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Petaluma pocket neighborhood highlights communal living

After nearly five years of planning and construction, Petaluma’s first “pocket neighborhood,” will open its doors within weeks.

Tucked into the Oak Hill district, the colorful eight-home infill development is slated to be move-in ready by late February or early March, according to Jim Soules, the Petaluma-based developer of the project. Dubbed Keller Court Commons, it will be the eighth such neighborhood created by Soules, who pioneered the concept decades ago in Seattle.

The two-story, two-bedroom homes, which range in size from 1,400 to 1,600 square feet, are expected to sell for an average of $1.35 million, according to the development’s website. Similar to the other pocket neighborhoods Soules has constructed, the homes are oriented around a shared central courtyard and communal building while still maintaining individual spaces.

Spread across 1.66 acres at the corner of Keller and West streets, the development is intended to foster a unique sense of community, with cars tucked out of view and a communal atmosphere that forgoes traditional elements of home design.

“There’s no back door, you must walk by your neighbor’s home and walk through your front door,” Soules said. “It’s not for everyone, but there are groups of people who are in fact missing that sense of community — knowing their neighbors and also having a private space and yard, but also having a community building where people can get together for parties and pot lucks.”

The development also features 17 parking spaces, private garages with EV chargers and a patio, bocce ball courts and restrooms in the common building. Fruit trees are also planted for communal use.

“You’re not going to see anything like it around here,” said Petaluma- based architect Chris Lynch, who has worked with Soules on the project. “It’s pretty original.”

In 1996, Soules founded The Cottage Company, LLC with a focus on pocket neighborhoods ranging in size from six to 16 units. He was inspired by bungalows in courts in Pasadena, and dense clusters of workforce housing in Seattle. The first such neighborhood was featured in Sunset Magazine and on television, Soules said.

Soules, a former city planner in Marin County who has 30 years of experience in residential development, moved to Petaluma about five years ago. He bought the lot in 2012, and that same year he began to navigate a complex planning maze before the ultimate approval of the project in early 2016, he said. Construction has been underway for about a year and a half, he said.

“I wasn’t intending to bring (the pocket neighborhood) to the city, what I was looking for was a place to build a home. I was looking for a parcel, a lot, and in the process the realtor we were working with learned about some of my work up north and said ‘you have to come look at this piece of property on West Street,’” he said. “We drove up and stepped out of the car and looked at this big old farm house … and looked at the site and the view of Sonoma Mountain and I was said ‘oh my gosh, here we go again.’”

Soules built his home on the lot and preserved an existing historic farmhouse that’s since been sold. Three of the eight homes in Keller Court Commons have already been reserved, he said.

Petaluma-based civil engineer Dave Alden, who organizes Urban Chat, a group of urban planning enthusiasts, praised the concept.

“Two things happen — one, you truly know your neighbors, you’re not just driving into the garage, you’re parking and walking down the sidewalk and people see you coming home. They’re more likely to say hello and you can sit and have a beer,” he said. “Two, you have a common room and a place to host events.”

Despite a complicated process for approvals, Soules hopes the concept can be replicated elsewhere in Petaluma. Pocket neighborhoods allow for more density than a typical development and are located inside of existing infrastructure and districts.

The development doesn’t include affordable units, but Alden was also hopeful that other similar projects could be created with lower-priced housing and a more central location.

“I think it’s another tool parts of Petaluma could benefit from,” Soules said. “I think this particular development will at some point be criticized because of price. It’s certainly not what many people consider to be affordable, but what I’ve done, and what I’ve always felt is an important thing to do with a new idea, is come in at the high end of the market.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com)