Townhouse forum consensus: They CAN be saved, if …


(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.”

duffus.jpgSwinging 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 ( and on cable in the not-too-distant future. We’ll keep an eye out and post an update when we see a link.

41 Replies to "Townhouse forum consensus: They CAN be saved, if ..."

  • JW June 7, 2008 (6:17 pm)

    Thank you very very much for this report. It conveys a lot of information in an interesting, thoughtful way.

  • Eric B June 7, 2008 (7:32 pm)

    WSB, you are amazing. What a terrific piece of journalism. Thank you from all of us who want to be more informed on the issues!

  • old timer June 7, 2008 (8:37 pm)

    Thank you for all of this information.
    You truly provide a great service through your hard work.
    I am grateful for all that you do.

  • WSB June 7, 2008 (8:55 pm)

    You guys are too kind. Thank you very much. I know it’s long — finally got a decent laptop so that we can take better notes during events like this, which means more stuff to put in the stories :) — TR

  • Tim Burgess June 7, 2008 (9:47 pm)

    This is some of the best reporting I’ve read yet on town houses. Nicely done. I’ve even linked to it from my blog.

    The issue of what to do with poor town houses is very significant, in my mind, because poorly designed structures destroy neighborhood character and lead to increased cynicism . . . why isn’t my city protecting my neighborhood? I understand the complaints.

    I know Sally Clark will have our committee give a very thorough review to DPD’s upcoming proposals.

  • WSB June 7, 2008 (10:16 pm)

    Thanks for the link, Councilmember Burgess. WSB’ers, I looked up the direct link to his post so you don’t have to: click here.

  • kt June 7, 2008 (10:30 pm)

    Excellent report! I’m in the CD. Hope you don’t mind, but I linked from CD News. I composed the article to get people to attend the meeting, but I could not have summarized the results any better. Thanks!

  • D June 7, 2008 (11:39 pm)

    It really bothers me that Seattle city government is spending resources legislating seemingly arbitrary standards of beauty. All the criticisms listed of townhouses can equally be applied to single family homes. Fences, narrow (or completely lacking!) garages, and number of windows… West seattle has far more important things to worry about, which *concretely* *affect* the quality of life for ALL residents of the community. Crime, transit, education funding — these things really destroy neighborhoods. Townhouses don’t.

  • grr June 8, 2008 (12:28 am)

    GREAT job, WSB. As a rule..I’m not opposed to TownHouses. THey server their purpose..but DAMN>>>>do they HAVE to be THAT ugly??? Those ones pictured above are simply atrocious..everything from the paint to the insanely small windows!!

    as a great counter to it, there’s a few new ones on the east side of Fauntlery, right after the big curve.. Nice colors, nice designs, nice faux rock work.

    and..let it be know…UGLY is NOT just relegated to anyone who’s traversed the southern leg of California can attest..That HUGE new Remodel on the West side that’s jet black with TINY TINY windows is simply bad execution of a very bad idea. WHAT where they thinking??? All that space, and tiny windows? It just looks deformed (and the black paint???)…Man…THAT”s a ‘design’ thing I simply DO NOT get.

  • WSB June 8, 2008 (1:07 am)

    grr – it was mentioned at the end that of course the “mcmansions” are a totally different problem and that they will be addressed in due time as well (council president Conlin has expressed a special interest in them, dating back to something he said at an Alki Community Council meeting a few weeks back). And I’ve seen the nice ones too – we included photos of them in the townhouse roundup back during the whole micropermitting debate.

    kt – linking is never a problem. We’re CDNews fans here; in fact, I got to talk a lot with CDN founder Scott while we both attended the “placeblogging” (really not a very good word for running these types of websites) conference in Minneapolis a few days ago.

  • Shibaguyz June 8, 2008 (2:02 am)

    Are we really talking about legislating personal taste? I LOVE our townhouse. I don’t like the one pictured above but who would? Is this a little inflammatory to show this picture as the representation in a report about the “problem” with townhouses?

    It seems to me that we are talking about a matter of personal taste and a lazy government that won’t follow up on necessary building permits from a few unethical developers.

