Ever wonder why some townhouses look the way they do?

Whenever we have one of our “teardown-to-townhome” threads going – like this one – somebody wonders why so many of the new townhouses seem to have no style. Today, as a backhoe scoops debris from the latest t-to-t, we have one answer.



Those photos are before (earlier this month) and after (this morning) in the 3400 block of California. Our most recent mention of that project brought the following e-mail from David Foster, who is not just your average critic — he is an award-winning architect who serves on the Southwest Design Review Board, which you hear about a lot here on WSB, because its public meetings on projects that require design review are often the only times the public gets to hear about/comment on such projects before the backhoe shows up. This particular project, no such review. Some other ones — such as the controversial townhomes across from the church @ California/Othello — no such review. Foster says he knows why:

That project [3400 block of California] is for 16 new townhouses, which is well above the threshold for SEPA Review and Design Review, but it was issued a construction permit without going through either review.

How? The applicants employed an illegal trick called micropermitting (aka segmented permitting). The threshold for SEPA (and Design Review) in this zone (L3-RC) is 9 units or more. The developer maneuvered underneath the threshold by pulling plans for 4 fourplexes off the shelf, and applying for multiple permits. The result – unless this project is challenged – will be another crappy, cookie cutter project that did not receive proper reviews.

SEPA has specific language prohibiting this. But when I spoke to the manager of the Design Review program at DPD, he admitted that all too often the bureaucracy lets these projects slip under the radar – “it’s too hard to keep track of”, and once permits get issued, there is no real remedy short of a lawsuit. He’s tried to get the Land Use section’s support, but to no avail.

This situation got me curious about other projects that might be employing the same illegal strategy, so I took a little field trip through West Seattle. In an hour’s time I found 5 projects that were built in the last year, and 3 more that are under construction (or in the case above, about to start). I put together a chart (attached) showing the projects’ locations and permitting data. (One currently under construction is another 12-unit project in the 5900 block of California Ave.) Looking at these projects as they are now built, any idiot can see that each one was constructed by a single builder as a single project using the same recycled plan. And each could have benefited greatly from Design Review.

SEPA Review and Design Review are processes that were instituted to protect the public from environmentally- and aesthetically harmful projects. Judging by your readers’ response to [this post], people are pissed. Isn’t it time pressure was brought on the City to do its job and enforce the law?

David Foster AIA
Principal, David Foster Architects
Member, West Seattle Design Review Board

SEPA stands for State Environmental Policy Act. A city page about it is here. The attachment that Foster refers to is an Excel spreadsheet that we have uploaded so you can download it (click here). We will be seeking some city comment on this; we’ll let you know what we hear back.

36 Replies to "Ever wonder why some townhouses look the way they do?"

  • cleat January 25, 2008 (10:35 am)

    I say GOOD On Ya for figuring out and taking the time to plot out some of these issues for all to see …. What can we local residents do … I’m sure you will get support … also how about City Council? We seem to have some support both from our local rep Tom Rasmussen as well as Council Pres Richard Conlin … maybe others … Maybe bring up to Alki council? I bet there is a lot of support to “fix” this issue!!!! cleat

  • WestSeattleMom January 25, 2008 (10:54 am)

    Should we start a petition demanding no more ugly townhouses? A letter writing campaign? What will it take to strengthen our zoning law enforcement?

  • Rick January 25, 2008 (11:11 am)

    Since some of these are ILLEGAL, is there any remedy or sanctions/fines applicable to prevent further cases like these, rather than the “Oh well,what’s done is done, it’s out of my hands anyway” atitude? I imagine the impact of these ILLEGAL projects have an adverse impact on the adacent resident/owners affected.

  • Rick January 25, 2008 (11:14 am)


  • Elikapeka January 25, 2008 (11:18 am)

    I’m sure we’re not the only neighborhood where this is going on. Seems like it would be a good story for one of our TV stations or city-wide papers to flesh out. The thing I really loved about Seattle when I moved here back in the 80’s was the distinct character of each different neighborhood. You could go to Ballard or Wallingford or Fremont and really feel like you went somewhere. All of that is quickly being bulldozed into generic mediocrity. I know you can’t stop progress, but some requirements to make these developments fit the neighborhood and actually contribute something to mitigate their impact would be nice.

