Townhouses – Part 2 (The Problem)

Here’s the juicy part.

Everyone who lives in Seattle has some kind of opinion about the townhouses that have sprung up like weeds during the last ten or so years. Most of those opinions fall squarely in the negative on some level, and a significant minority of them can’t be expressed in polite company.

And yet, they sold in large numbers at increasingly eye-popping prices: enough that they kept being built even as everyone complained about them and wondered what the buyers and builders were thinking.

With some hindsight, we know that a non-trivial amount of this building and buying activity was driven by the gigantic credit bubble inflated by the Greenspan Put. But that only explains the magnitude of the problem, not the form. After all, most cities in the USA were affected by runaway asset inflation driven by loose credit. Very few of them wound up with anything that looks like this:

parking-diagramParking Court for a Typical Seattle “Four-Pack”
notice the unit “front doors” (if you can find them)
(from the
West Seattle Blog)

So, while the credit bubble may explain runaway land speculation and home prices justifiable only with the aid of recreational pharmaceuticals, it certainly does not explain why Seattle got so many atrocious townhouses. The excesses of financiers and their unindicted political co-conspirators may be responsible for many evils in the world, but it’s a stretch to heap responsibility for crappy townhouses in Ballard on their narrow shoulders. Other cities don’t have townhouses that look like this. They’re unique to Seattle.

Obviously, there was some other set of factors at work here. What were they?

Having watched it happen first-hand, I’ll argue that the Seattle townhouse boom was driven by a rogue wave of several negative undercurrents rising together in an immense and singular excrescence of bad taste:

Uncontrolled Condominium Litigation
Builder-driven Development
Poorly-conceived Land-Use Regulation

So, while loose credit certainly opened the door to speculative land development, the development itself was shaped primarily by the factors listed above.

Did you know that there are 45% more dogs living in the city limits of Seattle than there are children? If you’ve ever experienced how truly weird Seattleites are about their canine pals, this factoid probably doesn’t surprise you.

That statistic, though is indicative of much deeper demographic issues in Seattle:

Only 40% of Seattle households qualify as “families”
Fewer than 20% of Seattle households have children
Single-person households outnumber “families”
Average Seattle household size is unusually small

hh2000_LatestReleased_DPDS_006610Seattle Household Composition
(US Census Data)

Seattle households overwhelmingly tend to be small, white, affluent, and childless. In fact, there is only one city in the United States where this demographic trend is more pronounced: San Francisco. Yet, a comparison of San Francisco’s urban housing vs. Seattle’s shows a stark contrast. Seattle resembles nothing so much as a big suburb, while San Francisco is clearly a city.

Demographics define the market for housing, and Seattle’s demographics demand “Smaller Dwelling Units” and “higher density.” We have too many big, unaffordable houses, and not enough smaller, more affordable options available for ownership (rental is another story):

roomsMetro King County Housing Stock by Size and Type

So, demographic pressure toward the creation of smaller dwelling units for individual ownership was strong and increasing as the 1990s tech boom got into full swing. A lot of condominiums were built to satisfy some of this demand, but not nearly enough (besides, condos rarely have things like yards). Despite an intense cultural bias against them, townhouses started to get built by the hundreds to fill the gap.

Why didn’t we get more condominiums instead of townhouses? You can build many more condominium units on a site than townhomes, after all, so isn’t there an incentive to go condo instead? The simple answer to this question is: lawsuits.

In 1989, the Washington State legislature re-wrote its Condominium Act, introducing a whole host of new provisions intended to regularize the legal creation of condominium residences. Among the provisions of that Act was the seemingly innocent RCW 64.32.445, which stated in part that any constructor of condominiums implicitly warrants to buyers that the building and units are free from defective workmanship and materials as well as being designed to industry standard quality.

Sounds reasonable, right? A lot of poorly-constructed condos had been built during the 80s, and the developers pocketed their profits and walked off scot free…leaving condo owners holding the bag on expensive repairs.

In practice, though, this obscure but well-meaning legal provision was a slowly-building disaster.

By 2003, condominium construction defect litigation in Washington had become Big Business. Law firms began to specialize in taking down condo developers and arm-twisting condo associations. Awards to litigants were escalating. Condo Homeowner Associations (HOAs) were ripe targets, since the HOA itself would be the plaintiff in a suit and become a sort of mini-class-action against a developer with presumably deep pockets.

One of my clients, on completing a condominium project in 2004, moved into one of his own units and began serving an initial term as HOA president (partly as a self-protective measure). Within months of completion, he had received a stack of alarmingly-worded solicitations from attorneys (as far afield as Texas) that measured more than two feet thick in a pile. Some attorneys even began to threaten to sue condo HOAs themselves for negligence if they in turn did not act to sue developers (with the attorney’s help, of course) before the statute of limitations ran out on potential claims, no matter how vaguely defined.

Needless to say, condominium lawsuits proliferated and the lawyers got rich. By 2004, condominium developer liability had become truly gigantic in response to litigation risk. The cost of insurance alone (calculated into the project “wrap policy”) was adding as much as $50,000 to the cost of building each residential unit (“per door”, as the developers say). Developers tried to pass these costs through to condo buyers, but there were limits on how far that could go.

Would you pay an extra $50,000 for a condo just so the developer could be insured?

In the end, the liability risk of building condominium projects became uneconomic in the extreme. By 2003-2004 developers had quit building small condo projects entirely.

In place of condos, townhouses became the smaller-lot multi-family residential projects of choice for the development community. Because each townhouse sits on its own piece of land, its ownership is held “fee simple” rather than in condominium as air rights. Rather than having a collective entity representing common property interests, which could then easily serve as common plaintiff or defendant in a lawsuit, townhouse owners would each have to sue a developer individually in any defect claim. While that doesn’t do anything to prevent the lawsuit liability, it does remove all the incentives the lawyers had to drum up business by scaring HOAs into suing.

Townhouse developers tended not to get sued, while condo developers did. Case closed.

