Amazon Cottages: Little Homes Make a Big Impression

Amazon Cottages

After years of wading through bureaucratic red tape and neighborhood resistance, the vision of Eugene natives, Eric and Kathie Lundberg of Chinook Mortgage is finally becoming a reality. When they bought the property in 2006, now known as Hummingbird Lane, it was a field with two houses on it. “They were in really bad shape and needed to be torn down because they were becoming unsafe” says Kathie. Inspired by legendary architect Ross Chapin, who builds small intentional communities emphasizing efficient utilization of space and homes that encourage neighbors to gather in common areas, the Lundbergs decided they wanted to follow his example. The model they chose was Danielson Grove, the pocket community in Seattle that was one of the first in a string of Chapin developments. “If we wanted to be greedy, we could have fought to build bigger” says Kathie, who speaks proudly of what they have created.

Amazon CottagesAmazon Cottages, a keyhole or “pocket” neighborhood at the corner of Hilyard and Amazon consists of homes less than 1500 square feet. Intentionally, none of them face the road, because it’s the common space between these homes that matters. Designed to encourage neighbors to gather outside, with covered porches and doorways overlooking a green space, what normally would be driveways and pavement will be an inviting and beautiful place to bring people together. Looking at this small development it’s easy to believe you had gone back in time when people sat on their porches and watched the world go by, greeting neighbors and chatting “over the fence”.

But this site was not an easy sell to locals, neighbors put up a lot of resistance to this new model. I asked Eric what hurdles they encountered, “The biggest challenge was overcoming people’s fear of development” there were some heated words over the initial project from nearby residents. People feared the usual, decreased home values, increased traffic, and the resistance to having student housing in a quiet family neighborhood. Eric: “None of these things happened, home values didn’t change. Traffic is not an issue, in fact, one of the residents here doesn’t own a car and several of the houses don’t have driveways or garages to encourage walking and biking instead of driving. We now get compliments from people who originally fought the whole thing because they are seeing what it looks like in reality.” And as far as student housing goes, Graduate students from U of O, with families of their own are some of the current renters. “They are the best renters we have ever had, they are respectful and go about their lives just like anyone else in the neighborhood, we couldn’t have asked for better neighbors” says Eric. Neighbors because, like true pioneers and champions of a cause, the Lundbergs also live here.

Amazon CottagesOne of my last questions to Eric was “If you could do anything differently what would it be?” His answer was immediate and very firm, “I wouldn’t do it at all”. When I asked why, he gave me a list of hurdles they had jumped out of sheer determination to show Eugene it could be done. First there is general resistance to any kind of development from neighborhood associations, then there are real disincentives from a regulation standpoint to building small homes “Builders and developers have to make a profit and with all the infrastructure that is required, it costs almost the same to build a 2,500 square foot house as it does one with 800 square feet.”  This is a big challenge that needs to be addressed if Eugene is going to solve housing shortages as the city continues to grow. Eugene must face a reality, the city must have more, high quality, inexpensive homes with less impact to neighboring communities. Eric gives a startling statistic, “With 60% of households in America housing 1 or 2 people, these types of communities are in more demand. We need to make it easier to create this kind of development through codes and regulations that encourage a smaller footprint.” He admits the biggest problem they faced was timing. In 2008 the market was at its lowest point, houses were not selling and development was at a standstill.

Amazon CottagesThe last 4 homes are under construction and when Heather Sielicki and myself went to visit, we were given a tour of the property. The date of completion is uncertain, but the goal is mid-November, “November 15th, 2016” Kathie says with a confident smile. I was impressed by how much thought went into the planning, building and general layout of this project and how dedicated the Lundbergs have been to its success. Eugene is facing a housing crisis, like so many cities across the United States. To address it, the city has to start making it less expensive to have a roof over your head without the worry of it falling down, or being uninhabitable due to neglect. Homelessness can be mitigated when local governments create incentives for developers to create this type of community. But the biggest challenge will be overcoming the objections of people to alternative models of development like Amazon Cottages. Neighborhood Associations need to take the responsibility of supporting inexpensive housing and using their voices to communicate their needs in a positive and constructive environment so that projects can proceed with fewer obstacles. Here is an example of what can be accomplished when people work together, but the pioneers are warning us that we cannot make it so difficult to house the growing population.

Profit is not the only motive developers have in creating high quality, affordable housing. As the Lundbergs have demonstrated, it really does take a village to raise a community. In this respect, paving the way for the rest of us by resisting standard “development” they have created a community instead. To Eric and Kathie, thank you for being the pioneers, for not being greedy and for having the tenacity to prevail in the face of so much adversity. The city of Eugene may not see the benefit today but the future will likely show that your vision will create a more positive community for all of us if we simply follow your example.