Features and Occasionals

Continuing on Common Ground

By Katherine Pioli

This community was built with diversity in mind,” says Lynda Angelastro, her face bright with pride. All around the room, the heads of her neighbors nod in agreement. There’s Susan Stewart, a retired third-year resident, sunk deep in a cushioned chair. Hob Calhoun, a sixth year resident hailing from the East Coast, leans in the doorway. Vicky Wason and her teenage daughter Grace sit together on a couch. Lynda continues speaking for the group. “Our neighbors are Mormon and Unitarian. They are from Ghana, England, Califor­nia, New England. You don’t find that anywhere else in Salt Lake.”

It’s true. In the 15 years since it was established on four and a half open acres in southwest Salt Lake City, Wasatch Commons has remained the state’s only continuing nondenominational cohousing intentional community. Through the years, neighbors have changed and gatherings have evolved but the Commons remains a model of cooperation and community in our city.

First-time visitors often have trouble finding their way to the Commons because, unlike most neighborhoods, its houses face each other along a winding pedestrian path instead of a street. Cars only go as far as the group lot on the east side of the neighborhood. Strolling through the Commons feels like a trip through an Old World country village. Twenty-six beige adobe houses stand in tight formation down either side of the walk, each with a large and inviting window. Tall old trees add a sense of shelter and small well-tended plots of flowers and bushes sprouting up in front of each door tell of care and pride. Halfway down the path, the Commons opens into a modern version of the old town square, a large common house surrounded by lawn, where the community gathers for meetings, dinners and holiday parties.

With all its acreage, Wasatch Commons has ample space for gardens. Each residence has its own patch of fruit trees and vegetables. Some yards have chickens. Urban farmer Sharon Leopardi of BUG Farms works some of the community plots, and is in the process of converting a once open field where the community children played, into a new farm plot in exchange for providing some food to the community.

The clustered, inwardly focused design of the Commons intentionally ensures impromptu meetings among neighbors throughout the day. It’s a concept not often seen in condominium associations, but, then again, Wasatch Commons is more than just an association, or just a neighborhood; it’s an intentional community. Instead of being united under a shared philosophy or religion, cohousing intentional communities are bonded by the common goal of creating a nurturing, open, collaborative and safe environment while still leaving ample room for privacy and autonomous choice.

Because the houses in the Commons are 100% privately owned (the common center and grounds are jointly owned) if an owner fancies changing the color on their living room wall, it’s no problem. Periodically owners find renters, other times they put their house up for sale. Units range from 1,000 sq ft to 2,000 sq ft and are moderately priced from $135,000 to $195,000. Such reasonable housing options in such a safe community has the potential to generate a lot of interest but, Commons residents caution, new owners need to also be prepared to give a significant time and emotional investment.

“There are unique challenges to this lifestyle,” says Susan Stewart. “When a community relies on consensus as we do, months can go by before anything is done if just one person doesn’t have the same vision.” And, unlike on a normal street, it’s nearly impossible at the Commons to avoid each other when tensions arise

Still, the model has its strengths as Lynda Angelastro likes to point out. When she and her husband moved into a condominium in Midvale, they expected a friendly, close-knit community similar to Lynda’s childhood neighborhood outside of London. “My husband and I joined the governing board, we started a reading group and a theater group, but we were never able to connect with our neighbors.” When she found Wasatch Commons she never hesitated making the move into co-housing.

In the early years at the Wasatch Commons, community gatherings had a certain barn-raising quality. People pitched in on each other’s home improvement projects: planting trees, laying walkways, building chicken coops, turning up soil for gardens. Today, the community has matured and changed and gatherings take on a different roll. “These days,” explains Vicky Wason. “We have time to come together for knitting groups, potlucks, Easter hunts and pumpkin carving.” On Sunday evenings, the community shares dinner in the common building. On Wednesdays some of them gather for lunch.

For Grace Wason, who came to the Commons as a baby with her parents and older brother, the changes this community has seen in the last 15 years all happened as naturally as her own growing up. For her mother Vicky and other older members, each change is clearly mapped in memory. Looking ahead, Vicky is hopeful the Wasatch Commons will continue to respect the privacy but also give the support that each individual in the community needs and cherishes.

This article was originally published on November 1, 2013.