The situation had got so ridiculous that the state legislature finally revised the Condo Act in the mid-Aughts. By then, it was too late. The credit bubble was well underway, money was flowing into real estate, and risk-averse developers had attained a preference for building townhouses by the dozen.

There is a negative stereotype of Americans that goes something like this (paraphrased from Oscar Wilde): We know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

Nowhere is the reality of this stereotype more evident than in the world of speculative housing construction. Spec builders are focused on one thing: putting up housing as fast as they can for as little cost as possible, then selling it as fast as they can to their target buyers for as much as they can get. Churn ‘em and burn ‘em, baby.

In practice, there are many market and legal forces which prevent spec builders from building firetraps which self-destruct as soon as they’re occupied. Aside from the obvious regulatory standards embodied in building codes and tort liability, buyers have a strong incentive not to buy poorly built houses (would you?), and mortgage lenders have a strong incentive not to loan money on houses that are going to fall apart quickly and lose their value. Insurance companies also play a large part here (and are the original creators of building codes in the first place, a role later usurped by government). If an insurance company won’t cover a house, it’s unlikely to sell and thus unlikely to be built that poorly.

(Do keep in mind that, even with these incentives in place, building codes are minimum standards intended to prevent only the worst offenses, and mortgage lenders typically don’t care if your house spontaneously disintegrates 30 years and one day after it’s built. All of which has a lot to say about the quality of 20th century housing construction, none of it good.)

As cheap money flooded the economy and housing demand increased, buyers became significantly less concerned with building construction quality, focusing instead on surface shine and the need to own anything. Similarly, lenders become much more focused on the near term profits to be had from origination fees, figuring all those loans were going to get refinanced in five years or less anyway (LOL Subprime). Building departments were overwhelmed and couldn’t effectively police burgeoning volumes of construction. Worst of all, everybody who could scrape together the miniscule licensing fee got a contractor’s license and got into the construction business. Construction project oversight was often poor, and the majority of the workforce barely spoke English (if at all…a common hiring requirement for construction superintendants was fluency in Spanish). The quality of construction workmanship crashed even as demand for subcontrators drove labor rates sky-high.

With changed incentive structures come changed results.

For homebuilders looking to make a quick buck, townhouses were the perfect vehicle for their ambitions. Historically, townhouses have usually been very well built (as evidenced by the large number that have survived the centuries). Those historic examples, however, were typically built from long-lasting materials (like brick or stone) at a time when standards for craftsmanship were much higher. Not so many of the Seattle spec townhouses. Built hastily from wood framing at minimum quality standards, down-market fixtures, and a spartan approach to detailing, complaints about the quality of their construction and appearance became common even before they were finished.

But they were cheap and went up fast. The more people bought them, the more got built…by people who were only out to make a quick buck. Reputable builders were still out there (and I was fortunate to work with some of them), but the market became saturated with crap.

I’ve already briefly mentioned Seattle’s ongoing problem with suburbanism. More than any other major American city, Seattle is dominated by single-family homes and the parochial attitudes that go along with them. Visitors often remark on how low-density Seattle appears, and the appearance reflects the reality.

Single-family homeowners, and the mossbacks who admire their quaint little neighborhoods, are a powerful force in Seattle politics. Wealthy developers and mighty institutions cower in fear at the sound of their approbation.

But what do the single-family homeowners fear? This:

ballard-seattle-homeowner Worst Fears Realized in Ballard
(never mind that this is in a
Commercial Zone on a major street,
this is what keeps Seattle homeowners awake at night)

This fear should not be underestimated. Only 30 years ago, Seattle was still very much a small town with lots of sleepy suburban neighborhoods close to the city center. Many of Seattle’s long-time residents desperately want it to stay that way…and they vote. Some of them file lawsuits.

At the same time, Seattle has been growing by leaps and bounds. As new growth has generated new building activity, we’ve implemented a series of reactive ad hoc measures and regulations to prevent new development…and failing that, try and force it to mimic the appearance of single-family houses.

Which leads us to the biggest issue of all…

All of the forces discussed here already certainly conspired to decrease the quality of townhouses built in the Seattle, but none so dramatically as our land-use code.

As much as Seattleites have complained about the poor quality of townhouse developments and lamented the ugliness of the “four-pack” and “six-pack” townhouse projects, these projects are exactly what the Seattle zoning code tells developers to build.

In the industry, we call this DBZ: Design By Zoning. Whenever zoning restrictions become so detailed, numerous, and onerous that there is only one possible way to satisfy them, you will inevitably get a whole lot of whatever that one possible way dictates. In Seattle’s case, that means hundreds of “four-packs” and “six-packs”.

Let’s take a quick look at how that works with a typical Seattle building site:

0. Typical 50’ x 100’ Seattle Lot


Here we have your typical 50-foot by 100-foot urban Seattle lot. For the sake of clarity, we’ll assume that it’s flat and empty. Our goal is to build high-quality townhomes on this site, since the zoning code encourages this, but first we must satisfy numerous zoning restrictions on development. For now, we’ll just assume that this is an “L” zoned lot (for low-rise multi-family), but won’t specify what kind (LDT/L1/L2/L3/L4).

As the area of the lot on which we’re allowed to build shrinks, the medium-grey area in the diagrams will shrink with it.

1. Building Setbacks


First, we have setbacks. The medium-grey area is the buildable lot area left over after setbacks are applied. Setbacks are a form of development restriction used extensively in suburban development to enforce minimum space between buildings and ensure that they never touch. Setbacks are also typically used to establish front and rear yards.

In this case, the minimum setbacks require a 10-foot front yard, 20-foot rear yard, and 5- to 7-foot side yards on both sides. These setback requirements are nearly identical to those required for single-family detached houses in Seattle.

Note that the width of the area we can build on for a 50-foot site is actually only 36 to 40 feet after taking away the side yards. That becomes a critical dimension when trying to put townhouses on the property.