    As a townhouse owner in WS, I’m tired of catching all the flack for being the downfall of the esthetic of this neighborhood. Yes, I’m defensive about this. Yes, I’m angry about it. I’m tired of being attacked about it in broad, sweeping statements. I agree that the above picture is horrid. That doesn’t mean that the person who owns that property isn’t proud of the fact that they own their own home.

    Just a thought…

  • Venkat June 8, 2008 (9:07 am)

    Thanks for the informative report.

    One thing that always struck me is that good design doesn’t necessarily cost more money.

  • Meghan June 8, 2008 (9:20 am)

    grr – Let’s not start attacking the aesthetics of individual houses. That is a totally different issue. As long as someone is following current city code related to height and lot coverage, you have no right to publically criticize them. I thought the USA was a free society. Is your house so universally beautiful that no one could possibly dislike it? I work for a local architect who specialized in custom modern homes and I am so sick of people, especially in W. Seattle, who feel the need to publically criticize and malign them. Different types of architecture enhance a neighborhood over time. Do you really want to live in a city neighborhood where all the houses look alike?? The ironic thing is that the people criticize the loudest so often live in mediocre houses (with e.g. vinyl siding, flourescent lighting, and cheap, mass produced, disposable finishes and furnishings from Ikea and Home Depot and the like) and they’re criticizing people who are building architect designed custom homes often built in green, long-lasting local materials custom built by local craftspeople. If you don’t like a neighbor’s new house or remodel, remind yourself that aesthetics are individual and personal… and remember how lucky you are to live in a society where you have the choice to live in the type of house you like. As the French say, celebrate the difference!

  • CRI 80+ June 8, 2008 (10:59 am)

    Meghan – What is your gripe with “flourescent” lighting? It is the “greenest” commonly available and most efficient lighting source.

  • d June 8, 2008 (11:29 am)

    Wow – i think a number of those drawings of possible alternative designs are great. If they can bring in these varied approaches which are cost-effective and of quality and still remain affordable to buy, what is the problem? Thoughtfully revise the code asap.

    I always recall an image I have of many of the downtown urban streets of Vancouver, BC. On some streets there is incredible density, but creative, original,individual expression is evident. On those lovely avenues and streets, I am not struck visually by any off-the-charts redundancy, which to me is rubber-stamped evidence of the ego’s of greedy developers and greedy architects who have lost, or sold, any integrated sense of their own importance as positive, creative beings of change and growth. The codes allowed this malignancy to spread.

    The streets appeal to the eye and to something deeper the way fine and dynamic creativity does. To me, it heightens the sense of livability and sense of place of a neighborhood. In many of Vanc., BC’s hoods, that reads, to me, diverse international urbanity – solidity, craftsmanship, ethnic, eclectic and traditional design, and green and affordable remains in the mix absolutely – a tended blend that somehow didn’t get screwed up and managed to create a truly wonderful cosmopolitan environment.

    I’ve lived in Seattle for most all of my life. I was raised in Tacoma. Our transition is toward a world-class, cosmopolitan city, but it is adolescent and awkward and the growing pains are acute. To say the least.

    This discussion, not to mention the award-winning level of this reportage, is a sign of good things to come. I am hoping anyway. Those opportunists have gotten their foot in the door, but good.

    A “thoughtful” moratorium seems a necessity.

    I know many folks say this is a waste of time, money and effort. I don’t think Design is the most important concern in the whole mix of urban concerns, but I think that judiciously approached by thoughtful professionals, these matters are very much a part of what I hold near and dear within my sense of place in a complex urban city and the life I hope to continue to live within it. Some amount of serious effort and monies must address it for the greatest good of a rapidly-growing cosmopolitan city.

  • kt June 8, 2008 (12:11 pm)

    Its not about aesthetics. I don’t use the word UGLY. I live in a townhome. I lived in rowhouses and condos back east. I love and support high density multifamily living. It’s about good or negative neighborhood urban design. I feel compelled to comment here as designs previously approved for West Seattle were built across the street here in my Madison Valley neighborhood by a developer from West Seattle. My personal thoughts about how the outside decoration is neither here nor there (although I will note that the design review board in my area seems to spend more time on exterior materials than on traffic pattern issues).

