(the street view of some of the townhomes that are almost complete on the ex-Guadalajara Hacienda site)
… if they can evolve from the form shown above. By most accounts at this morning’s townhouse forum, an official meeting of City Councilmember Sally Clark‘s Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee held at the Capitol Hill Arts Center, townhouses themselves are not inherently evil. “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with” them, Clark said in her opening remarks. However, the current form so many of them take — and if you think West Seattle has its share, it’s nothing like some of the photos shown of sprawling blocks of them in the North End — is primarily blamed on the city code, which as reported here and elsewhere, may soon be changed. Clark half-joked that the topic was a sneaky way to engage citizens with those upcoming revision proposals, saying at the start, “this is a way to keep people from getting narcoleptic about the Multifamily Code.” Definitely not a sleep-inducing event. Our full story, ahead:
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Townhouses aren’t bad in and of themselves — but the current state of townhouse design in Seattle unquestionably is.
That was the consensus from panelists, politicians, and citizen commenters at today’s townhouse forum, which filled the Capitol Hill Arts Center with a standing-room-only crowd.
That crowd included faces recognizable as people from all over the city, noted West Seattle-residing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, one of three councilmembers on hand who together comprise the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee, along with its chair Sally Clark — who hosted and organized the event — and vice chair Tim Burgess.
The council team sat at stage right; at stage left, a panel featuring Mike Podowski of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, Wallingford Community Council rep Greg Hill (introduced by Clark as “a neighborhood troublemaker in the best sense”), developer Dan Duffus (whose long list of projects includes this controversial one south of Morgan Junction which is now complete), Brittani Ard (who explained her name is on so many permit applications because her job is to help developers get permits), and West Seattle architect and Southwest Design Review Board member Brandon Nicholson, who won applause and accolades for his presentation of specific ways in which townhouse design can improve.
A large chunk of time at the start of the two-hour-plus forum was spent explaining how the current state of Seattle townhouse development evolved – or devolved – to where it currently resides. The non-insiders in the crowd learned a new bit of shorthand — the “four-pack” — which is used to describe the typical four-unit townhouse cluster.
The very first explanation, along with a look forward to where the code is going, came from Seattle Planning Commission member Tom Eanes, who’s a principal at Hewitt Architects. Toward the start of his 20-minute presentation, he quoted an anonymous city planner as describing townhouses as “like a fungus network eating up our city.” To illustrate, he showed a photo of a North End development, 85th/Aurora area, that appears to sprawl for blocks and blocks, all the basic townhouse type.
He laid blame for the phenomenon on the “unit lot subdivision,” put into place when codes were last revised in the late ’80s. That’s what’s also known as the “townhouse short plat” — typically a 5,000-square-foot lot cut into quarters for the aforementioned “four-pack” townhouse cluster.
The advantage for the developer/builder, Eanes noted, is that if they are developing fewer than six units in a project, they don’t have to go through the array of permit processes required for bigger projects, including Design Review and SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act). And — this is a point that came up repeatedly, later — they don’t have the same insurance/liability requirements that come up with condo projects. “All this adds up to money for the developers,” Eanes declared.
He and others identified the key concerns about the typical Seattle townhouse design of today (please note that the following photos are from past WSB reports, NOT from today’s presentation, but they illustrate exactly what was discussed):
-Fences out front (Eanes contends it actually decreases security both on the sidewalk and in the area behind the fence, since “fewer eyes” are on each area):
-Narrow driveways leading to similarly narrow, centered “auto courts” and garages most drivers don’t use:
-Entries often not visible from the street:
-Frequent incidences of “stinginess with windows” (see the example at the very top of this post)
Eanes acknowledged there are “pros” to townhouse development — such as affordability in some cases, and sustainability because of the increased density and the smaller size of the structures.
He went on to suggest that the current state of affairs resulting from an old code is similar to what New York City addressed almost a century ago by revising its law regarding “tenement housing.” Borrowing the NYC terminology, he said, “”I would really like to see the current townhouses that people don’t like, referred to in the future as ‘old-law townhouses’ and then we will have ‘new-law’ townhouses” once the codes are revised to allow design to improve.