2. Maximum Lot Coverage
codes_03_lot coverage

Although we’ve figured out the required setbacks, there are further limitations we have to deal with. For townhouses, we’re limited to a maximum of 50% of the total lot area to be covered by buildings (less for apartments and less in the lower-density zones). So we lose a little more developable area to lot coverage limits.

In practice, though, lot coverage limits are not as important as parking and open space requirements…

3. Parking Access Limitations & Requirements

The zoning code requires that all development project provide parking on site sufficient to serve the needs of the land use proposed. In the case of townhouses, that’s defined as one car per townhouse. Because the buildable width of site was reduced by the side yards, we’re limited in how many cars we can park on the site and still have room left over for things like front entrances and stairways.

The zoning code also requires that the site only have one driveway access to the street (called a “curb cut” for the place where the driveway cuts across the sidewalk). All driveway access to parking spaces is required to occur on the site, and may not be located in a front yard setback. These requirements still apply where a site is located on an alley, but the driveway is required to connect to the alley instead of the street.

From the diagram, you can see the large impact this particular requirement has on the site (and why Seattle townhouse developments have been described as “parking diagrams with houses on top”). Nearly half of the buildable area is now taken up with driveway and parking spaces. In practice, this is why most Seattle townhouses have their main living areas on the second floor. They just don’t fit on the ground level with the garages.

4. Required Residential Open Space
codes_05_open space

The zoning code also requires that every ground-related dwelling unit (i.e. townhouse) have an exterior open space (yard) connected to it at ground level. In the medium- and low-density “L” zones, the open space for a unit may not be smaller than 200 square feet, and all the open spaces on the site must average to no less than 300 sq. ft. Individual open spaces must measure at least 10 feet in any dimension, and never be smaller than 120 sq. ft.

Required open space must be private: we can’t count entrance walkways, or any other place that isn’t essentially a completely fenced yard.

In the case of our hypothetical project, you can see that the big back yards for the rear units allow the front yards to be smaller due to averaging, but they still may be no smaller than 200 sq. ft. The yards then push the street-facing wall back further from the street and make the building footprint even smaller.

At this point, we’ve established the two-dimensional planning restrictions imposed by the code. Notice how little of the site is actually available for building after we’ve gone through this exercise. No wonder the results are strange-looking and inherently suburban in nature.

Now, let’s look at how the zoning restrictions affect the three-dimensional shape of the buildings:

5. Base Height Limits
codes_06_base height

Zoning codes typically set limits on building height. The height limit is specified as a maximum number of feet above the ground surface to which any building may rise. All Seattle zones have defined base height limits associated with them. By “base,” we mean that this number sets a baseline limitation and there may be additional height bonuses available beyond that (which we’ll get to in a minute).

For the medium- and low-density “L” zones, the base height limit is 25 feet. Every floor level we try to squeeze under that height limit is going to require at least 9 feet at a minimum, and probably more like 10 feet if we don’t want the ceilings to be too low. How many times does 9 go into 25? Less than three. Fractions don’t count, since a floor level with a 5-foot ceiling is useless, so that means we get at most a two-story building out of this.

It’s probably worth noting that the base height limit for single-family zoned lots is actually 5 feet higher than this: at 30 feet. So, we’re being forced to build at a lower height than the suburban-style houses that might be next door. L-3 zones (considered higher-density) are allowed to match single-family in height with a 30-foot base height limit. L-4 zones (the highest-density low-rise zone) has a base height limit of 37 feet, but before we get too excited about that we should keep in mind that there is very little L-4 zoned land in Seattle.

Also remember that most of our ground level is already taken up with parking, and that another large part of it will have to be devoted to a stairway in order to get to the upper levels. That means most of the actual living area has to be above the first floor. If we’re in a higher-density “L” zone, we’ll get two floors to work with. It’ll be tight, but it can work out. In the medium- and low-density “L” zones, we get one.

In the diagram, I’ve simply taken the ground-level footprint left over after setbacks, parking, and open space, then extruded it up to the height limit. That makes for unusably small floor plans. Something’s got to give, which takes us to…

6. Building Width & Depth Limits
codes_07_width depth

There is another restriction in the code which is intended to prevent multi-family lot developers from building large, monolithic “bread loaf” style buildings: width and depth limits. The combination of all structures on the lot may not exceed 40 feet in width without “modulation” (essentially, dents and protrusions), and may not be any deeper than 60 to 65 percent of the depth of the lot. Townhouses are allowed an exception here: given a free pass to go to 90 feet in total depth.

So, using some creative structural engineering, we’re going to take the upper levels of our proposed design and push them all the way out to the setback lines. They can’t actually touch in the middle, since we’re required to maintain a 10-foot separation between them, but no matter. Now we have a little more space to work with when we do our floor planning. The project might work out after all.

7a. L-1/L-2 Building Height Bonusescodes_08_slope bonus

7b. L-3/L-4 Building Height Bonuses
codes_09_L3 height

I said we come back to height bonuses, and here we are. The code says that we can get some extra height on our buildings if we do something the writers of the code think will add to the lovely appearance of the structures. In this case, if we put sloping roofs on the top, we can make the buildings taller.

For the medium- and low-density zones, we get 10 additional feet if we make the roofs slope at a pitch of 6” rise in 12” run or steeper! All is not lost! We might get a third story after all.

For the higher-density zones, we only get a 5-foot bonus, but we started from a higher base height limit, so we wind up in the same place (35 feet total). (L-4 goes higher, but again, there are so few L-4 zoned areas in the city that could could count them on both hands and have plenty of fingers left over.)

In fact, single-family zones get this roof height bonus too (an additional 5 feet on top of the 30 foot limit for 35 feet total). So, if we compare the way our zoning code treats single-family lots vs. low-rise multi-family lots we immediately see that except for two provisions (lot coverage limits and number of dwelling units allowed) the zoning restrictions result in exactly the same buildable envelope on the site.

This is not in any way accidental, and knowing it we should not be surprised that Seattle townhouses look like ridiculously overgrown tract housing.