    Thanks to Mr. Foster for pointing out the loophole!

  • CMT January 25, 2008 (11:18 am)

    Yes, if anyone has any ideas about how we can oppose any new such projects in a unified way, please post!

  • JM January 25, 2008 (11:39 am)

    I agree that this loophole should be closed, but that won’t solve the problem of cookie-cutter townhouse development. As regular readers of this blog know, design reviews rarely result in any significant change to designs. You might get a few tweaks to the external details, but design reviews never result in the scale of change that make a real difference in the final impact of the project.

    Some friends and I tried several years ago to build our own multifamily project for the group of us to live in. We wanted to design and build a project with four units that would be an example of how to build sustainable housing that fits the neighborhood in which is located. After a year of research we finally gave up. Seattle’s zoning and building codes and the related economics essentially force infill multifamily developers to build exactly the same townhouse design.

    Some aspects of the “problem”:

    – Townhouses are built the way they are so that ownership can be “fee simple”. Each unit owner owns the land under their unit and the vertical shaft of space their unit inhabits. This arrangement is more attractive to buyers than traditional condominiums with a deeper financial interdependence among the owners in a project.

    – The feature that I most object to in Seattle townhouses is the fact that the street level is almost always dedicated to the automobile. This is simply because the cost of building underground parking is too high for a small project and the space required to maneuver and park a car accounts for almost the entire footprint of a residential unit.

    – Building codes make it much more expensive to build “loft” units that overlap each other horizontally. As soon as you overlap units in that way, much more stringent fire separation and protection requirements (i.e. sprinklers) come into play. This is not economically feasible for a small (e.g. 4-unit) project at anything below luxury price levels.

    Given these and other constraints, the ubiquitous townhouse pattern seen all over Seattle, with four units on a single lot, a very tight “auto court” and street level garages (with almost no usable open space) and two floors of living space above that, is inevitable. it sucks, but that’s the only solution that pencils out.

    I don’t think most developers of teardown-to-townhouse projects have any evil intent. They are just trying to maximize their return. They are producing what we as a region have said we want: increasing urban density to slow down suburban and rural sprawl. Unfortunately the basic form they are “forced” into by a combination of codes and economics is an ugly one.

  • WSB January 25, 2008 (11:42 am)

    E & CMT – one of the best things you can do is keep close watch on what’s being proposed for your neighborhood. Shameless plug, we monitor building permit applications etc. and post about notable ones here, so if you read WSB frequently, you will be more up on it than those who don’t. Most if not all of the projects David Foster mentioned have been reported here (our first report on the 3400-block California project was more than three months ago). We are working on a separate “Development” page to make it easier for people to track what’s going on around WS at any given time. But the city itself has a boatload of resources, including clickable maps that show what’s happening where, at seattle.gov/dpd … Regarding what you can do right now, I’d suggest writing to the entire City Council. Each and every person on the council represents you (there are no districts, they’re elected citywide):
    There are indications that with some new members and leadership changes, the council may take a different view of some aspects of development-related issues and how the unavoidable, necessary, and yes, often-beneficial process of development fits with existing neighborhoods. Council President Richard Conlin’s recent appearance before the Alki Community Council (full WSB report here) included some interesting remarks about development and zoning.

  • VB January 25, 2008 (11:46 am)

    Seems like this is what Vlad dealt with down in our neck of the woods. Supposedly the developer made some concessions (and in fairness the townhouses don’t look so bad) but I don’t really see much of the promised greenbelt.

    I echo fully JM’s comment. All that car-related space just has tremendously negative effects on the layout.

    Interesting to get this take, thanks for posting WSB.

  • Christopher Boffoli January 25, 2008 (2:25 pm)

    JM: Well written. But isn’t it also about taste? It seems to me that many of the builders doing business in Seattle just lack taste.