As an example of “good” townhouse design, he showed Ravenna Garden Townhomes (here’s a listing we found online with a photo of one unit), noting its “parking court” is wider — 30 feet, not the usual 22 — and perpendicular to the street rather than parallel.
Eanes also showed some previews of what he said has been discussed as the potential Multifamily Code revisions are crafted before going to the council — while also cautioning that some of his presentation might be out of date, as apparently there’s frequent fluctuation. Fence height might be regulated, he said, and parking rules might be amended so that “curb cuts” would be allowed for parking in front of units. “I’m not in agreement with that,” he noted. “This is contrary to longstanding city policy.”
Eanes said possibilities for fixing the current townhouse problem could include “repealing” the Unit Lot Subdivision standards, increasing Design Review Boards’ involvement, or having a design competition like the one in Portland (here’s its website). If Eanes had his way, he said, he would propose a minimum lot width of 100 feet for a townhouse development, wider parking courts perpendicular to the street, entries from the street, private open space on the sides rather than out front, and “transparent” fences, as well as a requirement for “administrative” Design Review if developers want “departures” from city code.
Next, the DPD’s Podowski took a broader view of where the multifamily housing situation standards, saying the current rules “don’t effectively address climate change or the need for affordable housing.” He pointed out that only 7% of the land within Seattle city limits is zoned for multifamily development, calling it a “scarce resource” that must be dealt with carefully because the Comprehensive Plan estimates the city needs to “accommodate 47,000 more households by 2024.”
Decrying what he called the “suburban” nature of current standards, he said, “There are some barriers in our code to doing things that are different, so we think we need to introduce some flexibility, facilitating other creative ways to build.”
He was critical of requirements for “setbacks” — keeping buildings from butting right up against the property line, saying “required setbacks and private open space push structures to the interior of the lot” because there’s no place else for it to go, causing the denounced configuration with the narrow “parking court” in the middle. He did see room for one exception in which he thinks setbacks are appropriate — when multifamily development is moving next door to existing single-family homes. “We would still want to have a front- or rear-yard type setback to help with the translation.”
Then, more nitty gritty: What’s on the table now would change the height limit in LDT, L1 and L2 zones (explanation of zoning acronyms is here). Right now, townhouses are supposed to be limited to 25 feet, with up to 10 feet extra for pitched roofs and other provisions. The proposal would raise that to a 30-foot limit, with five more feet for pitched roofs. “If we were to allow just five more feet like we do in single-family zones, we would get more interesting roof types,” Eanes said. He also suggests requiring that a certain percentage of buildings’ fronts should be made up of windows and doors, perhaps 20 percent for areas facing streets; limiting fences to four feet in height; and allowing “open space” to be provided in a wider variety of ways (rooftop deck? courtyard?). On a more controversial note, he suggested some developments might be able to get away with less parking, if it were “tailored to the demand.”
Speaking immediately after Podowski, Wallingford activist Hill proclaimed the DPD rep’s presentation a “horror show” — and he didn’t just mean the current worst-case examples, which Hill summarized as “not a civil way to live,” throwing in some blame for city inspectors whom he contends aren’t even enforcing existing rules.
Regarding Podowski’s presentation, Hill said in semi-disbelief, “So we’re saying we are going to give you a shorter fence, and taller buildings, and reduce those ‘horrible’ setbacks? I don’t buy any of that.”
He believes that “lot coverage” is one of the prime villains in the townhouse problem — “There’s so much lot coverage, there’s (no room) LEFT to design. The majority of these are designed by architects who bid the lowest to get the projects. They make far more profit than architects who actually design. It’s production, not design.”
