Phoenix Commons represents a new way to age in place, but this cohousing development seeks elders fired up for change.
Rose K. Mark, her husband, Larry Beresford, and Sue Stewart are cooking dinner for 20 people. Luckily, they’ve got room to work. This open, communal kitchen has two chef’s stoves, two dishwashers, and some 30 feet of counter space.
As they prep two kinds of pizza, a garden salad, and made-from-scratch pudding, they can look out over an airy dining area holding a dozen blond wood tables and Eames-style chairs to see the Oakland estuary.
Outside floor-to-ceiling windows, joggers and dog walkers pass on the waterfront promenade; beyond the promenade, kayaks and skiffs skim the sparkling water.
It’s close to dinnertime at Phoenix Commons, an intentional community for people 55 and older, designed with private living quarters and extensive, shared public space. It’s dedicated to creating an expansive and exciting way to age in place.
To the left of the dining room is a lounge, furnished in tones of slate gray, burnt orange, and avocado green. The furniture is modern and hip; this could be any Oakland waterfront loft development—the designer has been careful to make the couches and arm chairs comfortable, as well as stylish. Unfinished concrete walls and industrial gray tweed carpeting add to the industrial-chic vibe.
The space extends back behind these areas into a series of semi-open rooms. More than 18,000 square feet contain a media lounge, a library, another seating area, a gym, an office, and a courtyard with a hot tub.
It’s everything an affluent and active person
would want from downtown loft living—and almost nothing you’d expect to find in a senior development. That’s the point. The 31 “old” people in Phoenix Commons are fomenting revolution. They’re determined to boot everything society thinks about “seniors” and “senior housing” off the dock.
Right now, except for the cooks in the kitchen, these common areas are empty. That’s typical for Phoenix Commons, too; it’s not a place where people sit around. They’re out kayaking, volunteering, going to Pilates, and planning hiking trips to the French Alps.
At 5:30 p.m., people begin to filter in to the lounge. Members of the group that gathers this evening are all over 55, although beyond that, it’s hard to guess their ages. Silver hair, dyed hair, T-shirts, silk blouses, stylish sandals, athletic shoes—it’s definitely East Bay style for these women and men. They chat in small groups, clearly comfortable and engaged with each other.
A bell rings at 5:45, and they make their way to the counter to serve themselves. There are wine and agua fresca and plenty left over for seconds.
There doesn’t seem to be any of that high-school anxiety about who to sit with. Conversation is convivial; these people have plenty to talk about. They also know each other well, much better than a typical group of condo dwellers. That’s because they’ve been through the crucible of cohousing development.
Cohousing is a methodology for creating very small, close-knit neighborhoods within urban, suburban, or rural settings. There are two parts to it: design of the physical spaces and a process for the residents to make decisions by consensus.
“Community” is a nebulous word that gets tossed around a lot, and it surfaces constantly when you talk to Phoenix Commons residents. But cohousing is carefully designed to produce a sense of community by its dictionary definition: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”
Most cohousing projects begin with a core group of people who come together because they crave that perhaps-mythical small-town ethos of interdependency. They may work with a facilitator or an architect; they meet regularly for what could be years before they ever break ground on a project. While cohousing groups usually self-finance and must identify and purchase the site for the project, Chris Zimmerman, founder of Phoenix Commons, knew this method wouldn’t work for his target market: people who were late in life, looking to downsize, and possibly move closer to their children, but weren’t ready to fade into senescence.
Phoenix Commons, however, isn’t a safe harbor for the last decades of life; it’s an intentional community dedicated to creating a better model for aging in place, one that includes comfort, friendship, mutual support, and self-governance.
On a recent afternoon, sunlight floods the walkway along the fourth floor of Phoenix Commons. The 63,537-square-foot building’s long axis faces west, and its length is bisected by an outdoor corridor that brightens the inner units and provides for individual minipatios and a wide concrete path lined with planters. A couple of elderly dogs soak up the warmth. Front doors and kitchen windows delineate the private dwellings, which range from studios to two-bedroom units.
There’s a code for residents, Mark said. “If the shades are down, I want to be alone. If the shades are up, wave or stop by. I’m open to social interactions.”
Chris Zimmerman, 69, has spent his career building and managing senior-oriented projects. The portfolio of AEC Living, the Alameda-based company he founded, includes Waters Edge nursing home; assisted living facilities Elders Inn and The Lodge; and AES Therapy & Fitness, a rehab and fitness center.