    When I was buying a townhouse I looked at so much of the same, cookie-cutter faux Cratftsman crap. It seems many builders think buyers will overlook hollow doors and plastic millwork if they just put enough stainless steel and cherry veneer in the kitchen. They just seem incapable of building anything else besides the same tired formula.

    By extension one could argue that, because people are buying these places, the builders are just producing what the market wants. But I’d disagree. People want better design and more diversity in what is out there. They might not have the vocabulary to articulate it, but people know when they see different, exciting architecture.

    And good design doesn’t have to be expensive either. West Seattle is lucky to have architects like David Foster who has proven with both commercial and residential projects that it is possible to do tasteful, modern design at an affordable price. Bad design is like a disease that is all around us. And good architects are the cure for that malady.

  • jissy January 25, 2008 (2:32 pm)

    OK, I just find this insane….. DPD saying “it’s too hard to keep track of” — what, can no one read addresses on applications???? I would assume before a permit can be issued, the surrounding plots are researched to see that it all fits in i.e. zoning, appropriate boundaries etc…. ONE look at the addresses would clue DPD into the fact that the adjacent properties are in application as well, put the names of the applicants and builders together and wah-la!!!!!! you might get an indication that it’s illegal.

    Who’s running this show these days? Illiterate schmoe’s who can’t put names and addresses together? SHEESH!!!

  • momaroundthecorner January 25, 2008 (3:26 pm)

    I just hope the traffic in the alley doesn’t present a problem once the residents here move in. People forget that these alleys are like our backyards and drive like maniacs trying to save a few minutes of travel time. Slow down people!!!

  • momaroundthecorner January 25, 2008 (3:34 pm)

    I just feel lucky to live in an old home (1916) and not one of these cheaply built buildings. The materials won’t last as long. In 20 years already we’ll see signs of age. It’s not about quality anymore, it’s about squeaking in to how much we can afford. I just hope the alley’s behind these places don’t present themselves to be a problem for us home owners already there. People bomb through hoping just to save a minute or two. Jeez! Slow down people!!

  • cp January 25, 2008 (3:48 pm)

    The DPD wants those building permit fees. The PUD wants sewer connection permit fees. City Light wants electical permits. Property taxes too!

  • Wendy Hughes-Jelen January 25, 2008 (4:03 pm)

    I read the comments on the previous thread and people were commenting “where are the townhouse condo owners, why aren’t they speaking up here”. Yeah I was working to pay my mortgage because a new energy-efficient home is not cheap. I will tell you this – if people didn’t buy them, builders wouldn’t build them.

    As for cookie cutter, have you even looked at the houses all around you in West Seattle? Big chunks were developed at the same time. Look at Westwood – all 2 bedroom one bath saltbox Sears Roebuck & Co KIT HOUSES. Now, in the 60+ years since that area was built up, some have been replaced or remodeled, thus creating the variety we see today. But it did not START OUT that way.

    We didn’t decide to buy a townhome – the townhome decided for us. The floor plan is awesome, it is energy efficient, it got us a 2-car garage, and a lot of other things we always wanted. I just happened to wander into High Point between appointments (I am a real estate agent – now a Built Green Certified Agent)). High Point is nothing at all like these cookie-cutter 4-unit TH blocks you are seeing. I can’t stand having that someone close to me – as in, I look out my window into their window. We don’t have that problem in HP which is why I decided to move there. But other people obviously think what is inside those four walls makes up for what is outside of those four walls. And I think it is awesome that people are willingly moving into more density. It will protect the wildlands we still have in this state. And I grew up in those wildlands, 10 miles from the nearest town. You couldn’t pay me to live in the boonies. I love West Seattle – no matter what form it takes.

    Do yourself a favor. Stop complaining about the outside of the townhome and take a minute and go inside. If you don’t see and understand what the rest of us townhome buyers are, then you are just stuck in the past and going to be hurting as energy costs keep skyrocketing, breaking your back weeding your lawn and getting annoyed at your neighbors trashy yard. I’d much rather do something else with my time – like volunteering, mentoring, or working on a public greenspace restoration project.


