“Hold the Vision and They Will Build It” – How Germantown Cohousing Community appeared in Nashville, Tennessee (Founder’s account) 4.94/5 (18)

Introduction

Are you familiar with intentional communities, cohousing communities, and other types of community living arrangements? Over 1,500 of them are listed on the website of the Foundation for Intentional Community at www.IC.org, and the demand for more of them is constantly rising. The term Intentional is an umbrella term for communities formed with intention. Cohousing is also an intentional community but with more streamlined principles. According to www.cohousing.org, cohousing is initiated, designed and funded by the members, and then the built community is managed by the residents.

Germantown Commons, the first cohousing community in Nashville, TN, was a result of over five years of research, planning, capital raising, and construction. The Founder of this community Diana Sullivan is sharing with the readers of Your Green Homestead her personal journey of struggle in the early stages of the development process and how she was able to overcome the obstacles by focusing and holding a powerful vision that attracted the right people and resources at the right time along the way. Don’t miss that hair raising moment described in this contest entry when everything came down to just one decision…

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Excerpt from the book “Vision, A New Beginning” by Diana Sullivan – soon to be published

Chapter 6. Hold the Vision and They will Build It

“It’s not what you don’t know that can hurt you, it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that can hurt you.” He warned me, his brilliant blue eyes glaring at me with emphasis and brows knitted together with one eye lid drooping. A successful, retired management consultant, he looked like a bald pirate in a dark blue business suit as he leaned toward me, taking up my space to intimidate me.

Standing my ground, I waved a written real estate offer in my hand committing to purchase property for a million dollars. The fact that I didn’t have enough money for the earnest money requirement wasn’t going to stop me. The recession of 2008 with tight money was almost over and 2012 was starting without much hope, either.

For several years, I held a vision to build an intentional, sustainable community. If anyone needed community after a divorce and with young adult sons busy with their own lives, it was me. It felt like the missing piece was community.

My friend, mentor and management consultant was the key asset in that moment as he glowered, warning me to take his sage advice. He authored books, consulted with companies, and helped them increase revenues from a few million dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars.

His sage advice was timely. I had the urge to stand to attention and salute him, “Yes sir!”

On behalf of this vision of community, I had researched property for three years from one location to another, dragging in developers to help make offers on large tracts, building groups of potential members of the community who could help fund the project, talking to city officials, and attending conferences and workshops to learn. I spread the vision to whomever would listen like spreading peanut butter on bread.

Mayor Karl Dean, Diana Sullivan, and Chris

It seemed like everyone from a young person interested in community all the way to the Mayor’s office was supportive. Holding a vision is a powerful act. Telling everyone around you is even more powerful. People with the same needs and concerns get pulled in to the vision. As you share it with others, the bigger the potential can grow.

Researchers on human energy have said that two people together holding a vision has the power of eleven people to accomplish their goal. So, when a dozen people get together the potential for success expands exponentially.

As I shared it, others joined me with each tract of land we considered. At one time we looked at a 283 acre farm with the hope to sell some of it off to afford a smaller tract for an intentional community. The plan included 400 homes and beautiful natural amenities. We made an offer of six million dollars. I had no money but a lot of courage because of the vision.

Holding the possibility of unlimited potential I found others who knew people with money. They seemed to appear from nowhere. I shared my vision with them and they made the offers on my behalf for the large tracts of land. Yet, it wasn’t happening.

A small group of idealists first gathered around the vision of building the sustainable community. We tried buying property that did not work. We drove to Atlanta to look at the urban community of Serenbe and came back to make an offer on another piece of property. That did not work. We hosted a charrette with an architect from Atlanta. The local newspaper did a full page, full color article on our quest in the real estate section. Still we had no land to build anything.  And the vision still grew with more people offering to help.

It wouldn’t be until we created such a stir and reached a number of people that we would find land and then all the work would pay off with contacts.

While investing this energy and time, I traveled to Boulder Colorado to take classes on building cohousing. I learned about cohousing from the constant research. It was a group of homes clustered together and a common house where dinner parties would be held regularly, the promise of real community. At this time there were one hundred and fifty of these communities around the country with dozens more under construction.

Diana Sullivan with Bryan and Kristin from Bowen Architects

When I returned I was asked to give a presentation at the Nashville Civic Design Centre on cohousing. A member of the board of the Design Centre became interested in cohousing and was trying to decide if his land in the urban core was a candidate for this type of residential development. At the Centre we participated in a charrette on three different potential properties. I chose the group working on the larger land tract. Others worked on the two that were smaller, including the one urban acre offered by the land owner who thought cohousing could be built there.