It’s a family business. His wife, Darnelle Zimmerman, is chief nursing officer, directing the care programs at all the facilities. Daughter Lauren Zimmerman Cook, CEO of AEC Living, is a licensed California nursing home administrator. Her brother, Stephen Zimmerman, COO of AEC Living, has a master’s degree in gerontology and is a licensed residential care for the elderly administrator. He manages The Lodge and serves as sales director of Phoenix Commons.
Cook and Stephen Zimmerman spent their childhoods observing their parents’ work and helping out. The whole family moved into The Lodge for nine months while Chris and Darnelle Zimmerman were getting The Lodge up and running. The siblings also publish Alameda Senior Magazine.
The Phoenix Commons concept began 10 years ago, when the Zimmermans decided to build a cohousing project. “We learned that, in health care, the more you can create a sense of community on a human scale and do human things together, the quality of life is much better than if you’re dealing with things only clinically,” said Chris Zimmerman.
Chris Zimmerman was also feeling the effects of his own aging and not totally liking it. For him, cohousing represented “the way I wanted to retire—to have peers who will help me with my load, do stuff together.”
An essential aspect of cohousing is that residents plan the development in a way that’s suited to their needs and desires. That means cohousing projects often include extensive common space to promote interaction: kitchens, meeting rooms, living rooms, yards, or gardens, with smaller private quarters. One group might want an art or music studio; another might lobby for a child-care room. The overall arrangement gives residents access to much more space than they might get in a single-family home, with the added benefit that it’s customized to their desires and budget.
Typically, a cohousing group self-finances its project, buying land and building it out. Most are structured as condominiums, with individuals owning their private units and jointly owning the common property and shared facilities. Chris Zimmerman knew this wouldn’t work for his target market: People who are retired or nearing the end of their working lives are more averse to financial risk, and they probably didn’t have the four to five years the Cohousing Research Network says it typically takes for a cohousing project to progress from conception to move-in availability. Instead, Zimmerman decided to start development and allow people to buy in and lock down a price on a condo for just $500.
“With cohousing, a lot of people may be interested, but when it comes to the financing, it’s hard to find those people,” Stephen Zimmerman said. “With our project, they didn’t have to worry about the development falling through, because it was already being built.”
The Zimmerman siblings formed Elders Village, a nonprofit with the mission of helping older people build physical and/or social communities to help them maintain independence, foster quality of life, and cushion the costs of aging. They originally planned to build cohousing in Alameda, but couldn’t find a site. Then, Tiki Tom’s burned down. The somewhat funky Hawaiian-themed sports bar had been down on its luck; its demise opened up a prime spot in Jingletown, which was trending upscale with new loft developments, the opening of the San Francisco Bay Trail along the estuary, and UC Berkeley’s Rogers Rowing Center. The Zimmermans courted prospects through advertisements and workshops on aging in place.
In 22 years living in Castro Valley, Sue Stewart, a retired county court staffer, was comfortable in her condo community, but she felt isolated. She saw an ad for Phoenix Commons while she was at a movie and was initially attracted by the waterfront location. When she found out more about the other people who were moving in, she was sold. She put down her money in fall 2015. “It’s really about the people,” she said.
Jyoti Rae wanted to move from Indianapolis to the Bay Area to be near her daughters and granddaughter. When a family member told her about her Phoenix Commons, her first reaction was, “I don’t want to live with a bunch of old people. Then,” she said, “you start hearing the word ‘active.’ It’s not just being neighbors; you’re actually interacting, coordinating with others, and coming up with new ideas to facilitate operations. I love writing and editing, and I get to do all of that here.”
People who had paid their $500 fee, dubbed “community members,” began meeting biweekly in 2013. As new people signed on, they joined the meetings, sometimes remotely from their homes across the country. Stephen Zimmerman and his sister were the first to move in when the building was ready in March 2016.
As one of the first three residents to move into Phoenix Commons that March, Rae felt it was like going off to college all over again. “You’re starting over, sharing stories, and you get to know people on a much deeper level,” she said.
“The early folks put in a lot of sweat equity in terms of setting up systems and working on them,” said Mark, a retired educator and author of the forthcoming book Interiors for Small Dwellings. “There were countless meetings to create systems that would work for the community.” Starting from scratch, they had to come up with ways to do everything from defining teams to posting menus.
This early buy-in and intense work has created an atmosphere that’s akin to a startup’s atmosphere, and everyone here has drunk the Kool-Aid. The hours of meetings and discussions have gotten people to buy in at a very deep level; with the development half full, everyone is focused on the mission of making Phoenix Commons go as a community. Beyond that, these residents have bought into the larger mission of providing a better model for living the last years of life.
