An Alternative to McMansion-style Living

By Mike Ivey, April 13, 2004

The local housing market has officially reached the stratosphere.

Property tax assessments just released by the city of Madison pushed the average home value here past $200,000. In Dane County, the average sales price is now over $230,000. One reason prices keep climbing is size, at least for new homes. The average home under construction in the county is over 2,400 square feet. In Monona, there's a 5,000-square-footer going up. That's a lot of shack.

But a group of ecologically-minded types are thinking in the opposite direction.

Arboretum Co-housing Inc. is hoping to develop some 40 units of owner-occupied housing on Erin and Orchard streets between St. Marys Hospital and the Vilas Park Zoo. The group is currently involved in negotiations with St. Marys to purchase 18 buildings owned by the hospital. It hopes to buy the entire block for a project that would involve both renovation and new construction.

Madison's highest profile co-housing project, the Village, is located in the same neighborhood on the half block bounded by South Mills and Mound streets. With 18 units, it opened to residents in 1999.

Co-housing is a concept that has been used in Scandinavia for over 25 years but has been slow to catch on in this country. Basically, a group of people get together to own their homes or condos while sharing common spaces, parking, child care, meals, lawn tools or whatever else might be shared between friendly neighbors.

Arboretum Co-housing member John Merrill said the idea is to be "light on the landscape" while creating a greater sense of community. He said today's emphasis on bigger homes on larger lots has left many Americans with a strange feeling of isolation.

"People keep thinking they need more space - just like they think they need a bigger SUV," said Merrill, a housing specialist with UW Extension. "Maybe people keep building bigger houses because they're not really sure what they want out of life?"

The relationship between the Arboretum Co-housing group and St. Marys grew out of the hospital's major expansion plans,which were approved last month by the city Plan Commission. As part of a deal reached with the neighborhood, St. Marys agreed to work on replacing some of the homes being torn down due to the construction.

The Arboretum Co-housing group of some 50 individuals has taken that idea and run with it. It has done its research and is getting down to discussing the sales price with St. Marys for 18 properties, which are assessed for tax purposes at around $4 million.

St. Marys vice president of operations Barb Miller said the hospital might be willing to sell the properties below market price if the proper financing arrangements can be worked out. She said negotiations to date have remained positive."A lot of it has to do with the nonprofit status" of the co-housing group, said Miller.

Lou Host-Jablonski, an architect with Design Coalition Inc. of Madison, said initial plans call for renovating 15 of the buildings on the block, moving those worth saving and building four or five new structures.

"We certainly want to stay with the design and massing that are already in the neighborhood," said Host-Jablonski, who has been involved with other co-housing efforts in Wisconsin, including the Village, Troy Gardens on the city's north side and another project in East Troy.

If everything falls into place, Host-Jablonski said Arboretum Co-housing residents could start moving in by the summer of2006.

Merrill, for one, can't wait. He and his wife are empty-nesters residing in the Hill Farms neighborhood, and Merrill said they are excited about being part of a new community.

"Everybody I've mentioned this to thinks it's a great idea," he said. "We're hoping it all works out." Mike Ivey is a business reporter at The Capital Times. He can be reached at 252-6431 or at

Published: 8:03 AM 4/13/04


About MikeMike Ivey has been a reporter and columnist at The Capital Times since 1986. During that time he has covered sports, local news, environment and business. Ivey has won numerous journalism awards in his career, including first place for investigative reporting from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association in 2002.


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