    The problems: Hidden buildings and entryways which affects neighborliness and safety. This will especially be an issue as the housing market tanks and we see more of these homes being rented out. Overbuilt lots because they round up. Houses below now with flooding in their back yards and basements. 12 cars on the street where there used to be 4 because the garages are inaccessible. None of of the homes are laid out effectively for a family to live in, and I believe strongly that we need to keep the idea of FAMILIES in multi-family housing as this may be the best way to have actual regular working people able to stay in Seattle. A beautiful old cherry tree at the end of the parking strip was torn out totally unnecessarily — by the way angering the city arborist but there is no recourse.

    I am worried because this same builder is hot to buy another two properties south of these developments. Not a bad guy at all, just follows the current rules. But, I can’t feature 20 more cars parking on my street, no children, and areas invisible from the street where who knows what can go on.

    Our neighborhood input? — We get to send ‘comments’ to some black hole when the big white board about proposed subdivision goes up.

    And, there are more than a few unscrupulous builders out there. There is alot of question whether many of these buildings will hold up. Irony is some of the most well designed and built are by the Seattle Housing Authority.

  • Christopher Boffoli June 8, 2008 (3:39 pm)

    Recognizing how widespread design illiteracy is in our country and community, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to read some of the comments here. But somehow it is still disappointing and frustrating to see people trying to defend proliferate mediocrity by attributing it merely to a difference in taste. The truth is that there is too little good taste demonstrated in our built environment and the results of bad taste are virtually everywhere. Our focus on profit at the expense of all else is also to blame as is always prioritizing cars before people. And our anti-social emphasis on “personal rights” to build whatever we want without considering our responsibilities to the context of the greater community is also to blame for the soul crushing sprawl and design anarchy that exists all around us.
    Greek and Roman civilizations invested vast amounts of energy and thought into building systems based on complex mathematical formulas predicated on the scale of human beings. These noble proportions created subtle effects on human psychology. Travelers still visit ancient cities today and marvel at their beauty, efficiency and functionality. But despite the US being among the most innovative nations in the history of the world, we are unable to translate centuries of design erudition into a beautiful built environment. It’s as if we’ve been building horrible crap for so long it has become comfortable and familiar. For many of us our sense of what is beautiful has become totally numb and we’ve lost our ability to even imagine something better.
    The second our City Council starts looking at townhouses in Seattle and asks “Could we do better?” people start complaining that they’re wasting their time and should fix other things first. Actually, there’s a fairly convincing body of sociological research that suggests that if we were better at designing a more inspiring built environment it would mitigate some of the social problems caused by people spending their lives immersed in such bleak surroundings. Don’t underestimate the ability of architecture to inspire pride in our community and surroundings. I applaud the efforts of the City Council, the Design Review Board, and the minority of architects and developers who are working to be part of the solution. Good design is an entirely worthy cause.

  • grr June 8, 2008 (3:42 pm)

    Megan..I agree…celebrate the differences…And, frankly, I think you’d find my home quite lovely :)

    – FWIW…I love custom, modern homes. I’m not a huge fan of Craftsman or Ranch or Praire styles. But I do appreciate them. They, for the most part, tend to have flowing lines and seem very ‘proportioned’. The house I mentioned just looks like it was build wrong. Reminds me of the Spinal Tap ‘Stonehedge’ issue (“oh..those windows were supposed to be 4 FEET, not 4 inches…”) lol.

    and I’m NOT opposed to Townhouses. There’s more people than land, and they are a fine solution to home ownership. Franky, if I didn’t have a dog, I’d live in one in a heartbeat. There’s a number of them in WS that I personally find VERY attractive.

    and..surely..working for an architect…you MUST just pull your hair out looking at SOME of the remodels/build outs/new construction and just say to yourself “WHAT are they thinking???”

  • grr June 8, 2008 (3:46 pm)

    and I’m sorry I used the word ‘ugly’. I should have just said ‘quite unattractive to me’.

  • Irene Wall June 8, 2008 (5:41 pm)

    It would be reasonable to invoke a “time out” on 4 and 6 packs permits until the MF coded is revised. Development in Seattle will not come to a screeching halt but it will focus all minds on fixing the flaws in the code. Developing infill projects should be seen as a privilege, not just a right to make a handsome profit… and move on.

