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).

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