Ken and JoAnna Allen bought their unit in March. JoAnna Allen, a retired public school teacher from Baltimore, wants to harness the wisdom and expertise of residents to reach out to lonely, bored older people everywhere and help them create this for themselves. “I want to see a community of such whole people that others will come to us and say, ‘What’s your magic? Can you help us?'” she said.
Chris Zimmerman said he believes all this work—both the process and the physical labor—contributes to the richness of life at Phoenix Commons: “having something you accomplish together for a common good.”
This makes sales different, of course. The first residents moved in March 2016; to date, 22 of the 41 units are sold. Although Stephen Zimmerman said sales are on track, there are two things that complicate the purchase: the community aspect and the community-vetting process.
Said Robbie Kiley, a retired attorney who now volunteers with organizations including a Medicare counseling service, “You’re not buying a piece of property; you’re acquiring a community. . . . You’re taking on responsibilities and restrictions that you would not if you were just buying a piece of property. It’s only of value to someone who would find that rewarding and not onerous.”
Plus, residents are acquiring a part-time job: All community members are supposed to work 12 hours a month for 11 months out of the year serving the Phoenix Commons community. There is an option to pay to avoid chores, which include cooking one of the biweekly communal dinners or cleaning up after it; staffing the office; mopping floors; and taking out the recycling.
Residents’ handling these tasks reduces costs for everyone, but many people opt for a condo precisely because they want to avoid maintenance work.
“No one is taking care of us,” said Larry Beresford, a medical writer. “We’re responsible. When things are needed, we have to rise to the occasion. People may think, ‘Well, someone will take care of that.’ No, we have to.”
Anne McKereghan, a Realtor with Alain Pinel, is one of two listing agents for the Phoenix Commons properties. Today’s prices range from the high $400,000s to the high $700,000s, in line with conventional condominiums. People who bought in early at Phoenix Commons got units as low as $250,000.
When she meets a condo shopper who’s at least 55, McKereghan immediately mentions Phoenix Commons. “It’s a new type of housing and a unique opportunity in the East Bay,” she said. On the other hand, “This is not your standard new development that you walk in and buy. It’s a longer selling process.”
That longer process can work well for people who want to downsize and need to sell their homes; and they can make an offer on one of the condos contingent on selling that home. “This is very rare in this market,” McKereghan said. “That peace of mind is a real plus.”
Not everyone wants to buy a community, so part of the sales process is helping prospective buyer/members understand what they’re getting into. There’s a tension between the developer’s need to sell out the project and the goal of building an intentional community. California real estate laws preclude discrimination, and so AEC Living must sell to any qualified buyer. Neither can members reject qualified prospects, “but we can talk them to death. And we will,” said Beresford.
And there is a lot of talking to be done. After an orientation and tour, prospects fill out several forms that ask about not only their finances but also what they can contribute to the community: “Describe the relationships that constitute your own support system. What are your most memorable experiences of living and or working in a community setting? What skills or talents can you contribute to the community?”
The sales packet also includes the community’s core values: cooperation, intention, engagement, support, humor, and commitment.
This first cut eliminates anyone who’s simply looking for a nice condo on the water. The next step is to attend one of the biweekly dinners and one of the monthly meetings, which typically last a couple of hours in which the different teams report on their progress.
“You can’t live here and not enjoy process,” said Rae, a retired social worker.
Finally, there’s an Expectations Meeting in which three to five Phoenix Commons residents meet with a prospective buyer to ask—and answer—questions about everything from what life at Phoenix Commons is like to how big a danger earthquakes present.
“We want to make sure that they know what this involves—and whether they’re willing to be a part of this,” Mark said.
Those monthly 12 hours of work are definitely on the Expectations Meeting agenda, both because it could be a deal-breaker and because it’s an objective example of the broader commitment that the community is looking for.
Cohousing communities are self-organizing and self-managing. Decisions are made by consensus, with people joining teams to oversee different aspects of operations, such as governance, membership, dining, and facilities management. Ad hoc committees form as needed; for example, one current committee is tasked with coming up with the best method for kayak storage.
Yes, that’s a heckuva lotta committees. There’s even a process committee to process the process.
That may shift, though. Early community members self-selected themselves as being willing and eager to participate in planning and setting up systems. Now that systems are in place, people may enjoy what JoAnna Allen calls a “zone of indifference.”
“Everyone has their zone of indifference,” she said. “For example, I don’t care what goes on the walls. We do not all have to be involved with every decision. The wider everybody’s zone of indifference, the smoother things will run.”
This kind of living isn’t for everyone, but for those who fit, it’s a new way of living what might turn out to be the very best part of their lives.
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