Pleasant Hill Cohousing
(Central Contra Costa County, California)

Birth of a Community
The birth of our group, as told by Barbara Lynch

1993

Our cohousing journey began in the spring of 1993. In Context magazine featured cohousing as their cover story. We (my husband Ted and I) totally resonated with the stories cohousing residents told of the richness that this type of community life brought to their lives. The article also conveyed many of the environmental benefits of building in a way to use less land, sharing resources such as tools and appliances not everyone needs to own (such as a sewing machine, drill press, and waffle iron) and exchanging skills.

1994-1995

Finally, in the summer of 1994 we visited Winslow Cohousing on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Winslow was featured on the cover of the In Context article and at that time conducted tours of their community every weekend. We were enchanted by the place and the people and asked a lot of questions. One of those questions led to a detailed explanation of how their community used consensus to make decisions and a system of colored cards for discussion and decisions. We left there convinced that these were invaluable tools.

When we came back home to Walnut Creek, we learned of a group called Bay Area CHuG (Cohousing Umbrella Group). This group was made up of a few cohousing residents and many cohousing wannabees. Their purpose was to support and nourish cohousing in various ways. Ted and I attended several of their events including a tour of the two cohousing communities in Davis, N Street and Muir Commons, and Southside Park in Sacramento.

1996

Over the next couple of years we continued our gradual self-exposure to cohousing by subscribing to CoHousing journal, attending Bay CHuG meetings at Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville, and attending an open house at Berkeley Cohousing on Sacramento Street in Berkeley. On a trip to visit friends in Seattle in January 1996 we tracked down Pudget Ridge Cohousing, with no more information than that it was near a community college on the south side of Seattle. (Exactly a year later we spent the night at the cohousing community in Chico, California, Valley Oaks Village.)

By this time we decided to "get serious." Retirement was in the near future for both of us, and we knew that we'd be ready at that time to move out of our roomy home; the move might as well be right into the cohousing community of our dreams. The problem was that it didn't exist yet. We had to face that we love it here in Contra Costa County and weren't ready to give up our friends (women's group, men's group, couple's group, etc.) and spiritual community at Unity Center of Walnut Creek.

During this period of exploration we heard that there was a professor at Diablo Valley College (DVC) who had been trying to get cohousing off the ground in Contra Costa County. One day my son Brady came home from school at DVC with a flyer he'd received from his electronics instructor. Bingo! The elusive professor was made apparent. We contacted Bruce Koller at DVC and he shared his experience. He'd spent a lot of time trying to get students interested but they had no money. He'd cultivated his neighbors hoping to interest them in the Davis N Street idea of tearing down adjoining fences but no go. So, shortly after we made contact with him, he and his family moved from Pleasant Hill to Muir Commons cohousing in Davis.

1997

Ted and I spent months agonizing over what to do. In March of 1997 we decided that we'd give it one big effort to start a new cohousing group locally. At the end of March we had dinner with our minister and his wife to share our idea. They were enthusiastic and agreed that Unity would sponsor our cohousing presentation as a special event. That meant a lot of free publicity. The presentation was advertised in the Center's monthly newsletter and was mailed to 5000 households. A Unity friend offered to design flyers. The date was set for June 25, 1997.

We spent the latter part of May and much of June distributing flyers. We posted them at churches, pre-schools and daycare centers, Mt. Diablo Peace Center, libraries, JFK University, and natural food stores. We had 1000 put in staff mailboxes at DVC, and I hand-carried 300 to staff at Los Medanos College where I taught. We mailed letters to friends and acquaintances who had no idea what we were up to. By this time Bay Area CHuG had merged with the newly formed Cohousing Network and they gave us around 125 mailing labels for Bay Area folks who'd made inquiries about cohousing.

In early June we spoke with Yvonne at the Cohousing Company about borrowing cohousing books for the date of our presentation. She suggested the wisdom of having a group attend a "Getting It Built" workshop early on and considered some fall dates. I also spoke with Katie McCamant about the workshop. She suggested goals for the first organizational meeting which was to follow our presentation, and types of data to collect from interested folks.

During this planning and preparation, we made a previously arranged overnight visit to the site of the Tierra Nueva group in Oceana, California. We were most graciously hosted by Patty Mara and Bruce Gourley who, by the time they would move in, had devoted 10 years to the creation of their new community. We came away still enthused about cohousing, but determined that our group would proceed much faster and more easily.

On June 17 I picked up the cohousing books we were borrowing from the Cohousing Company and met Katie McCamant in person for the first time. She encouraged us to have a successful launch of our project.

