Five important lessons from projects that did not proceed
At the end of 2018, the proponents of Harmony Park Housing Co-operative in Singleton (WA) made the difficult decision to not move forward with the proposed co-operative housing project. It is not the first sustainable, resident-led project that didn’t get off the ground; on our website we also share the story of proposed GreenAcre Ecovillage in Wellard. Here are five important lessons that I have learnt from lost opportunities such as these.
1. Find a patient land owner
While GreenAcre Ecovillage and Harmony Park Housing Co-operative did not get off the ground, it is important to acknowledge that these ground breaking and transformative opportunities would not have happened without a patient landowner who made the land available to explore, plan and promote a sustainable and community-oriented alternative to standard development practices. The planning and design for GreenAcre Ecovillage began in earnest in 1992. It took over 10 years for the final approval to come through, in 2003. In the case of Harmony Park Housing Co-operative, the landowner did not extend the option on the land past 6 months, and so the project was cancelled.
2. Consider teaming up with a developer
The development costs of projects are significant. Banks generally only fund around 60 to 70% of the total project costs and require the developer to fund the rest. In the US, Cohousing Communities often team up with a developer; it reduces the upfront investment required from future home owners and also minimises the risk for developers. I note that these are market rate strata titled communities, not affordable housing. The proponents of GreenAcre Ecovillage tried but were unsuccessful in convincing a developer to team up with them. In the case of Harmony Park Housing Co-operative, the co-operative would of been the developer. This model cuts out the developer and their margin but is reliant on future owners’ commitment from the start and for them to part finance the development like a developer would. The challenge here is to secure that commitment enough to proceed, as Deco Village did in Denmark.
3. Demonstrate demand
GreenAcre Ecovillage found that developers were shy of the project because it was not something that had been done before. The project consisted of 65% public open space (POS) not the standard 10%. They couldn’t understand why so much land would be used for POS and not for housing. Interestingly it was argued then (and is still believed now) that the overall return on investment would be similar as a premium could be attracted for the lot prices: less lots but more return per lot! They also felt that more land was needed to make it work, and at the time services were just too far away. The proponents were unable to demonstrate demand from future buyers. Similarly, Harmony Park Housing Co-operative did not proceed because future owner occupiers had not joined the co-operative as members yet. When undertaking unique and innovative projects, it is important to consider the marketing aspect, and how you will secure the required commitment and ultimately sales that are required for a project to proceed to the construction stage. Even in hot property markets, there are cohousing communities that successfully got off the ground. These groups were extremely well organised: people were committed, ready to sign on the dotted line and contribute significant sums of money at very short notice. Are you ready to do the same?
4. Know when to draw a line in the sand
Ultimately GreenAcre Ecovillage was never realised due to the owners aging and their need to sell the land to retire. In the case of Harmony Park Housing Co-operative, the landowner was not willing and able to extend the option agreement, leaving the group without security over the land. I am an affiliate of the 500 Communities Program and touched base with facilitator Katie McCamant from Cohousing Solutions the other day. Katie has 30+ years of experience in developing and building cohousing communities. When I told Katie we had made the decision to not proceed with Harmony Park Housing Co-operative she said: “if it is hard at the launch, it doesn’t get easier from there, it is important to know when to draw a line in the sand and walk away from a project opportunity”.
5. Never give up
“Never give up. You are not alone. Persist, persist, persist.” This is a quote by Otto Scharmer (Theory U). When you are trying to effect significant change, you need to be prepared to stumble along the way and to look at these, like projects that didn’t proceed, as opportunities to learn, and reflect before trying again. Don’t give up on the bigger picture. Ultimately, it is these missed opportunities that will create the momentum for other projects to get built. When we received planning approval for my first project, The Siding with The Green Swing, it was partly thanks to two or three other projects that unsuccessfully tried before, creating momentum for us to push through.
I never said that sustainable community building projects are easy, but when built they change lives, for the better.
May Green Fabric be a space to share opportunities and experience, to collaborate and work together, to grow and build the moment that is required for the communities of the future to be built and be successful.