It was a perfect scenario. Land just the right size, others supporting the project, a seller willing to hold it for this purpose. I’m not interested I thought. Why would I want to live in the urban area on one acre enclosed in the city? No, thank you.

We built a possible community of people, made an offer on the larger rural tract and the sellers refused to sell to us. I didn’t know anything about development, building residential homes or how to craft an option offer for land development. So, I kept asking everyone I came into contact with ‘how do I do this?’ I learned a lot and over the years realized I had acquired knowledge comparable to a master’s degree in residential land development.

It was still frustrating to start and stop.

A group of potential residential buyers would form as a group and six months later they would scatter. Everyone wanted community but our culture’s expectation was to buy a home in six months. The people who were interested just didn’t have the attention span to wait patiently.

There was also the concern it would take years before anything could get built.

You must want something badly enough to create a sustained intensity seeking it. This carries you through the learning process.

There I was with a vision and nothing to show for it but a lot of research, envisioning and a strange hope it would one day happen. Despite being a person who gives up easily or talks myself out of what I am doing, I continued on, diligently. Community living was bubbling up as a trend and would begin to affect real estate in the multi-family, co-living world. This was a cultural need and a new trend. I had a vision and knew it had wings.

Yet, nothing was working, it seemed. So, I finally gave up and faced the fact something needed to change for this to ever happen.

I surrendered to the moment, to the inevitable and to the urban site in Germantown.

I realized what needed to change for this to happen would be for me to change my mind.

Surrender

“Ah, darn!” I thought. I never wanted to live in Germantown. It was too urban. I wanted to live by nature, on a farm. But we had reached the end of anyone participating and I had reached the end of my expectation. The direction I was taking was not working.

Up against the wall, I decided if it’s going to be, it’s up to me and no one else. I gave up resisting the land opportunity presenting itself like an unrelenting and continuous soft rain on a metal roof. I listened to the flow.

In the idea of parallel realities, there are many within it including the one best reality needed. The wisdom of years watching these opportunities in my own life helped me see to hold a vision doesn’t mean it all happens exactly as you expect. In fact, there are many surprises along the way. The one best reality, generally, has numerous benefits unknown and unrealized at the time.

You just have to go with the flow and accept what arrives at your door.

Land site in Germantown that was later developed into a cohousing community

The land was slightly less than an acre in the center of Germantown, a historical and affluent community of Nashville, within a mile walkable to the city.

I, alone, made an offer on the one acre. There was no one else in my group at the moment interested. I just sent the offer to the seller. By that time I had tried so many times, I had become knowledgeable on how to put an option on property with very little money. And I had my grocery money at best to offer towards earnest money. Of course, that was not enough.

The seller and I haggled over the price during the holidays at the end of 2011 and by February 2012 came to an agreement. They wanted over a million dollars. I offered less. We settled at $925,000. I did not have the $2,500 to put down for earnest money.

So, here I was standing before my towering friend, glowering at me with his intense blue eyes and loose patch of skin drifting over his eye and looking like a bald pirate to reinforce his warning. He knew I knew nothing about housing development. I just wanted a community.

He also knew how few startups succeeded even when they had the knowledge and he knew the risky real estate development business. He had joked about how the wives of developers were neurotic.  He said one day they lived in fine homes and the next day their husbands lost everything. Developers were gamblers, he said. And I was a novice.

I wasn’t giving up now. I turned around, laid the paper on a counter nearby and signed the offer. I was about to lead the initial development process of twenty five condos with amenities for a retail value of $7.2 million dollars.

As soon as the contract was underway to be drafted for a final signature I sent out an email to my list. “Here’s the property, who’s in?” I announced.

“I am,” three people replied back. There were now four of us. Dot, an attorney looking to retire in a few years. Perfect!  Just what you need, legal advice, when starting a company.

Dot’s office would offer help with the legal paperwork of the start-up.

Then there was Brad, an architect. Perfect! Someone to help with the pre development ideas and hiring of professionals for a real estate development. He would know.

Finally, there was Liz, a CEO administrative assistant of a large company who had the dynamic skills to whip into shape our group like organizing a group of fireman fighting a major fire. Perfect, we had a fire. We were a group of volunteers diving into a project without understanding what we didn’t know, that we didn’t know. She was the key to organization.

And of course, I was a commercial real estate agent who had just acquired enough knowledge about land development to know how to at least get the land under contract.

In review, it was amazing everyone with the initial skills needed just showed up. I would watch this happen over and over with time.

The four of us held the vision and all that was necessary was holding a vision together. Because when two people carry the energy of eleven then four people carry the energy of twenty two. How could anything stop us?

With this vision in our minds we grew. Over time with the group’s continued action, the effort picked up in capacity like a locomotive steaming down the track. The energy and enthusiasm began to attract others. The vision held together by everyone became a force for creating.

