The May 29 commentary, “NoCoHo at the ‘Kingfish’: Anatomy of a Deception,” is a vintage Bob Brokl hit piece, venomously twisting and misrepresenting whatever fragments of information he had. For what purpose? We can think of a few reasons for his piece and the timing: Use the co-housing group to attack his traditional opponents—incumbent City Councilmember Jane Brunner, who is running for re-election, and creative local developers of mixed-use projects in the Temescal District that meet Oakland General Plan guidelines for transit-corridor housing. Another may be to hide the court’s dismissal of his group’s lawsuits against these and similar developers.
Brokl’s made-up narrative contains too many errors to respond to point-by-point, but several corrections are needed.
North Oakland Co-Housing (NoCoHo) did not “enter a marriage of convenience with a high-density/multistory advocacy group” to develop a community on the Kingfish site on Claremont Avenue. Only one of the co-housing group’s members (Joan Lichterman) is a member of the urban planning group Urbanists for a Livable Temescal-Rockridge Area (ULTRA) because of common goals: the desire to develop mixed-income housing along transit corridors to increase neighborhood diversity and minimize our carbon footprint.
As neighborhood and co-housing activists, the two of us and another member of the nascent co-housing group discussed approaching these developers more than two-and-a-half years ago, when the market was very different than it is now, because we thought they would be sympathetic to the goals of co-housing. (Briefly, co-housing is a collaborative community in which each household has its own complete unit but also shares extensive common space, which enables people to live in smaller quarters. Co-housing communities share leadership and decision-making as well, which is done by consensus—a gratifying but sometimes painfully slow and frustrating process.)
Despite the tremendous desire for co-housing in the Bay Area, development of co-housing presents a number of challenging obstacles, including land costs and the time-consuming process of creating community and reaching consensus on all decisions. Temescal’s two thriving co-housing communities are very small, and North Oakland Co-Housing’s founders had larger ambitions: to create a multigenerational, multiethnic community in a walkable urban area, thinking that 25 or more households would help the group achieve affordability and diversity.
Few developers are open to the challenge of working with a group at all, and especially a group of people who know nothing about development—let alone one that uses consensus decision-making. We worked long and hard to persuade these developers (Roy Alper, Ron Kriss, and Patrick Zimski) to even consider working with a co-housing group. One of the originators of co-housing in the United States, Chuck Durrett, thought it was very smart to approach local developers who already had land—which would help overcome a major hurdle for a group attempting to develop housing in one of the nation’s most expensive markets.
Among other hurdles to overcome was opposition to multistory development by people like Bob Brokl, whose group’s lawsuits have contributed to delays and increased development costs. No deception was involved in making the argument that higher density would reduce the per-unit cost of development. It’s a fact! This is particularly true in a building that has large shared common space and facilities—the heart of a co-housing community.
There was no attempt to deceive City Council. Oakland city planners said there was no way legally to guarantee that the site would only be co-housing because co-housing is an informal, not a codified, living arrangement (which uses a condominium financial structure). The negative feasibility study which the group received shortly before the City Council hearing threw the group into disarray, from which it is slowly recovering. At City Council, those who spoke in favor of the project said everyone was working hard to develop co-housing at the site, but it can’t be guaranteed—there are too many uncertainties.
Until recently, the group had not seen details about how the budget was derived. The Kingfish developers seriously questioned the feasibility study and later presented an alternative proposal that had a much lower cost. However, because of the doubts cast on the project by the feasibility study and market changes since the group entered into an agreement with the developers, there weren’t enough people in the group who felt they could go forward on that site.
Although the group is now looking at other sites—which Brokl incorrectly claimed was being done before the City Council approved the Kingfish site—not everyone agrees with the figures used in the feasibility study. The two of us and the developers believe it is still possible to create co-housing at the Kingfish site. The story hasn’t ended yet for the Kingfish, nor has it ended for North Oakland Co-housing.
Karen Hester and Joan Lichterman are both community and co-housing activists and members of the steering committee of Urbanists for a Livable Temescal-Rockridge Area (ULTRA). Karen is one of the founders of Temescal Creek Co-Housing; and Joan is one of the founders of North Oakland Co-Housing, and speaks here only for herself, not for the group (in keeping with the group’s ground rules). For more information about ULTRA, North Oakland Co-Housing, and co-housing in general, see www.ultraoakland.org, www.northoaklandcohousing.org, and www.cohousing.org.