Swinging the pendulum over to the development side, Dan Duffus of Soleil LLC (left) spoke next, contending he’s “been complaining about the code for 12 or 13 years since he’s been going back after building townhomes to code and realizing nobody was using their garages.” But he took a darker view of what could be changed, saying, “It’s a matter of what property costs, what it costs to build, and what you can sell it for … The new code that’s being proposed is not perfect but it does address a lot of what I hear people are upset about, the faux Craftsman look that’s really because of height limit. Raising them up to at least single-family height is a very important part of this multifamily code. … It’s a great time to have this discussion because the market is slowing down and a lot of builders will be getting out of the market, so the next time we have a big wave of building, these projects are going to look better.”
Ard from the Master Builders’ Association spoke next, and briefly: “I am not a developer but what I do is get permits for developers — a lot of the signs you see in neighborhoods have my name on them. We work with developers to see what they can put on their property, let them know what the constraints are under the current code.” In her view, changes facilitating front porches and shorter fences would be an improvement.
West Seattleite Nicholson was the last panelist with a presentation, and it got closest to the spirit of the forum topic, whether the (townhouse) “patient” can be “saved.” He noted he was there to represent the Congress of Residential Architecture‘s Northwest branch.
Nicholson said his firm, Junction-based NK Architects, “took on some townhomes following the typical model, about six projects … then realized we always ended up in the same place, so in 2006, we stopped taking projects that do not go through Design Review, which gives you more flexibility and allows you to design by context rather than by the prescriptive nature of the code.”
Nicholson says the CORA NW group has been “meeting and discussing the problems we see with townhouses.” Before showing examples of possible ways to improve the form, he drew laughter by characterizing the debate/dialogue ahead as this: “The question for pessimists is, in the hands of an indifferent or unscrupulous developer, what ne kinds of horrors will a more flexible code permit? The question for optimistics is, if a more flexible code is enacted, what other types of housing development will the new code enable?”
As with preceding speakers, Nicholson said the “current worst case” scenario has too much space devoted to the needs of the car — driveway, “parking court,” garages, with “very little ground space available for living,” and reiterated a point made earlier – the pitched/gable roof form is the only one that “works under the code right now.”
Even with the space devoted to car-related “needs,” the parking courts don’t work, as re-emphasized by a photo he showed of someone parking on a parking strip “because they can’t get into their garage.” Which reminded us of this photo we included in a recent story:
To the pessimist-vs.-optimist point, he acknowledged that many aspects of the current default townhome type might persist even under a new code – but on the optimistic side, he showed examples of what might be possible: One particularly intriguing example placed the townhouse complex’s parking in a central court with a “green” roof lid:
Others featured “pedestrian courtyards,” with one example we recognized as an NK Architects project in West Seattle, live/work units with a courtyard, in the works for 6053 California (last Design Review Board meeting coverage here):
Other design types discussed by Nicholson included East Coast-style brownstones with “buried parking” and roof decks:
Also — “four squares” on narrow lots with “underground drive courts” in the center:
Nicholson also spoke in strong support of the design review process — in which he has a new role, having recently been appointed to the Southwest Design Review Board — and the neighborhood input that it enables: “I’ve found neighborhoods are in support of density if it’s designed to respond to the context of their neighborhood.”
Councilmember Rasmussen then asked, “One of the concerns about Design Review is that it delays projects — how can we make it work so that it doesn’t add to the costs?”
Developer Duffus jumped in at that point, contending “Being the developer that pays the interest, and paying the architect to make the changes after the meetings, when dealing with small projects, there’s no way to economically make it work — you’re adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of EVERY unit.” He suggested there might be several project designs that could have preset permits “that have already gone through Design Review, if you want a quick permit.” He added that “four or five years are required to pass the great examples that Eanes showed … So many sites in Seattle are 40 feet by 100 feet, to send them through Design Review, you are going to eliminate affordable housing in Seattle.”
That was disputed during the ensuing audience comments, both by Martin Kaplan, an architect who is on the Planning Commission, and by builder Marty Leibowitz of The Madrona Company, who accused Duffus of exaggeration, saying, “It does NOT take four to five years and 10-plus thousand dollars per unit (to go through Design Review) … My experience has been that it might take six months longer but we get more units on the site, so the unit cost actually goes down.” He called for a townhouse-building moratorium till the situation can be straightened out, and also suggested that the Master Builders Association has too strong of a voice in the current early review of the new Multifamily Code proposal. Rather than having the council review whatever emerges from the mayor’s office, he suggested “start(ing) a new dialogue where people in the room are represented at a higher proportion so that you understand what the city needs rather than what the Master Builders need.”