  • grr June 8, 2008 (6:19 pm)

    Bravo, Christopher.

  • PSPS June 8, 2008 (9:00 pm)

    Another fantastic job of journalism. This piece alone puts the mainstream media including The Times & PI to shame.
    One of many disturbing things I notice with most of these townhouses are the joke “auto court” included with them when they’re build perpendicular to the street/alley. They are merely a perfunctory exercise to satisfy the poorly written and poorly enforced city code, since they are unusable. This fact alone tells me a couple of things.
    First, the city must regard their own off-street parking requirements a charade since they continue to permit these things knowing they can’t be used for their intended purpose.
    Second, the developers go along with this fraud by continuing to design and build projects that include these useless elements.
    The end results are a bunch of cars unnecessarily parking on the street (or a Corvette on the lawn) and another island summer house for the enriched developer.

  • sd June 8, 2008 (10:10 pm)

    Yeah, as a native I am so depressed about “spending my life immersed in such bleak surroundings” as Christopher seems to imply WS is. Not to be defensive I feel West Seattle is a fine place to live, including the townhouses and other diverse aspects of the surroundings.

    If a neighbor decides to paint their house a color others don’t appreciate does that mean it shouldn’t be allowed unless the neighborhood (or some “experts”) agree? Aesthetics in architecture and other sensations we encounter are subjective.

  • grr June 8, 2008 (11:03 pm)

    I dunno..I get cranky if my neigbour doesn’t take care of their yard :)

    It’s like I tell the kids with they wanted orange/purple hair…Don’t matter to me..YOU’RE the one that has to wear it.

  • big gulps,eh? well, see ya later. June 9, 2008 (11:16 am)

    I have owned a townhouse by Luna park since 2005 and rented it out for just under 2 years. It was one of the first of the wave to hit that area and the design is different than the new “standard”.

    It has one legitimate off street parking place per unit and the original Single Family house was left in place. It is only 2 attatched units. It is only two story. Developers would say it wasn’t the maximum use of the space, but from a liveablity standpoint it seems much better. The entrys are all together, the living area is on the first floor, and the cars are off the road.

    The parking around the area is now a huge issue and the street parking is almost always over capacity. The street is also dark because all the new construction is 3 story and all within a few feet of each other.

    We have fully addressed the above concerns in this blog so my concern is different. When these “new” townhouses are sold one of the selling points was “No Homeowner Dues!” Condos have dues in order to plan for and manage the inevitable maintenance of the overall stucture. They serve a valuable purpose. These new townhouses do not have this, but in a few years they will require new paint, roofing, siding, ect.

    My CC&R is very basic when dealing with this and only states that if something is deemed vital by an expert and the other owner(s) will or can not pay for it then a lein can be placed on their property. Putting a lein on your neighbors property won’t lead to friendly neighborhoods.

    Since these property types have been around other parts of the country for years there must be a standard way of dealing with it, but I am not yet aware.

  • cleat June 9, 2008 (11:32 am)

    Lots of good writing WSB … and good thoughtfull comments too …

    One concern I have no seen … besides affordability … which these are not for this 24+ year government worker … is accessability.

    I am disabled and headed downhill… as I age I will not be able to handle stairs … probably at all …. Even if I could afford this new “affordable” construction, I could not live there…. no main-floor bedrooms & full baths. Stairs on the outside, stairs on the inside.

    While there are alternatives such as apartment style condos there still are the dues and association issues which many of the townhomes don’t have.

    Whether it’s a young mom or dad with babes in arms having to truck up and down flights of stairs to do laundry, haul up groceries, make home-space available temporarily for an elderly or injured relative … or someone like me who would like to have a new/newer home to live out my life in, my joints are giving increasing pain and less mobility … everyone could benefit from better access.

    Again.. great article!!!

  • Rick Barrett June 9, 2008 (12:14 pm)

    See the LSM website, for their Commentary, which graphically illustrates and addresses many of the multi-family problems; the 3X Capacity report; and the Citizen’s Agenda which also proposes workable improvements.
    LSM will be presenting at the annual Seattle Community Council Federation workshop on Saturday, June 21, 10a.m. at the Brighton penthouse, 6727 Rainier Ave South.
    For more information about the Seattle Community Council Federation go to .