The first step after getting the land under contract and forming a legal entity was to hire a cohousing consultant who would advise other steps, provide guidance, and additional legal paperwork. So, if you don’t know what you don’t know and it could hurt you then you get professional experts who do know. We did.

Like a person in a burning building, I moved nimbly and fast as if my hair was on fire. And despite my fear, what was needed happened every step of the way. There was really no need for fear just a healthy alertness and humility as it unfolded.

The Site Design Workshop where together we designed it

Vision Creates a Flow

We needed to find development professionals who could lend advice and they showed up. It had been a slow market and several offered free advice. We took advice with necessary steps to fulfill the contract and to start with designs, engineering plans, and go through planning department approvals.

There was a constant and immediate need for more money. We marketed the idea on Facebook and other platforms costing little to nothing. Our friends showed up and bought into the vision. They brought money. Soon we had another four or five individuals who would be retiring from education. Great, they brought money and energy to create printed flyers, distribute them, talk to people, help set up events to present our vision, and balance a checkbook. It was a perfect team of volunteers raising money and membership.

We hired professionals who led workshops and helped us to envision our new homes. Visioning exercises were like adding gas to a gasoline engine, firing up the ride and moving everything forward or, like the sun shining on a solar panel providing just what was needed.

Each step of the way vision led the way. And strangely every resource we needed came our way. When the bank account grew, suddenly, a retired CPA joined us and helped with the accounting books. When we had questions about construction plans, an entrepreneur with a company maintaining and reconstructing buildings joined. When we needed fun we had a singer who joined with a beautiful voice to lead inspiring songs.

I soon learned whatever we needed, it showed up whether it was money, resources, or knowledgeable people. There was an obvious synchronicity happening. As vision emerges it seems all resources needed are magnetically attracted.

It was about this time when my retired management consultant friend leveled his blue eyes with a bright gaze of warning at me with an adamant insistence no one could question.

Yes, we would need to be humble, seek wisdom and not operate from ignorance. And we didn’t know enough about what we were doing to know when we were ignorant.

We incorporated as a nonprofit and then hired our first consultant. She sent us documents to be used as a for-profit and explained why we needed to become a for-profit.

“Oh, no!” I thought. We were already bumbling.

We dithered. That’s what you do when you’re clueless. Big dreams, big visions will get you started. But expert knowledge will help you to succeed most of the time.

The development/construction industry is like an angry bull named Murphy and what can go wrong definitely will. With hundreds of professionals involved in a development project there is more than enough opportunities for a costly mistake.

We were frightened and argued. We argued about whether we should close the nonprofit or keep it and modify our legal documents to fit our existing legal structure. We were stuck. It lasted six months while we raised money, did due diligence on the land contract and built a membership. Our legal documents were not in place. Finally, I suggested we host a nonviolent conflict resolution workshop. It seemed conflict resolution was needed if the group’s effort was going to survive.

We invited a group of people and twelve participants joined us in the workshop. It was an excellent workshop for the potential new community members and their families as well as for others who just wanted the education.

It was a slam dunk, bonding took place, conflict disappeared and four new members joined the group. It was a win, win in every way. In the book, “The obstacle is the way” it describes how obstacles create the opportunity. This was the case for us. The obstacles became the launching pad to rise to a new level.

We closed the nonprofit and opened our for-profit corporation and moved forward.

Never be afraid of obstacles. Vision holds an immeasurable amount of possibilities for every step forward. Surrender to the one that presents itself and never hesitate with obstacles. They are your friend. Obstacles can catapult you to your next successful step. Trust in the vision.

We continued to meet with the emerging community membership. We went from four to nine persons then we added a tenth. Then we lost one. We met in the back dining area of a local restaurant hosting our presentations of the vision. We advertised to meet on the property for an open house with no house on the land. We ran ads. A number of people were circling the idea.  But no new members were joining the vision. We had plateaued.

Finally, early 2013 and eight months before we were to close on the property and construction loan to begin construction, one couple joined the community. We were off and running. Then another couple joined. We held dinner gatherings with the couples. We introduced potential friends to one another.

By June 1, we had built a community of ten resident buyers and four tentatively interested. We raised almost Seven Hundred and Fifty Thousand dollars. But, according to the bank it wasn’t enough. We needed nineteen buyers and 1.1 million dollars.

“What are we going to do?” I asked our members, consultants, architects and potential builder. I was the one leading the membership drive and had no clue. One of the other members offered to help. The builder recommended we invite from our email list anyone who wanted to invest in a condo to increase the number sold.

