Powderhouse for Somerville

Kristina Kehrer's picture

A Collaborative Living Project for the Elder Years

Reebee Garofalo has lived in the Cambridge/Somerville area since 1970. He is a Professor Emeritus at UMass Boston, a musician, an activist, and the author of the book, Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA, "A comprehensive social history of popular music in the United States.”

In spring of 2010, Garofalo, his wife Deborah, and friend Janine Fay, were sitting around the dining room table discussing how they wanted to live out the rest of their lives. They were in their mid-to-late sixties and had experienced their own parent’s end of life option, “assisted living.” Their visceral reaction to this choice, “Shoot me now, before we go through something like that.” And that is when the notion of a Collaborative Living Project began.

Having come of age during the sixties and seventies when alternative living situations were of the norm and not unfamiliar to this group (believe it or not, there used to be communes in Cambridge), Garofalo and his friends wanted to take that “activist spirit” into elder hood. Their goal is to “age-in-place or age-in-community.” Despite the high cost of real estate in this region, the group never had any doubt they could make this dream a reality.

From idea to action, several things happened in quick succession. They created a vision statement, which described what they were looking to do. They made a list of people they wanted to involve in the project, and then the hard part - how to find a building.

One idea was to see if the city of Somerville had any municipal buildings for sale. In July of 2010, they had their first meeting with the mayor of Somerville, Joe Curtatone, where they discussed the potentiality of the Powderhouse School. Although just “a pipedream” in that first meeting, eight years later Powerhouse is the actual site for the Collaborative Living Project.

At the time of the meeting with Mayor Curtatone there were three people involved in the project. Over the course of eight years, 40 people wandered in and out of the group and today the committed number stands at 16 to 20 people. There was never any advertising done; the gathering of likeminded souls happened by word of mouth.

Down to the nuts and bolts. Powderhouse for Somerville is a massive project due to the size of the building. The project will become a multi-use, multi-generational facility, which will include:
1) 48 residential rental units, of which 12 will belong to the Collaborative Living Project
2) A STEAM Academy High School called Powderhouse Studios (an approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics)
3) A restaurant
4) A bodega
5) A performance venue
6) An artist work/live space
7) A one acre park

The Collaborative Living folks are a group of activists, artists, and educators, who obviously could not fund this project themselves; therefore, they needed a developer for financing. A local firm called Marka won the bid and they purchased the school from the city of Somerville. Collaborative Living will buy the 12 units from MarKa. It is interesting to note that for the last two years this as been a handshake deal “requiring an enormous amount of trust on both sides.” Good-faith money has been put on the table and both parties are now entered into more formalized negotiations with each other.

So the question arises, what’s the difference between a group of people buying condominiums together and a suitable, collaborative living situation for the twilight years? Garofalo says, “It’s a hybrid of many sorts that hasn’t been tried anywhere, to my knowledge,” so the trial and errors of this group will be educational for others in the future.

The most important feature of this project, they are building from the ground up. The group has spent a lot of time with MarKa designing the units according to the principals of Universal Design. (Universal Design refers to broad-spectrum ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.) A few examples include: all the doorways will be 36 inches wide to permit wheelchair access. There will be no thresholds, and the bathrooms will be large enough to permit wheelchair turnaround. The bathrooms will also include easy access showers.

As far as a group of cohorts caring for each other, (which is what I thought this might be all about) there isn’t a formalized contract, but they are aware that they could benefit from “economies of scale,” combining resources to purchase healthcare, and/or if three or four people need a day nurse they could combine resources and share.

This wouldn’t be a regional story without the technological aspect. Collaborative Living just met with a technology group at Northeastern University that is experimenting with health technology, which does things like wiring apartments with sensors that will test how many times you open the refrigerator door/measure your heart rate/sensor under the bed to measure your sleeping pattern/and how many times you toss and turn. The program tracks what you want them to and privacy is of the upmost important. “The opportunity to do research with a live group of 12 real condos is attractive to them.” Northeastern does have a demonstration unit at the campus if you are interested in this technology.

As far as group decisions, “everything is a committee of the whole.” Condo associations require by law certain etiquette's such as, presidents, treasurers etc, but with the Collaborative Living folks agreements are generally made by consensus.

MarKa and the group are in the process of hammering out the condominium documents that will govern the relationship between the 12 Collaborative Living units and the rest of the building.

Garofalo doesn’t have any specific advice for others, because they are still in the process of creating nirvana. Plus, any advice would be specific to what kind of group you are, what resources the group has, and what type of building or plot of land you acquire. Ultimately, it would be better to be your own financier in order to keep complete control of the property.

Garofalo also points out it is “never too early and often too late” to start contemplating the future.
There’s an extensive website devoted to this project.