  • Wendy June 9, 2008 (2:16 pm)

    I’ve toured a number of townhomes in West Seattle lately in my work as a relocation consultant. There are so many for rent right now because the builders are unable to sell them.

    I’ve been saying all along, as long as people keep buying them, the’ll build them. Looks like the scale is tipping the other direction finally.

    Examples of why people won’t buy them (and it has nothing to do with where the front door is or how many windows there are or aren’t)

    ~ A “Master suite” so small you would be hard pressed to get a queen size bed into the room and be able to close the door. Full-size is more likely – maybe.

    ~ The front door leads into a dark hall with a bedroom on one side and a bathroom on the other and a stairwell across from the door. Not very welcoming to somone’s home

    ~ The ground floor bedroom may have a sliding glass door to a 6 foot by 6 foot beauty bark yard. That is going to be a weeding nightmare.

    ~ Forget a garage you can’t use – some builders aren’t providing garages at all. Just a single parking space tucked behind the house in front and the townhome building in back and the only reason why you can maneuver out of the lot now is because NO ONE ELSE LIVES THERE. And I drive a MINI Cooper.

    ~ Decks so small you couldn’t get a gas grill out there to cook on – you also can’t put up a little table to hold a tiny Weber either. I call them “smokers deck” since they are only good for standing and smoking. A lot less people smoke these days, too.

    Rents for these never-lived-in townhomes range from $1,400 to $1,750 (or selling for $300,000-350,000, whichever comes first). More than my first mortgage payment in 2001.

    All I can say is I appreciate my “double” townhome and my community of High Point with every single ineffectual townhome I see. Homes need to be livable.

    I will add one comment about windows – in living spaces this small one window on each end of the space is plenty – you really don’t notice that there aren’t more windows since the space is so small it is light and bright anyway.

  • Brandon Nicholson June 9, 2008 (3:27 pm)

    I am glad to see so much discussion on townhomes on the blog. Just to clarify, all of the images that were shown at the presentation and those that appear on the blog are for projects that are either under construction or are in the city for building permit review. All of the projects shown went through either administrative (internal DPD) or full (public meetings) design review. The projects shown benefited from the design review process and give some insight into what new options may be permissible under the proposed multi-family code update.

    Also, from what we are seeing ‘designed’ townhomes are continuing to sell, maybe not at the same pace as previous year, but they continue to move. It is the over supply of ‘cookie-cutter’ townhomes that seem to be having more difficulties and are getting converted to rentals

  • David Foster June 9, 2008 (8:51 pm)

    Brandon, you were stellar!
    The city could take some meaningful steps toward fixing the problem of crappy townhouse design by doing 3 SIMPLE things:
    1-Make Micropermitting illegal. There are many projects all over Seattle that didn’t go thru Design Review because the builder carved the project into smaller pieces, and that’s wrong.
    2-Extend Design Review to all Lowrise zones. Why should a 9-plex in an L2 zone not get DR when the one in an L3 zone does? That’s crazy.
    3-Lower the DR threshold from 9 units to 8. Then all those 8-plexes that presently avoid review would be captured. That’s smart.
    I support the code changes, but to really put the brakes on bad design, we need Design Review; it’s ultimately our best weapon.

  • kt June 9, 2008 (10:35 pm)

    Bill from Jackson Place got a link to the CORA presentation from Saturday’s forum:

    At the PLUNC “can the town house be saved” meeting on Saturday there was a good presentation by Brandon Nicholson from the Congress of Residential Architects (CORA) regarding the multi-family recommendations

    A link to the document is:

    Brandon ONLY builds Design Reviewed projects in his practice.

  • WSB June 9, 2008 (10:43 pm)

    Yes, that’s where we got the images of the suggested best-practice “townhomes” etc. – we e-mailed him Saturday afternoon to ask for a copy of his presentation and he was kind enough to send it along a short time later so we could add those renderings to this report.

  • ownerrights June 9, 2008 (11:14 pm)

    Design Review CAN NOT permit additional units as commented my the public at the meeting.