    There was an article in Saturday’s paper about functional obsolescence in homes. Here is the list of items that makes a house obsolete (see http://tinyurl.com/38w3cp for the entire article)

    • A house with only one bathroom. Even a house with one full bath and a toilet/sink powder room is going to turn buyers off.

    • Electrical systems protected by a fuse box instead of a circuit breaker. That’s not going to do the job for a plasma TV and computer.

    • Spiral staircases. They’re relatively rare, and for good reason. The tight spiral and wedge-shaped stairs make it next to impossible to safely carry a laundry basket, not to mention a baby.

    • Basements with only an outside entrance. When that space was strictly a cellar housing a coal bin or an oil tank, outside access was all you needed. Today, homeowners expect convenient access to that valuable space.

  • A January 25, 2008 (4:28 pm)

    I have to say that I am very tired of seeing these ‘stacked’ townhouses going up everywhere! They are behind so many houses. They pack them in like sardines. And to be honest, they aren’t great. I’ve been in quite a few (as friends have purchased them). You have to live on 3 levels and there really isn’t much sq footage on each level itself. And not to mention the poor construction in so many. BUT all this being said – guess where I live?! In a townhouse! BUT it’s not one of those 3 level cookie cutter ones you see. Ours was really well built by Epic Homes, Inc (they aren’t throwing them up on every corner like some builders). It’s only 2 stories with a detached garage and a great sized yard. There are only 3 units and they are in the middle of a neighborhood NOT surrounded by other townhomes. The builder did a great job of making them blend right in with the neighborhood. So this is all we could afford 3 1/2 years ago during the crazy housing boom and here we are. Now it is up for sale and we are ready to move into a single family home. :) If you’re interested in seeing it check Craigs List (under Delridge). 2 bed, 1.5 bath for $299,900! Happy Friday everyone!

  • BobLoblaw January 25, 2008 (4:46 pm)

    I recall the numerous stories in recent years of shoddy condos in downtown that were leaking, rotting, falling apart, etc. I hope the same story isn’t brewing here.

  • CandrewB January 25, 2008 (6:20 pm)

    “it’s too hard to keep track of”

    Lucky for him/her, this is the public sector.

    Any money on if one of these went up at the end of the Mayor’s block, they would be able to keep track of it?

    What we have to do is start voting against the incumbants, every time. And yes, even if it means voting for the lunatics sometimes (just don’t give them the majority.) They will only start listening to you when they think they might lose power.

  • GenHillOne January 25, 2008 (8:55 pm)

    Wendy, interesting perspective re: chunks of development and style saturation. I wonder what people thought when they were filling Fauntleroy with brick ramblers! “If I see one more red brick…”? I hadn’t thought about it before.

  • Brendan January 25, 2008 (9:37 pm)

    I say class action! People of WS vs. Ugly Illegal Townhouse Builders. Seriously, these builders need to be held accountable. Especially when they go around environmental planning. On a related note, I heard a report on the radio where the county wants urban growth to be able to accommodate people moving to the region instead of sprawling out into farmland and rural areas. The truth is that the people moving out there (developers?) don’t want to live in the urban areas because they want larger houses with land, and they own large comfortable cars that they don’t mind commuting in. I grew up here and have a hard time thinking about ever owning a house in the city (let alone a large new one on ex-farmland). I can’t even afford an ugly new townhouse that the city is looking at as one solution for dense multi-family affordable housing. Why can’t we build more nice affordable apartment housing that wasn’t once apartments-turned condo-turned unbelievably expensive apartments? With only one type of siding. Let’s make the developers accountable!

  • WSB January 25, 2008 (9:50 pm)

    Fauntlee Hills was a planned development that went up all at once (brick ramblers) but in other areas of West Seattle, I have seldom seen more than three or so houses in a row that look exactly the same. Our house is a functionally obsolete 2 br/1 ba warbox but it doesn’t look like anything else, perhaps because its original owner/builder designed it himself (and, we later learned, went on to become a homebuilder — major subdivisions, reportedly — in California). It’s solid, at least!