8. Unit Density

In fact, by now this conceptual planning diagram should start looking eerily familiar. This is what “DBZ” means. When the zoning code restrictions force us into an awkward configuration with little or no flexibility, you get a lot of whatever the zoning code restrictions stipulate. Every project starts to look like a zoning diagram. Hopefully that’s a good thing, but in reality it almost never is. Zoning codes are far too blunt an instrument to enact good design by legal fiat.

Though they happen to be very good at generating bad design in bulk.

The final piece of the puzzle is the unit density limit. After all, these are multi-family zones, not single-family (which have an inherent per-site unit density maximum of one). Here is where the distinctions between the various low-rise zones become more pronounced:

LDT 1 Unit per 2,000 sq. ft. lot area
L-1 1 Unit per 1,600 sq. ft. lot area
L-2 1 Unit per 1,200 sq. ft. lot area
L-3 1 Unit per 800 sq. ft. lot area
L-4 1 Unit per 600 sq. ft. lot area

(These density limits, by the way, are imposed by the Washington State Growth Management Act via the Seattle Comprehensive Plan).

So, if our 50’ x 100’ lot (5,000 sq. ft. lot area) is zoned LDT, we can only build two (2) dwelling units, whereas if it’s zoned L-3, we theoretically are allowed to build six (6). That’s a big difference, and the land value of LDT-zoned property is lower than L-3 zoned property as a result.

But hold on a minute…

After we’ve finished stuffing all that parking and open space onto the site, there isn’t really enough room left over for six individual townhouses on this site, let alone the hypothetical limit of eight should the site be zoned L-4. In fact, it’s a mathematical impossibility (add up the areas, assuming a very compact 350 sq. ft. per car, and you’ll see what I mean).

That’s why the graphic diagram for unit density above is only showing four (4) dwelling units (indicated by the red doors). That’s the practical maximum, given all those other limitations, and that’s why the “Seattle Four Pack” has become so ubiquitous (and run so afoul of the GMA).

There are lots of qualitative problems with the oh-so-uniquely-Seattle Four Pack, of course. How do we hate them? Let us count the ways:

courtThe rear units have no relationship to the street and the central parking courts are dark, dismal spaces.

(This is the view facing the street on a corner lot, by the way. Lovely, isn’t it?)

1_29101929_0The mushroom shape forced by the small ground level and cantilevered upper levels is visually unbalanced and appears ugly to most people.

side To qualify as “private” the postage-stamp yards are typically fenced in with the code-maximum six-foot-high solid fence…often right at the sidewalk.

front The shape and configuration is boring and suburban-looking, and the units are cramped.

df_says_ugliest For projects limited by code restrictions intended to make them more friendly to single-family neighborhoods, they seem to hulk over everything around them (the “ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag” problem).

fence The “lowest common denominator” design (using the term extremely loosely) and lowest-cost construction methods, make them look cheap and crass (Google “ugly townhouse” and 5 of the 21 results on the first images page are located in Seattle).

Shall we compare them to a summer’s day? I think not.

However, in our next installment, we will compare Seattle’s townhouse development to some significantly less hideous examples from around the world, and then try to draw some conclusions about how to make Seattle townhouses better.

Stay tuned.

Townhouses - Part 1 (Background)

Townhouses have been a subject of much discussion in Seattle over the past few years. During the boom, a lot of them got built, most of which were disgustingly bad.
This is another subject of abiding interest to me. I've long had a fascination with the attached urban house type, having studied the subject in depth both in architecture school and in my professional career. Several years ago, I stepped away from a plum job enabling wish-fulfillment for spectacularly wealthy individuals in order to devote more time to designing better urban housing in Seattle, and have been struggling with the task ever since. Our municipal government is now in the throes of re-writing the section of the Land Use Code which governs the design and construction of these classic and misunderstood dwelling units. That's a good thing, and I've been involved in trying to help guide that process nearly from day one, but so far the result has been about as productive and positive as any other expression of the "Seattle Process."
Which is to say: it has devolved into what the military so colorfully refers as a clusterfuck.
But, more about that later. Let's begin with some background and history...
Once Upon a Time...
Though only comparatively recently named as such, the "townhouse" dwelling type (with its many variations: row houses, courtyard houses, patio homes, terrace houses, maisonettes, etc.) has been around for a long time. Although the first recognizably modern townhouses (slot buildings with multiple stories internally connected by stairs and fronting on a public street) did not start to appear in Europe until the Medieval period, examples of attached low-rise residential structures can be found all the way back to the dawn of urban living, thousands of years ago. You can find examples all over the world from every period of human history. In fact, it's fair to say that urban environments are defined by the presence of the numerous individual attached residences we so generically refer to as townhouses. Urban life and the attached single- and extended-family residence are inextricably linked.
Çatal Huyuk - ca. 7,500 BC
one of the earliest known cities
composed almost entirely of attached dwellings
Townhouses are structures of necessity. For most of human history, that necessity has been the combination of security and economics, with shifting dominance between the two. For the first few thousand years of human urban development, building individual residences in attached, tightly packed configurations allowed the residents to gain the economic benefits of being close together in a city (reduced transportation costs & time, access to resources and markets, social opportunity, and ability to specialize to lever comparative advantage), while also allowing such a valuable and inviting target of predation as a town or city to be compact enough to defend against attack. When the size of your town is defined by its maximum defensible perimeter, every inch of space inside the walls needs to count for something.
High density and low height within the Medieval walls of Dubrovnik
Townhouses offer the advantages of urban density without many of the drawbacks of communal living found in apartment blocks (which, though you may think of them as modern, have also been around for thousands of years). Every townhouse sits on its own piece of land, sole and despotic domain of the homeowner. This reduces the amount of public and semi-public space -- areas always problematic from a maintenance and security perspective -- thus protecting privacy and individual control while allowing residents to live very close together indeed. It also allows residents to maintain some level of territorial control not only within the boundaries of their own residence, but projected into the public realm as well.
Brooklyn, New York Streetscape
the sidewalk as semi-private domain of the public street
As security from attack became less important a factor in urban form, and changes in military technology made city walls obsolete, the economic side of the necessity equation became the primary determining factor in townhouse development. From 1700 AD forward, we start to see townhouses flourish mainly during periods of strong economic prosperity.
San Francisco's Painted Ladies
expressions of a booming economy
Basic economics explains this: as more and more people desire to live in close proximity to one another land values (which are linked to a finite supply of buildable land within an acceptable travel distance) increase dramatically. Lot sizes then decrease as home builders seek affordability through subdivision, and lot coverage increases as they seek efficiency to completely use what they've paid for. Taken to a logical extreme, the end result is something that looks a lot like this:
7-foot wide house in Amsterdam
Certainly not someplace I'd like to live (since I'm nearly as tall as this house is wide), but it does have a kind of oddball charm. Sliver townhouses of this sort can be found all over the world, always in cities where rampant land speculation has driven property values to absurd heights and subdivision is mostly unrestricted. Tokyo is full of them and every old European city has at least a few. Usually, other forces intervene to prevent this sort of micro-subdivision: regulatory limits and economic crashes foremost among them.
Which brings us to Seattle in particular.
"Townhouses" in Seattle
Unlike many cities in the United States and Europe, Seattle does not have an established pattern of development which encourages the construction of townhouses. Low-rise urban development within the city has historically taken a decidedly suburban form, with substantial setbacks, building detachment, large areas devoted to auto access, and a lack of direct engagement with the public realm at the sidewalk.
In fact, townhouses as such were virtually unknown in Seattle prior to adoption of the current incarnation of our low-rise multi-family code in 1986, and very rare until the turn of the 21st century and concomitant real estate boom. Prior to that time, the emphasis on low-rise urban housing had been almost entirely on small apartment buildings.
Those townhouses that did get built maintained a strong suburban character. This was largely the result of the way the code was written and continued to evolve, with numerous restrictions on development configuration and size intended to make any new l0w-rise urban housing development closely mimic existing suburban single-family development patterns.
This, by the way, is a recurring theme in Seattle land use politics and ties directly into the issues I raised in my last post about Seattle's inherent conservatism. If I may digress for a moment, please consider the following comparative maps (courtesy of DPD, color-coded by David Neiman):



