasn’t had a lot of time for social connections. He has an interest in beekeeping, music and wood-crafting.

“There are lots of ways to engage with other people, and this way, it won’t be an extra thing to plan in your day; it’s just part of it. Men with family don’t typically have time for those social connections, maybe they have it through church, but it’s important to have them; it’s important to health.”

Susan Virnig, 69, and her husband Bob Stilger, 68, have lived 41 years in the Perry District and plan to move into a single-story unit. They grew up in small, tight-knit communities.

“We’ve lost that in the modern world,” Virnig said. “Cohousing offers the opportunity to live in a village again where you really know your neighbors. Some of us are home when kids get out of school, or we can look out for some of our folks who are in their 80s.”

They’ve also known McKay since she was a baby. Some 25 years ago, Virnig and Stilger visited an early cohousing community in Western Washington.

“It’s neighbors helping neighbors. It’s not just the help; it’s also the working together. Last fall, we had a garden work party, and we accomplished so much. Bob and I take great pleasure working with people gardening or raking leaves. Together, it’s just so much more fun.”

The group plans to pool talents, interests, property maintenance and recreational toys. People who are artists or musicians can teach others.

Many in the group enjoy cooking and preserving food with an organic focus, Virnig added.

She also is looking forward to interacting with people of different ages.

“We have never been very interested in hanging out with people our own age,” Virnig said. “Some of our dearest friends were 30 years older, and they both died just in the past year. They greatly enriched our lives. We have friends who are 20 or 30 years younger.

“Being in a multigenerational community is absolutely vital to us because it’s so much richer seeing kids grow up and being part of their lives. Our lives and experience could have some meaning to the young adults and children in our community we’re building.”

Cheney resident Pat Mertens, 65, felt drawn to Spokane Cohousing because she enjoys working with children. A speech therapist for 37 years, she recently retired.

Within the group, Mertens said she is outspoken about making Spokane Cohousing spaces accessible to people with disabilities. She has mobility issues and uses a walker.

“It was perfect timing for me, and I love the benefits of community, going to the common house and having someone to visit with, learning new skills from others,” Mertens said.

“My guess is we’ll be pioneering and breaking ground for other groups to start cohousing on this side of the state.”

McKay said families today have so much going on that it can feel overwhelming.

“You have people who work full-time,” she said. “If you have any hobbies, you try to squeeze them into weekends, but when are you grocery shopping, doing laundry, cooking and cleaning? People often don’t have time to get to know one another.”