Our goals were to get at least 50 people to the presentation, 20 people to the first organizational meeting, and have at least 5 households to form a core group to proceed to creation of the new cohousing community. The rest is history, as they say. Even though we charged $10 for the presentation in order to cover our expenses (something of an anomaly in cohousing land), exactly 50 folks came. We showed the cohousing video which we purchased through an ad in the Cohousing Journal and presented our vision. Bruce Koller graciously came down from Davis to talk about his experience living in cohousing. Then Ted, Bruce and I answered questions. At the end of the evening we passed out interest questionnaires and invitations to the first organizational meeting.

To my utter amazement and delight, my son Brady Mahler declared his intention to join with us. On July 9 we met for the first time, at our home, with 22 people in attendance. Much enthusiasm was expressed and 9 people committed to attending a "Getting It Built" workshop. Yvonne penciled us in on the Cohousing Company's schedule. Over the next few months people came and went as we met, but one person who showed up at the presentation and never left was Sue Ferro.

Sue, Ted and I set off for the North America Cohousing Conference in Seattle September 19-21. There we met Ellen and Michael Schwartz who became (for a time) part of our group. At the conference we met Katie's husband and partner, architect Chuck Durrett, who already knew who we were. We also met developer Jim Leach (Wonderland Hill in Colorado). We were impressed by these professionals and, after hearing numerous unsolicited recommendations from individuals in existing cohousing communities, decided that when the time came we would hire these professionals. At the conference we spread ourselves out and attended as many sessions as we could. We soaked it all up.

We came back to our group bursting with information and ideas. The group accepted the notion that we hire professionals and that they be the Cohousing Company and Wonderland Hill if at all possible.

During this period Jay Magid joined our group thus completing the small group of four households (Sue Ferro, Brady Mahler, Jay Magid, Ted and Barbara Lynch) who would remain with the group and actually move in.

Late 1997-1998

On October 25, 1997, 13 of us attended a "Getting It Built" workshop at the Cohousing Company office in Berkeley. A required 15 people had paid the $150 fee but 2 left the group by that time leaving their fee with the group. That was the start of a pattern - folks continuing to support our effort even though they would not be actively participating with us.

With that workshop under our belts and a set of agreed upon site criteria in mind, we started our site search in December of that year. During the next 18 months, we worked with a series of 4 or 5 realtors. We saw sites that had no water and no sewers. We climbed up steep hills in 95-degree weather and slid down other hills in pouring rain. Sue and I spent many hours at the County Assessors office in Martinez looking at site maps and tracking ownership of parcels that looked interesting. We sent letters to owners inquiring if they were interested in selling (never got any responses).

Several times we had Katie come trek with us when we were excited about a site. She saved us the trouble of going down a hard road, pointing out for example that the neighbors in million-dollar homes weren't going to let us build this type of development in their neighborhood; heck, the neighborhood didn't even need to hire an attorney as there were a slew of them as residents! She told us if the slope of the hills on a property would lead us down a slippery slope prohibitively costly to build upon. We only twice rejected sites because of the personal preference of some of us - once because we would have displaced residents in low-cost housing and once because of proximity to an oil refinery.

On April 26, 1998 we had a booth at the Earth Day celebration at the Concord Pavilion. We built a mock 3-sided house frame from 2 x 4's in the driveway of our home. A couple of angels who were friends of group members directed the construction as none of us had the expertise. This was our first experience of hiring "professionals" - even though they came for free. We loaded up our creation in the wee hours and were in line at 6 AM to enter the Pavilion. By this time we'd declared ourselves to be "Central Contra Costa E-Z Cohousing" and had a large yellow banner to fly over our booth to proclaim this. Eight of us worked that day and went home exhausted and very practiced at explaining cohousing.

By early 1998 we'd worked with 4 different realtors and didn't seem to be making much progress. All these folks sold residential or commercial property but we needed a land person. We'd had one big disappointment with a beautiful site in Lafayette - we even had Katie and Jim Leach come out to see it. In the end the owners weren't serious about selling.

So, we hired Chris Scott-Hanson who was an experienced land acquisition person. We had a presentation at the Unitarian Church on May 3, 1998 where Chris presented a variety of sites he'd identified and we visited several of them. In the end none of the sites worked out. We actually started to get discouraged...but then a marvelous thing occurred.

1999

We located a realtor who sold only land. This service of finding the realtor was provided by Trish Harrison. Trish and her husband Ron Leonardi came to the group as a result of our Earth Day booth. She went online and found a Walnut Creek realtor, Ron Carter. (Sadly, Ron and Trish left the group but we owe her a big thank you.)