Single-Family Zoning

Multi-Family Zoning

The red areas represent those portions of the city of Seattle designated for single-family detached housing and multi-family housing (of which townhouses are considered to be part, for reasons that should become obvious as we proceed). The former covers approximately 70 percent of the city’s land area. The latter, less than 7 percent.

Now you know where Seattle’s urban priorities lay, regardless of whatever rhetoric may emanate from City Hall. These two maps tell you nearly everything of consequence you need to know about Seattle municipal politics (overlay them with US Census data denoting racial breakdown and household income, and you will behold the Rosetta Stone of Seattle’s turbid political waters…pardon the mixed metaphor).

At any rate, what we can see quite clearly here that most of the city is off-limits to any sort of townhouse development, which can only be built in the red zones found on the starboard map.

Which is not to say that the traditional townhouse has been excluded from Seattle by design. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Some months ago, as I was listening to deliberations of the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods committee in City Council chambers, I heard a DPD representative make a remarkable statement. PLUNC has been considering the mind-numbing details of the proposed re-write of the multi-family zoning code, and the committee chair asked a fair question along the lines of: why don’t we have brownstone-type development in Seattle, and what can we do to encourage it?

Excellent question, I thought. In fact, it’s also a question that is consistently asked by neighborhood representatives during public meetings about this subject. Many Seattle residents and leaders want brownstone-style row house development in Seattle instead of what we’ve been getting, and are deeply puzzled about why it doesn’t happen.

The answer provided by DPD was: Seattle’s land plat gives us lots that are typically 100 to 128 feet deep -- too deep for traditional rowhouses, and thus requiring the uniquely Seattle “four pack” front-and-back development configuration.


Seattle is typical of 19th-century American cities in that it was originally platted (meaning: its lots were originally subdivided from farmland and laid out) on a grid intended to facilitate speculative development and future subdivision. In Seattle’s case, the lot dimensions that were used in the overwhelming majority of cases were modeled directly on the plat pattern used for most of Manhattan and Brooklyn: 40 to 50 feet wide (subdividable to 20 and 25 feet respectively) by 100 to 128 feet deep. Let’s compare.

First, we have a couple of examples from New York:

Original Plat of Brooklyn, NY

HarlemCurrent plat pattern of Harlem, NY
showing further subdivision over time
(from City of New York GIS)

In both cases, we see the characteristic “gridiron” street layout, filled in with a sub-grid of individual rectangular lots. Most lots are oriented so that the narrow dimension fronts on a right-of-way, with corner lots being the primary exception. Alleys are rare. Rear lot lines typically abut other lots.

These typical New York lots were usually 25 wide (sold in pairs, as 50 foot lots, when first established…then only later subdivided), and 100 to 128 feet deep.

Sound familiar?

Let’s compare to Seattle. Here’s a typical example of Seattle’s lot layout (from an area located on Capitol Hill):

Typical Seattle Parcel Map
(from City of Seattle GIS)

Now, this Seattle map shows only legal parcels (combinations of lots with a single owner) rather than the underlying lot lines. Even then, the similarities between Seattle and New York in planning logic should be fairly evident, particularly if you focus your attention on the port side of the Seattle map.

It could easily be a map of Brooklyn or parts of uptown Manhattan, except with a few more alleys. In fact, it was originally intended to be more or less exactly that, since that was standard land planning practice at the time most of inner city Seattle was laid out. Seattle’s lot plans even improve on the New York model by making alleys much more common.

In fact, many of the ubiquitous 50’x100’ parcels found all over Seattle’s neighborhoods are composed of two 25-foot wide lots as shown in the original plat maps.

So, it isn’t Seattle’s lot sizes or plat pattern that are preventing the development of the kind of attractive townhouse development we see in cities all over the world. Most of Seattle was intentionally platted in a way that should make subdivision and the creation of brownstone-style row housing easy, not hard.