  • WSB January 25, 2008 (9:51 pm)

    P.S. To everyone checking back specifically on this thread, we heard back from Council President Conlin, to whom we sent the link, and have posted his reply as a separate followup:

    rather than just tacking it onto this original post.

  • Mikal January 26, 2008 (1:30 am)

    I don’t like most of them either. But I can’t afford to pay for all the lots so I don’t have that choice, nor should I.

  • David Foster January 26, 2008 (6:57 am)

    Wendy – what strikes me as highly ironic about your comments is that High Point – your beloved new neighborhood – went though an extensive Design Review process. Market forces alone would never have created it.

    JM – if you had submitted your project to Design Review, my guess is that you could have built what you envisioned. That’s one of the benefits of Design Review: it enables code departures to achieve better designs. Another benefit is that it requires developers to hire an architect and to submit different concepts for evaluation – off-the-shelf plans are not acceptable.

    It’s simply not true that cookie cutter design is inevitable. Take for example two projects built last year in the 5900 block of California. The first, at 5940 California, is among the worst projects I’ve seen in a long time. (Right up there with the NW corner of California and Spokane.) The other, NoMo12, is one of the best. The difference is that NoMo12 obeyed the law and went through Design Review, while 5940 piecemealed its permitting and thus avoided not only Design Review, but also SEPA, and skirted sidewalk and right-of-way improvement requirements as well.

    A small handful of developers get it. The rest should be kept on a tighter leash so they don’t ruin our city.

  • Jack Loblaw January 26, 2008 (7:31 am)

    If you wish to see the 1940’s version of look alike houses look at the south side of SW Roxbury street starting at 30th Ave SW and going west to the first intersection. The houses have 3 designs. They would flip floor plans on every other one of the same design in order to keep it interesting. When they were built the area was woods and farms. I am sure that the farmers and wild animals that once lived there did not like the progress. I think that the point of contention here with the townhouses is that they look ugly. There are some good examples of squishy townhouse designs a couple blocks north of the Alaska junction on 44th Ave SW. It would be interesting for WSB to take photos of various townhouses in the area and let people comment on what they think about the looks. In my opinion townhouses do not need to be ugly to be built and sold at a profit. We cannot stop owners from legally ( key word legally with no “funny” permits ) building on their own land but we sure should be allowed to see designs and reject them when they are an eyesore in the making.

  • Greg January 26, 2008 (9:07 am)

    Living in NE Seattle and having gone through the design review board process myself, I feel the design review process is ok but not as empowered to make changes as David makes it out to appear. The design review board (DRB) process really only helps ‘soften the corners’ of what Seattle’s already pretty bad zoning permits. Look through any of the DRB’s recommendations and the focus is on color schemes, cornices, landscaping, location of garages, etc… All of these are important, but unless there is a clear zoning violation the DRB does not have any power to reduce bulk-and-scale, make recommendations on traffic mitigation, and to recommend a different purpose for the proposed property. However, if I’m wrong I’d really like to hear about a case where the DRB took a controversial project design which followed the letter of the zoning law and forced it to be signficantly improved.

  • WSB January 26, 2008 (12:08 pm)

    Jack Loblaw – good idea. We have to go out and get a photo of something else semi-newsy before Total Snow Panic possibly sets in, so we’ll pick up some project pix while we’re out.

  • candrewb January 26, 2008 (1:20 pm)

    David, I agree with your opinions on the 5900 of California. Full disclosure – I live in neither development, but I do live nearby.

    One thing you did not mention however, those units you do not like sold-out at an average of $380,000 each if I remember correctly.

    NoMo still has many units availabe at $575,000 plus. Unargueably, NoMo is a much nicer development, but $200,000 nicer? I am not sure about that.

    At the time, I was hoping NoMo would be a lesson to developers that if they spend the extra money and build something cool, buyers will flock to it. Unfortunately however, the opposite is proving true.

    $575,000 can get you a kickin’ two or three bedroom home with a view. That is what NoMo is competing against.