Sue, Ted and I met with Ron Carter that week. We gave him a copy of Katie and Chuck's book and talked with him about our vision for this community. He was receptive and said he'd be in contact. We did hear from him shortly and he had 3 possible properties in mind, even though this Lisa Lane one wasn't exactly on the market.

Ted and I happened to mention that we were going to Maui for vacation. Ron suggested we look up his real estate pal Mitch Jenkins who had retired there. Ron explained that he used Mitch as a sounding board and that it would be useful all around for us to talk with Mitch. So we went off to Maui with a gift copy of the Cohousing book in hand. At lunch with Mitch we learned that he knew of us from Unity which he attended when he lived here and that he was one of 6 owners of the Lisa Lane property. Imagine our surprise! He asked us plenty of questions, especially how we would ever get the money to purchase a million-dollar-plus property.

Apparently our answers were satisfactory enough because when we returned home, Ron called and things started happening. Seems that previous prospective buyers had been unsuccessful in gaining approval for their projects so the deals fell through. The owners didn't want that to happen again so before they'd even give us an option on the property they insisted we meet with some Pleasant Hill city officials to see if they thought the project would fly. The end result was that Katie's presence gave us credibility and the sellers decided we were worthy buyers who might actually succeed in getting the project approved and built.

At that point we entered into the feasibility stage. Our group had remained fairly constant with only 6 full member households and a couple of associate members. We'd just spent most of our money putting down $10,000 for the option. Katie had told us all along to not be concerned with our small membership, that once we chose the site the people would come. So we needed to find the people and ascertain if the project was economically feasible, all within the 90-day option period.

We decided to hire the Cohousing Company to usher us through this phase - we hadn't yet paid them a cent. Katie set about working the numbers, Chuck did a very preliminary site plan, and we all geared up for presentations and site tours. On July 11 and 25, 1999, we hosted two events to attract new members. Not only did we attract enough new folks to get our membership (which required an initial investment of $2,000) up to 15, but we also got nice coverage by Channel 5. In the meantime various group members and Katie started meeting with neighborhood homeowners' associations in order to share what our dream was, to hear their concerns, and to enlist their support.

Ultimately this all added up to a "GO" for the project. The Site Planning Workshop with Katie and Danny Milman from the Cohousing Company was held at DVC in September 1999. Other workshops followed, additional folks joined, and on December 22, 1999 our application was submitted to the City of Pleasant Hill. Around that time we experienced another landmark event - the first family with children, Robin Bach and her twins, joined us. Soon others followed. (Sadly, Robin didn't end up moving in with us; however, we appreciate her leap of faith.)

2000

Jim Leach and his company Wonderland Hill came on board as our developer. He required that we be 75% subscribed before he would start construction. So in March 2000 we put on one last promotional event and jumped beyond the 24 (of 32) member households that were required to start construction.

During that summer we decided that we wanted to get construction underway before the winter rains started. That necessitated not only using Wonderland and the Cohousing Company's "streamlined model," but proceeding on a fast track. So, for the entire period up until we started to move in, everything felt like a rush.

Groundbreaking occurred on September 17, 2000. Earth moving equipment was on site. Local dignitaries, some neighbors, our professionals from Cohousing Company, Wonderland Hill, and our general contractor S. D. Deacon Construction Company, and friends joined us on this momentous occasion. The Contra Costa Times featured our story on the front page.

The next week site work began. Because Walnut Creek used to run through the site, the entire middle of our site had to be excavated, 10 feet deep. Any organic material was to be removed (so no buildings would settle in as it decomposed) and then the newly trenched area refilled and compacted. Instead, all that was uncovered was a bunch of boulders which we decided to keep and which now enhance the landscaping and provide rock climbing material for the kids.

2001

Throughout 2001 construction proceeded under the direction of Deacon's site superintendent Robert McCullough and the Cohousing Company's project manager Danny Milman. Twice a month we had site visits during which we could actually go look at our homes under construction. The rest of the time we peered through the construction fences.

Finally (it felt like "finally" even though it had been only 2-1/2 years since signing the option on the property), in September 2001 the first household moved in. Before the end of December, all 32 households were in. Major construction was still underway. Those of us in the first buildings to be occupied were totally surrounded by construction fences while construction activities surrounded us. We were awakened at 7 AM 6 days a week by construction sounds and occasionally on the 7th day as well.

Even as some folks were moving in, we held our Grand Opening on November 17, 2001, exactly 14 months to the day after breaking ground. The weather was perfect, some 300 folks turned out, the food was terrific, many of our homes were open for viewing, and spirits were high.

And now life goes on...

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