So, what is preventing it?

I’ll tackle that subject in the next installment: Townhouses – Part 2 (The Problem).

Seattle's Inherent Conservatism

Not one to shy away from a little controversy, let's tackle a sensitive subject right out of the gate.

Ask most Seattleites whether or not they consider their city to be conservative or not, and the vast majority will answer: No way! Within the limited boundaries of partisan politics, they're right. Only Democrats get elected to office here, and far-left rallying cries are perennial favorites. There's even a statue of Lenin displayed in Fremont (though it's for sale, in what seems to be a bit of subtle ideological prevarication). Suggest to shoppers at the local PCC that Seattle might actually be one of the most conservative towns in America, and watch the outrage and stunned disbelief fulminate.

No, really. Try it. It's fun.

But this weblog isn't about politics, or even cognitive dissonance. It's about the culture and practice of urbanism and design in Seattle, Washington. Wouldn't we expect that a city that prides itself on its Progressivist militance and Green credulity would be at the vanguard of radical urban practice?

Alas ... not so much.

Don't get me wrong. I love this city, despite its idiosyncrasies. I've lived all over the world, and yet I always gravitate back to this relaxed, drizzly Eden. I've chosen to make a home here even at significant cost in opportunities lost and ever-present friction with some of its less pleasant aspects. Seattle is blessed with an amazingly forgiving climate, despite the proverbial rain. Natural grandeur abounds at every turn: glorious mountain peaks at the end of every vista, verdant plant growth, spectacular forests, abundant wildlife, streams, lakes, Puget Sound, and a quality of light that is ever-changing and yet unique in my experience. I live just over seven miles from the downtown core and well within city limits. Bald eagles circle my house and nest just up the street. My commute to the office downtown takes me along the shores of Lake Washington every morning, under the trees and alongside glittering water where otters nest and play. I can be hiking in the mountains or skiing with a 45 minute trek from my driveway. A half-hour ferry ride puts me on the edge of a vast wilderness.

And the downtown is still alive, after all these years. While downtown districts in cities all over America were withering away during the 70s and 80s, Seattle's accidental geographic bounty protected it from the worst of the blight and desertion. Hemmed in by water to the east and west and limited in ability to expand north or south, the impetus to sprawl never took hold as disastrously here as it did elsewhere.

But when it comes to shaping the built environment, make no mistake: Seattle is profoundly conservative and committed to mediocrity.

We coast along with a focus on our manifest natural grandeur and let the banality of the environment we've created here for ourselves lay mostly unremarked. Perhaps subconsciously we think we can get away with creating mediocre human environments because the natural environment so totally eclipses them in so many ways. A beautiful sunset across the Sound and Olympic Mountains can certainly take your mind off the cheap condo you're sitting in.

Contrast this to another American city of my early childhood: Chicago. The City of the Big Shoulders may be meatpacker to the world and Second City to America, but it has very little to recommend it geographically apart from a central location on the rail and barge networks. It's flat as a table. The weather is miserable except for those few, fleeting, glorious days of spring and fall (don't blink! you'll miss them!). The nearest thing to a mountain anywhere near is Mount Trashmore: distinctive, perhaps, but certainly not grand.

Chicago is a city of man-made grandeur and high cultural aspiration. It is not an accident that ambitious, no-nonsense Chicagoans have produced some of the most interesting and ... dare I say it ... beautiful buildings and urban environments to be found in North America. They had to. They didn't have anything else to work with.

Nor is it a foregone conclusion that any city with an abundance of natural beauty will necessarily give rise to a boring and banal urban environment. Vancouver, BC (that hated and admired arch-nemesis to the north) shares many of Seattle's geographic attributes and benefits, and yet has also managed to create a stunning and vibrant urban fabric with intriguing architecture and a thriving, cosmopolitan, urbane culture. It's easy to develop an inferiority complex as a Seattleite walking down Robson Street to Stanley Park. Why can't we pull something like that off? It can't be that hard, can it?

Upstart Portland, to our south, has systematically developed an approach to creating positive urban space and amenities that, while more than a little contrived and compromised by over-reaching and trendiness, is surprisingly welcoming and energetic. The citizens of Portland, no matter how fractious or misguided their activism (a foible we share in common), seem fully engaged with the project of making their city great in a way that Seattleites can never quite muster. That energy shines through and knits the city together.

I could go on, but let's return to the point at hand. When I say Seattle is a profoundly conservative city, what I mean is that we seem to have developed a culture and approach to building our city that is deeply risk-averse and hobbled by a towering burden of prejudice and fear. A survey of the cultural-urban landscape:

Risk Aversion
Risk-aversion is a pernicious force, in practice and effect usually far worse and more common than actual malicious intent. I often find myself reminding my design students of this as they try to play it safe in their work and avoid controversy or criticism. To achieve something truly great, you have to accept the risk of failure. To gain love, you must risk hate. Without the risk, there is no chance to achieve.

Seattle is well-known for its culture of politeness and conflict-avoidance. This can make getting along very easy, public debate very reserved and congenial, and visitors to the Emerald City often remark on how pleasant everybody seems ... even when driving.

But the downside of so civil a culture is that most Seattleites break out in hives at the thought that someone might take offense to something they say or do and confront them about it. Projected onto others, Seattleites tend to react very negatively when presented with proposals or opinions that are risky or controversial or even just a little bit outside their comfort zone. Better to avoid anything that might cause us to fight, or risk opposition, even if it means we never have the chance to reach a strong accord through a rough-and-tumble meeting of the minds. The productive, metabolic dynamic of conflict is anathema here.

We, catholic Progressives all, fear change.

The resulting mediocrity is so ubiquitous and pervasive that we don't even notice it unless we've recently returned from traveling. We get a surfeit of mediocrity because, while it's easy to challenge and defeat a bad project or praise a good one, the mediocre yields only indifference and is too slippery and blase to give us traction for criticism. That's the point, of course.

