composed almost entirely of attached dwellings
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:
Current 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.
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).