Councilmember Burgess asked what would stop the city from repealing the ULS rules and imopsing a moratorium; Duffus replied, “I think you would kill development in Seattle. All those units would become condos, where (the developer) has liability for seven years, and attorneys look for every single flaw … Townhomes still have warranties but don’t have attorneys chasing them like they are chasing condos.”
Around that point in the discussion, Planning Commission member Eanes suggested every building built in Seattle should have a plaque on the front with the name of its architect and developer.
Other points were disputed; Georgetown Neighborhood Council chair Holly Krejci — noting that she was not speaking on behalf of the council — took issue with the notion that townhouses invariably represent affordable housing. “We’re tearing down single-family homes that are affordable and replacing them with townhomes that are 465,000.”
She was followed by Vic Schwartz, who said he’d like to see some differentiation between people who are building on teardown lots and people who are building on lots that have never been built on before, explaining that he owns two lots in Delridge: “I’ve held these lots for 30 years – they’re kind of my pension.” He said he could build two “skinny house” on the lots but would rather build a two-unit townhouse because it would be environmentally friendlier, among other things.
Several speakers disputed the idea that some townhouses might get away with less than a space-per-unit parking radio. Jessica Vets from Queen Anne said to that: “Huh? Parking IS an issue. We need more parking. If that requires more flexibility (than individual garages), great. A lot of people really want a place to put their car.”
And there were a few voices contending that single-family homes were still preferable to townhouses, including a North End woman who lamented that she hadn’t heard “the word bird, green, nature … this is supposedly the greenest city on the West Coast, but I see nothing green about the current townhouse ‘gulag’. What you see is a cultural statement that birds can’t get from point A to point B, people with no contact with nature … Single-family homes have yards. … Let’s revisit the idea of mother-in-laws above garages, a quiet, graceful way to keep the yard … the people who bought houses at 200 thousand that will be taxed at a million when they retire, that might be a way for them to stay in the house.”
At that point, Clark did a quick audience poll on mother-in-laws, which got resounding support.
Ellen Sollod of Squire Park wanted to “revisit the issue of tearing down 100-year-old houses … with character and value in their communities, and replacing them with these monstrosities. I know we live in the free market but we have to shift values so we have some sense of common good.”
Planning Commissioner Kaplan echoed Nicholson’s support for Design Review, but took it a step further, saying the city needs to build a program that gives neighborhoods more chances “to come review what’s in their neighborhoods.” Yes, that would cost money, he acknowledged, but suggested that many might be willing to pay a few extra tax dollars a year to make it possible. He also voiced skepticism about reducing parking-area requirements, saying, “I have a problem with this immediate social engineering … leave it at one car per unit, make it accessible … Right now you are replacing one house that has one or two spaces with five or six units that have five or six cars.”
Another speaker suggested a way to discourage teardowns — “changing the demolition fees. Small houses should either be maintained, or developers should have to pay to move them.” Clark said that issue is “definitely” on her list for consideration.
The forum wrapped up after about two and a quarter hours but easily could have stretched to three.
WHAT’S NEXT: Clark says the proposed revisions of the Multifamily Code probably will arrive before council members before the end of this month. But final action may not come, it was suggested later, till late in the year, or even next year, which is what Clark also said during her recent visit to West Seattle (for this Junction walking tour organized by local resident Sue Scharff).
IF YOU COULDN’T ATTEND TODAY’S FORUM BUT WOULD LIKE TO SEE IT ON VIDEO: The Seattle Channel recorded the whole thing, so you can expect it to pop up on the SC website (seattlechannel.org) and on cable in the not-too-distant future. We’ll keep an eye out and post an update when we see a link.