Listen to Intuition

“Let’s hold off and reconsider,” said one of the members. We debated for days how to craft the offer. I sent out a notice saying we would consider an investor who wanted to purchase the home and then rent it. We had a great couple who jumped in. Now we were at fifteen buyers but still needed four more.

“I think we should just do it the way we’ve been advised,” I offered.

“No consider offering less. Let’s try and see if less will work,” He suggested.

I did and nothing happened. We went back to the debate on how to do it. We met with the sellers. They originally offered to work with us but over time lost faith in our ability to pull this off. I began getting calls from other developers wanting to buy out our land contract.

We lost a month. We made no more headway. We still needed four more buyers and about $400,000 more dollars.

Sometimes you have to stop and listen to your heart.

One day I paused sitting quietly and just listened. We had believed in the vision. We had moved in constant motion and activity. We had seen a steady growth and hope that it was going to happen. But now we were stuck for some reason.

I could feel the stuck energy. Something was wrong.

It was now July 1st. We had lost valuable time and the clock was ticking. I received two phone calls from buyers who contacted the seller and the seller told them we might not close.  They called me and offered to buy out our option and give us another $375,000 for our efforts. Even with that as a profit on the land it was not enough to refund everyone’s money invested.

Something needed to happen to break the stuck energy.

“When did the flow stop?” I’m asking myself. A shift was needed to get the flow started again. I had been operating with trust and intuition, a light energy. Now, it seemed the whole movement of energy was like stagnant waters in a side pool of the creek circling with trash and leaves growing.

The two of us, myself and the other guy who continued to debate with me about the investor approach joined our consultant on a call to brainstorm a solution.

“I don’t know what we need to do,” I said with some anxiety. “Time is running out and we need four more buyers and a lot more money. I don’t see a way this can happen.”

“Have you tried…?” She started offering suggestions.

“We only have 30 days. It usually takes people that much time or more to commit.” I responded evaluating each idea.

“We have the investment offer but I would like to see us not give as much money away.”  The other member said.

I knew what was needed. I knew it right then what would get the energy flowing again. We had to stop the debate and I needed to disengage from the energy that was keeping us in a feedback loop going in circles and ending back at the same point.

I paused then said, “Well thank you both for your input. I will move forward for now on my own. I think I know what is needed.”

There was silence.  He broke it by saying, “Well, Okay.”

Hum.” She responded. It was definitely not the approach of a collaborative effort to go it alone. But I had to trust again and my intuition was telling me to let my energy go with the same light easy and childlike approach as before. We had to disengage from debating and going in circles. It didn’t matter what action we took the lighter energy would raise our boat like an ocean wave.

Vision creates a flow. It’s important to watch the signals and not block the flow. When it stops you have to review and reposition yourself back into the flow.

I sent out the investment offer. Three people responded to help. We chose one of them. It happened to be one of the earlier members who had decided to not buy but now she was back as an investor.

“Have you considered The Housing Fund?” asked our banker the next day when we’re on the phone.

“Yes, I believe they’re on our email list. At one time I think we spoke with them. I don’t know if they would be interested in helping or not.” I said.

“I’ll call them.” Our banker offered. The next day he did.

“She said they are on your email list and were waiting for you to call them.”  He chuckled in amusement when he delivered that insight the next day.

The solution was there all of the time. The potential reality brewing in an energy field of a vision holds many possibilities. The organizing force of the Universe was organizing a solution the entire time. The solution was ready, available and waiting when the need became apparent.

With an adjustment in price The Housing Fund loaned the development $400,000 and committed to purchase three of the condos if we didn’t sell them.

Right on time and according to the requirement of the contract July 30, 2013 we notified the bank we would move to close on the land and construction loan.

The twenty five condominium community with a common house representing cohousing was built at the corner of Fifth and Taylor St. in Germantown, one mile north of downtown Nashville.

It was a beautiful development located in the most desirable location and in the most affluent, historic, first subdivision of Nashville.

The architect would later call it a slam dunk of a location.

The site awaits us

The site had set there waiting for us for a year and a half.  All a part of the vision.

The vision had grown from one person to many and grown into a real seed waiting to become a physical reality.

All possibilities exist in the vision field including you and me. We are visions ourselves. As a vision that holds intent we carry within us the results of our desired intent. Out of this are birthed images.

Vision is manifested from several components: A clear image, intuition, surrender and flow.

If you’re on the cutting edge of trends and deeply committed to an idea, your persistence will generate a flow and as you get out of the way, this flow will form a new reality. The synchronicities become a joy to watch.

The old saying, “If you build it, they will come,” is more aptly said in this case, “If you hold the vision, they will come and build it.”

Time for dinner at Germantown Commons

*Featured image next to the title of the post: Germantown Commons Cohousing.  Completed development.

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