Something old and something new in Petaluma pocket neighborhood

A new neighborhood tucked in to Petaluma’s historic west side completely reinvents the 20th century notion of a subdivision.

Keller Court Commons features eight compact contemporary homes, clustered around a common green. Walk under the colorful portico filled with brightly painted mailboxes - color coded to match the front doors of each home - and you enter a serene space void of cars, roads, curbs and mawing garages.

Each house evokes the old farm buildings that once stood on the site. They center around a common green and a community room, patio and bocce ball court. Each has a front porch or deck wide enough for relaxing on a warm evening and close enough to neighbors to call them over for a glass of wine or cold beer.

There are no roads through the heart of this Planned Unit Development, just walkways. Single-car garages equipped with electric charging stations are hidden out of sight in a driveway that runs behind the homes, as alleys did in the olden days. None of the homes have back doors, thus encouraging people by design to be seen and to mingle with their neighbors.

It is the first true “Pocket Neighborhood” in the North Bay. It was developed by Jim Soules who, with partner Ross Chapin, pioneered the concept 20 years ago in Washington state. Since then their efforts have contributed to a national movement to create neighborhoods of smaller homes and shared open space that encourage community. Unlike co-housing projects, pocket neighborhoods are not so-called intentional communities. There is a homeowner’s association but no communal boards and responsibilities required. But with each house set close beside the next on roughly 3,000-foot lots, residents will find themselves frequently nose to nose with their neighbors. And to Soules, that’s a good thing.

“This is bringing back a sense of community,” said Soules, who has three buyers lined up already. “These people are going to know each other. They’re going to talk to each other. They’ve going to support each other.”

That’s one of the things that drew Dee Ballantyne to reserve one of the homes. The 78-year-old Healdsburg woman currently lives in a 7,000 square foot chateau on 10 acres in the Alexander Valley that she built with her late husband 30 years ago and filled with traditional and antique furnishings. Now she’s excited about downsizing and having neighbors for company and security.”I was attracted for years to these community type settlements that are small and where you own your own house and can sometimes share facilities,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to one that was so structured like Spring Lake Village and I didn’t want to be way out in Oakmont and I’m not ready for assisted living. So a small community like Keller Court was appealing to me and they are modern and that’s interesting.”

She said she intends to completely shake up her interior decor with modern furnishings.

At 1400 to 1600 square feet, and listed at an average of $1.4 million, the two bedroom homes are far from starter homes, twice the median price for a home in west Petaluma. But Soules said for a project that he hopes will be a local prototype for similar types of people-centric development, he wanted to put his best foot forward with top-shelf materials, construction and design both inside and out.

He enlisted Petaluma architect Chris Lynch of MAD Architecture to design the site and the homes - as well as his own home at the entrance to the commons.

They are built using what Lynch characterizes as “honest materials:” concrete, corrugated metal, asphalt shingle roofing, reclaimed wood board, fiberglass windows and natural wood, some of which is darkly weatherized using the traditional Japanese burning technique shou sugi ban.

While the homes are reminiscent of farm buildings, inside they are cleanly contemporary in design with vaulted nine-foot ceilings, open living/kitchen areas, almost commercial-grade aluminum windows, custom tile work, high-tech lighting and porcelain countertops.

Each home has one or more colorfully painted decks made from industrial fiberglass, an ultra-durable and easy-to-clean material used in chemical plants.

The homes, equipped with solar panels and radiant floor heating for energy efficiency, are set in a half circle and have one of Petaluma’s best views, looking out over the city and Sonoma Mountain beyond.

“The whole planning of the site had to do with maximizing the views,” said Lynch. He added zoning would have allowed for two more homes on the property but that would have taken away from the panoramic vista and meant the loss of more mature oaks.

Ultimately, they were able to save 90 percent of the trees, mostly oaks and a heritage Canary Palm. Instead of more homes there is a 500-square-foot community building, with a patio and bocce court and mini orchard of fruit trees, with everything from citrus and apples to pomegranates, persimmons and figs.

“Architecturally, it allows the houses to be smaller by taking the pressure off the need for space for entertaining,” Lynch said of the community center. “The idea is to come to this building.”

Artistic elements are incorporated into the common spaces. Healdsburg artist Jenny Lynn Hall was commissioned to create a series of lime plaster panels in vivid hues and varying rectangular sizes that were applied over a waterproof membrane on the outside of the community building.