Entire careers have been built on this, though we'll refrain from naming names. You know who you are.

It's also interesting to note that while Seattle is home to many very talented and successful architects with national and international prominence, most of them have done their best work elsewhere. When world-famous architects such as Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas come to town, the results are almost uniformly inferior to their other work (I can only think of one exception to this rule, done by a local boy who made a name for himself in New York and came back to rub our noses in it).

Great architecture and great urban design are not dependent only on great designers. They are dependent to equal or greater degree on good patrons in visionary cultures which value the products of that design. Seattle may have a surplus of the former, but the latter is in short supply.

Maybe it's something in the water.

Our culture also works very hard behind the scenes to penalize failure, and our approach to urban planning is almost entirely negative. Risk-averse and conflict-avoidant, we have never had the civic conversation necessary to reach a common vision for what our city should be. Our guiding principles for urban development, such as they are, then become a voluminous laundry-list of neighborly pet peeves codified into "don't you dare" proscriptions with force of law.

Did you know that there is an entire section of the Seattle Land Use Code devoted to Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs? And yet, nowhere is there a clear and concise statement of what our vision and goals for our city are or should be in anything but generic platitudes or muddled cliches carefully crafted to avoid controversy (or even clear meaning).

The Comprehensive Plan is a confusing and laborious mess. The neighborhood plans are no better, somehow managing to combine ad hoc issues activism with boiler-plate uniformity (a neat trick, actually, frustrating though the results may be). The Land Use Code is a gordian knot of self-contradictory limitations predicated on decades-old, discredited notions of city planning and antediluvian NIMBY rallying points. I dare you to read all this stuff without caffeine enhancement. We have numerous and varied strong opinions about what we don't want, and not the faintest clue about what we do want.

For a group of people who are so proud of our supposed casual attitudes and tolerance, we seem to spend an unwholesome amount of time and effort using the voice of official power and process to tell our neighbors what they can't do.

Rule by Consensus and Attrition
Our civic culture places a very high value on consensus decision-making and participatory democracy, almost to to the exclusion of all else. Noble as the intent behind this may be, its problematic aspects are manifest. As Aesop pithily observed, "Please all, and you will please none." We've been trying the former for years, and have certainly achieved the latter in spades.

Combined with a fixation on due process, our pathological need for consensus participation in even the most minute decisions about our urban development has resulted in the gargantuan, schizophrenic Frankenstein monster that is our Land Use Code, a nightmarishly complex permit approvals process, and a fickle, interminable public engagement whereby applicants are subjected to death by a thousand cuts and the interference of thousands of chefs in the kitchen.

This is not to say that the insistence on participatory consensus isn't in some ways justified. We can point to numerous examples in the history of the development of our city where individual decision-makers or small groups forced through ill-advised plans and our city paid a terrible price. *cough* Viaduct *cough* Stadium *cough* But repeating the trope misses the point.

The point is that this need for us to vet everything through the "Seattle Process" isn't motivated by reason, but by fear. Fear is typically a very poor basis for deciding anything, regardless of who or how many are doing the deciding. Let fear motivate your decisions and you leave yourself prey to the fear-mongers, pro and con.

The result is a process of vetting and approval that depends on the interpretation of byzantine regulations created via interminable public feedback, public comment and review processes that have no clear criteria, and a contest of economic and emotional stamina. The presumption seems to be that any applicant who is crazy and determined and wasteful enough to stick it out through the entire, exhausting process must be serious enough to actually, you know, build something. Call me crazy, but attrition does not strike me as a sound basis for determining which projects best contribute to the success of our city's urban environment.

There's a gravel parking lot on Pine Street that stands (lays?) as a monument to the dysfunctionality of the Seattle Process. I'd suggest putting up a plaque, but it would take years to get a permit, let alone design approval. Locked in a war of attrition with neighborhood interest groups and stuck for two years in the SEPA/Design review process, Murray Franklyn, the developer of the Belmont & Pine project finally won master use permit approval only to have the decision appealed by a local activist with a legal education, a chip on his shoulder, and a lot of time on his hands.

To put that in perspective, the project owner first started navigating the approvals process in 2005. The project is still stuck in appeal, has not been able to obtain financing due to the uncertainty surrounding it, and will now likely never be built. Rather than replacing the dilapidated but charming commercial/restaurant buildings formerly on the site with a more modern storefront engaging the street with apartments above to bring people into the neighborhood, we now have an eyesore.

Thanks, Dennis. That really made a difference for the quality of Seattle's urban spaces.

Let's face it: We, bold pioneers on the western frontier, are imprisoned in the romance of the past. In particular, there is one spectre that haunts our dear city and populates its dreams and nightmares: the Craftsman Bungalow. This is a subject deserving its very own post cataloging all the flavors of pathology connected with it, so I won't flog this particular horse to excess just yet. Let's just say for now that it's more than a little ridiculous and hypocritical for a city so desirous of sustainability and urban quality to be so completely focused on the preservation of this shibboleth - the SUV of the housing world - against all else.
You may also have noticed my unabashed self-promotion there. Watch out for me. I'm a sneaky bastard.

We're still just a small town with small-town attitudes, despite the fact that the Seattle metro area now contains 3.4 million people. In fact, we're not really that much of a city after all: more of a confederation of towns that share some infrastructure costs and administrative duties. Occasionally, turf wars between the principalities will break into the open (school district budget cuts being a recent example), but mostly the struggle remains cold and covert: a kind of multi-polar municipal detente. This may serve local interests and activists very well, but it has nearly crippled our ability to plan for growth or enhance our urban environment.

NIMBYism is rife and mostly unchecked. This hardly needs explanation to anybody who pays attention or who has attended any sort of public meeting associated with proposed development projects. One wonders how the citizens of Laurelhurst sleep at night, having recently driven a stake through the heart of Children's Hospital's expansion plans.