  • ‘Micropermitting’ - the zoning loop hole that lets you build more » Smarter Neighbors January 26, 2008 (1:46 pm)

    […] a really good discussion on WestSeattleBlog.com right now featuring a letter from West Seattle Design Review Board member […]

  • David Foster January 26, 2008 (2:41 pm)

    Good points candrewb. NoMo12’s developer, Greg Walton, would have done a great project with or without Design Review, and unfortunately the market hasn’t cooperated as well as hoped.

    But I stay with my original point, which is that it is very possible to do nice townhomes when the will is there. And I believe it can be done economically. Greg has 2 more projects under construction now on Capital Hill and after the lessons learned at NoMo I believe he will do very well.

  • Renee January 26, 2008 (8:52 pm)

    We have a similar problem in Pinehurst where a developer is putting in 24 townhouses in an L3 zone, but does not have to go through either SEPA or design review for the new construction.


  • m January 28, 2008 (12:22 pm)

    I’ve been inside several townhomes and they are ALL THE SAME inside, as well as out. Three stories, one room and garage on the first (with a coat closet), kitchen, living area and 1/2 bath on second, 2 bedrooms and one master bath and laundry on third. It’s nice to hear there is a variation on that theme in HP, but I think that’s the exception! And it doesn’t worry me that our 1 bath house is ‘obsolete’; if families of 7 or more could make it work with one bathroom (as both sets of my grandparents did back in the day), then we certainly make it work with just 2 people in the house! Besides, it’s one less toilet for me to clean.

  • Townhouses Not Feeling The Love | hugeasscity January 29, 2008 (10:45 pm)

    […] in West Seattle, architect and design review board member David Foster has been grumbling about micro-permitting, received this response from Richard Conlin, and even SLOG piled on. No […]

  • Rick January 31, 2008 (8:48 am)

    Not to defend all the new developments but most of them are at least a little bit better than the flat roof stucco scourge of the 80’s.

  • Brittani Ard February 12, 2008 (5:38 pm)

    To clarify… L-1 and L-2 never trigger Design Review, so most of the developments would never go through Design Review. If DPD can reduce permitting timing then we would not need to avoid Design Review/SEPA. Right now it takes almost 1 year to get a permit on a 6-Unit site. With Design Review that time is at least doubled. Those additional holding costs increase the final sale price, thus making affordable housing harder to achieve. Instead of just beating up the developers, try focusing on DPD to make permitting a quicker process. The majority of my clients will agree that Design Review is not a bad thing, the time it takes to go through Design Review is the problem. Also, with the changes to the Multifamily Code that are on the Mayor’s desk right now… things like setbacks, front porches, useable open space, reducing the requirements for that awful 5′ fence on the street are all being addressed. We as a development community are looking forward to being able to design something better. We have been constrained by the current code. It is DPD, not use that requires that 5′ fence, or private “unusable’ open space, or that same craftsmen style to keep it under the current 25’ height limit (thus not allowing for a modern-flat-green roof design). They also don’t allow us to put a porch in our front yard. These are all things that we want to see, that we want to build. I understand that there are builders that have no regard for the neighborhood, but as a whole, we are decent, hard-working people. So please stop just blaming the developer. There is a way for developers and neighbors to create an amazing city… this constant back and forth bashing… is never going to achieve that.

  • Travis May 5, 2008 (8:37 pm)

    I have to say, after having rented in West Seattle for 2 years, a townhome offered my wife and I a chance to own in the wonderful N. Admiral neighborhood.

    It’s built green, built well, and built unique (i.e. not cookie-cutter) by Cobb construction, minimizes our commuting, and is extremely efficient inside and out. This is the kind of urban renewal we all should hope for in our increasingly populated city/state/world. As an outdoor enthusiast, sustainable living matters a great deal to me.

    In fact, I believe our development even improves this already great area near the Admiral junction, tucked behind the theater.

    I understand long-time West Seattle residents frustrated at perceived hostile invasion by developers, especially if neighborhood input is skirted and the “craftsman”-cutter design is an eyesore. But keep in mind the reasons why townhome living makes a lot of sense in our urban neighborhood. And remember us too–we’re your neighbors and love living in this great community just like you!

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