On one outside wall of the building hangs a conversation piece that looks almost like a stovepipe or horn. It was found by Josh Spaulding, who did some custom railings and other metalwork on the Keller Court Commons project.

Spaulding had worked for the late Robert Ellison, a famous steel sculptor who lived and worked on Sonoma Mountain.

In walking through a salvage yard, Spaulding spotted the odd object and recognized it as part of a prototype for Four Times Daily, a giant public art piece that once stood in the San Francisco Civic Center and is now installed in the sculpture garden at Paradise Ridge Winery, where it managed to survive the fire. Pieces of the prototype had sat around Ellison’s studio for years, Soules said.

Now one piece hangs at Keller Court Commons in homage to Ellison, who worked on the mountain out in the distance.

Two of the homes on either end have “towers,” resembling the old tankhouses still dotting the rural landscape in Sonoma County.

With just one room at the top, they serve as playful bonus space. Soules and his life partner Milli Fredericks, an artist who oversaw much of the interior design of the project, have one in their own eclectic, art-filled home at the entrance to the site, which Lynch also designed.

“It’s my crow’s nest,” said Soules of the small perch with big windows that serves as his office. Steel steps in a stairwell, featuring a fresco wall by Jenny Lynn Hall, lead to the snug space.

Soules was living in Washington when he and Fredericks decided they wanted to relocate to the North Bay.

While scouting out homes their real estate agent led them to an old 1897 Victorian farmhouse on 6.6 acres at Keller and West streets.

“I remember getting out of the car right in front of the farmhouse and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh. Here I go again.’”

Starting in 1997, Soules oversaw the development of seven pocket neighborhoods that had received numerous awards.

After the economic slowdown, he was ready for a new challenge in the North Bay.

He grew up in Napa, earned a degree in economics from U.C. Berkeley and a master’s in business administration from Harvard and then took a job as a county planner in Marin before shifting into residential development.

Soules has always been a progressive and visionary developer.

In the early 1980s he developed a 33-home affordable housing project in La Habra featured on the cover of Professional Builder Magazine with the headline “Smaller is Smarter.”

After moving to Washington state he served as executive director of a Seattle nonprofit housing development agency.

In the mid 1990s he co-founded The Cottage Company. Soules’ partner, architect Ross Chapin, coined the phrase “Pocket Neighborhood” to describe their concept of smaller clusters of homes, built around shared open space to foster community among residents.

Soules was inspired by a Seattle developer who refurbished an old “bungalow court” of 400-square foot homes that proved wildly popular despite their small size.

Bungalow courts were a common form of multi-family housing from the early 1900s until the 1930s and Soules went in search of a place to build a contemporary version of that model.

Soules’ first project, The Third Street Cottages on Whidbey Island, built with the premise that less can be more, drew national attention and write-ups from publications such as Sunset Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Excited about the possibilities of the site, which is only a short walk to downtown Petaluma, he and Fredericks moved into the old house and set about building his own contemporary home while designing an eight-home pocket neighborhood that provides the kind of urban infill development many cities covet to reduce traffic and protect open spaces.

Soules’ own eclectic house - an homage to contemporary art and including clever use of more industrial materials in an agrarian design - stands at the entrance, across from the farmhouse, which is being preserved and remodeled.

The MiJi House, named for Milli and Jim, with real cedar batten board siding, has many playful elements and clever reuse of materials.

A series of metal cut-out panels outside look like high-end modern art but in fact are “drops,” leftover pieces from Van Bebber Steel.

Also used in the home are color cast concrete “over pours” from Sonoma Cast Stone and tile “seconds” from Fire Clay Tile.

From the wide picture windows in his great room, Soules can see the big cranes arising from the West Coast studio of internationally renowned artist Mark di Suvero, whose massive metal sculptures have been displayed in public spaces in major cities around the world. It was Di Suvero’s work that gave him the idea to use exposed steel throughout the interior.

Various projects have been proposed for the site over the years, from large single-family homes to more intensive developments, some set around cul-de-sacs and others calling for punching Keller Street through to Cherry Street. But none passed the city’s muster for good infill development until the Keller Court Commons Project came along.

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You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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Let’s say you invited some friends over or dinner, but you’ve run out of time to prepare a three-course feast.

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May be it’s a one-skillet chicken dinner, a sheet pan veggie dish or a comfort casserole worthy of your mom. But it saves you in a pinch and still delivers homemade love.

Please send your miracle recipe and the story of where you found it, along with your name, phone number and hometown, to: The recipe will be published in an upcoming Press Democrat Feast section.

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