We waste our money on signature feel-good infrastructure money-burners like light rail, driven by a sort of Rotary boosterism run amok, and ignore the rotting infrastructure on which we already depend. Rather than fixing obvious road hazards and choke points or implementing smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, we spend many millions on re-striping roads for bicycles and increasing the hazard to bicyclists. Newsflash: Seattle actually has a lot of steep hills and it's been known to rain from time to time...not exactly prime bicycle commuting territory.

One of these days, I'm going to attach a seismograph to my motorcycle as I commute in to work to quantify the deferred maintenance along my little stretch of this fine city.

Most of our regional wealth is controlled by a few dozens of individuals and families, all of who punch way above their weight in local affairs. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. When oligarchs get together and act, they can accomplish highly beneficial things for everyone. Just ask Chattanooga.

This is one of the many paradoxes of Seattle's urban culture: an uncompromising dependence on participatory process combined with establishment string-pullers working in smoke-filled rooms (now smoke-free within 25 feet of any opening!). But in Seattle, the oligarchs haven't stepped up to the plate except where it serves their own very narrow interests, and even then have no shared vision of the future. Paul Allen is more than happy to inflate his ego and pocketbook with public subsidies for a couple of highly dubious enterprises. Bill and Melinda Gates wiped out a skate park to provide a home for their third-world money funnel. But beyond that, noblesse oblige in Seattle's urban arena has been conspicuously lacking.

How's that for biting the hand?

All of which is partly a way of saying that Seattle suffers to some extent from an ongoing power vacuum in municipal government and a debased sense of community values. We have all the alienation and isolation of modern American urban life, combined with the distinct provinciality and arrogance of outlook characteristic of small-town life. We want Seattle to stay in 1960 or 1970 or 1980 or whenever forever, and all this newfangled stuff just wrecks what makes us special. Plus, it's our city and we don't think it's broke, so we ain't got no desire to fix it.

Nobody said we had to be consistent.

Does the Shoe Really Fit?
Despite my inflammatory and long-winded critique, the fact is that Seattle is not only a great place to live, but has the potential to be a true world-class city. I know our local and regional advocates claim that's already the case, but it's not. We have a good reputation for many things, but the reality doesn't really match up to the hype.

Perhaps that's the primary motivation for this weblog and the vehemence of my little screed. I know how great this city can be, and have suffered through decades of disappointment as Seattle has failed to really fulfill that potential. From the CAP Initiative forward, we seem bound and determined to cut off our collective nose to spite our face. Those of you who are involved in Seattle urbanism, land use, and/or the design of the built environment probably see quite a bit of truth in the funhouse mirror I've so unflatteringly held up to our city. We can change, and the things we have to change aren't really all that huge in the grand schema. We're just so used to dealing with these things that we often forget it doesn't have to be this way.

In some small way, I hope to help change that. Maybe you do too.

Welcome to Seattle Urbanism!

Welcome to Seattle Urbanism. If you're here, that probably means you have an abiding interest in the quality of Seattle's urban environment, such as it is ... or at the very least, a bone to pick with something you think has gone wrong with the form or development of our city.

At Seattle Urbanism, we:
  1. love the city of Seattle and want to see it flourish as the world-class city it has the potential to be (but isn't, quite yet, despite our pretensions),
  2. provide an outsider's perspective framed from insider information and expertise,
  3. will always call it like we see it, wherever that leads us,
  4. try to be smart, informative, erudite, entertaining, and funny ... as the material allows.
We've also got a few inherent biases here, and feel that it's always best to make biases explicit. I've also long been a fan of the "we believe" series on NPR. There are several other weblogs and sites that cover urban topics as they relate to Seattle. This one isn't like the others in a few important ways you should be aware of up front. That way, you can't say you didn't know it was a snake when you picked it up.
  • we believe that cities are among the greatest human achievements, and are best conceived as organic, self-organizing structures which reify social relationships and behaviors,
  • we believe that incentives matter ... a lot ... and economics cannot be ignored in the pursuit of ideals, nor changed by wishful thinking and creative accounting,
  • we deny the efficacy and validity of 'social engineering' through design and planning: that urban and architectural design are not capable of controlling human behavior, merely facilitating or hindering it,
  • we believe that, while land use regulation and codes can prevent some of the worst designs, it is not capable of enforcing good design,
  • we therefore prefer minimalist, catalytic, organic, and cooperative approaches to urban development as a default,
  • we don't believe in half-measures,
  • we are adamantly opposed to mediocrity in all forms,
  • we believe that the worst threat to the vitality and health of a city is the unraveling of trust,
  • we believe that you can judge intent better by watching what people do than what they say,
  • we are not part of Seattle's regnant political orthodoxy, and probably don't agree with you on any political stance you care to name, but don't think that's an impediment to implementing better urban strategies for this city we share,
  • we believe that a city's environment and infrastructure must provide security, social context, and opportunity,
  • we believe that the "Seattle Process" is a disaster, and is symptomatic of a larger problem,
  • we believe that arguing on the Internet without first clarifying and agreeing on first principles and fundamental goals is as pointless as wrestling with a pig: you both get dirty, and the pig likes it.
Finally, we've got a few administrative rules we expect participants to honor as we move forward:
  1. All perspectives are welcome.
  2. Argumentative fallacies and emotional invective will not be tolerated.
  3. Posts must at least tangentially relate to urbanism and design in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
  4. Comments must relate to the topic of the post in which they are made.
  5. The weblog moderators are in charge and their decisions are final.
This move has been in the works from some time now. Speaking personally for a moment as weblog creator, I've been writing on design and urbanism topics for many years in other places. I've also been embroiled in Seattle's neighborhood planning process, served half a decade on the Seattle Design Review Board for Area 7 (Capitol Hill & the surrounding area), and been deeply involved in the current rewrite of the multi-family zoning code currently under review by the City Council. And, of course, I'm also a professional designer of buildings and urban spaces. I've spent twenty years thinking about Seattle Urbanism and how to make it better.

It was high time those thoughts got collected in one place. I look forward to hearing what others think of them, and listening for other voices to join in. If you would like to write for this weblog, please let me know.