    Brandon at the meeting said that one of his ‘Design Review townhouses’ that goes through Design Review has a price between $350,000 and 1.2 million. That is an average cost of $775,000. That is NOT affordable. You can not provide affordable housing with superior materials and design. The city must be allowed to design and build for the average buyer, not the elite. The new code is not perfect, but maybe it will provide some change. What is better… keep it the same?

  • WSB June 9, 2008 (11:20 pm)

    To be clear, he was asked the price range of units he’s built. He didn’t say how many in each range (and wasn’t asked for that additional detail) so that can’t be extrapolated to an “average” of $775K – for all we know he’s built 100 at the low end and one at the high end. Or vice versa, for that matter. Just a data point, as I transcribed pretty much every word (and my notes say his reply was $300K to $1.2m) — TR

  • ownerrights June 9, 2008 (11:27 pm)

    Brandon… you tell us. What is the average price of the townhouses you permit.

    I know that the average price of that bad example of townhouses in the 85th and Midvale neighborhood was under 350,000. So, though they are ‘ugly’ they provide a home that someone can afford to purchase. I also believe that if the public feels they have the right to ‘design’ townhome projects. Make everyone go through design review. Every poor guy that wants to add a dormer or 2nd floor to his house should have to get his neighbor’s approval. Lest we forget this is America and property owners should have the right to develop as they see fit and as the code allows.

  • ownerrights June 9, 2008 (11:35 pm)

    Also in regards to Irene’s comments… Putting a ‘hold’ on townhome development, would devastate the local economy. Not for the builder but for all the workers that rely on townhome/multifamily development for work. Even in the recent slowdown most builders have had to layoff most of their staff. If there were no more homes to build… laborers to framers to painters would become unemployed. It would cripple our already unstable economy.

  • howie June 10, 2008 (9:08 am)

    I third this laudation. One cannot find such reporting in any form in the two pitiful rags that show up on the streets in the morning. WSB reporting has all the earmarks of having been written by actual adults.

  • Stephanie June 10, 2008 (11:54 am)

    Great story. I am so damn tired of the 2-unit condos being built in the back-yard of someone’s house that they sold or subdivided which is all up and down my ‘hood. THAT is very ugly!

  • Geof June 10, 2008 (12:37 pm)

    I was at the forum, and this is an excellent report. I’ll be sending the link out to my lists.
    Thanks for the work you put in this.

    Speaking of links, I appreciate how you included those to various sources that further explain code, ideas etc. Very nice touch.

  • Rick June 10, 2008 (2:59 pm)

    Panelist Greg Hill, who did not believe that the DPD assertion that 6 foot fences around townhomes are a code requirement. After the forum he contacted an unnamed DPD official to verify his position. The e-mails are pasted below.

    ————- Original message ————–
    From: “Greg Hill”

    TO All,

    In spite of the city and developer representations at the Saturday Townhouse forum, that they were “required by code” to erect 6 foot fences along the sidewalk, I have confirmed this morning that this was a misrepresentation by Mike Podowski from the city and the developers. There is NO FENCE REQUIREMENT!

    The only code limitation or requirement is between units’ open space, and a limitation of 6 feet in height at the sidewalk. The four foot walls topped by four and six foot fences that are most objectionable, are actually illegal. Once again DPD refuses to enforce the existing code. What is more insidious, is their brazen notion that what the community will get out of the code revision is a better code on fences, in exchange for reduced setbacks, taller buildings and less open space.

    Gregory Hill AIA

    From: ………………@Seattle.Gov]
    Sent: Monday, June 09, 2008 9:48 AM
    To: Greg Hill
    Cc: Dennis Meier; Mike Podowski
    Subject: Re: Fences

    Hello Greg. I do not know of that specific requirement in the current code. They may be referring to the need to screen adjacent private open space from open spaces of adjacent units…..usually done with a 6′ fence. see 23.45.016B.1.d. and e.

  • freeman June 10, 2008 (3:35 pm)

    Thanks much!
    Fixing something takes accurate information. Wrong causes, wrong solutions.

    “[Tom Eanes, of SPC] 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 full story: today’s solution of more flexibilty is a retread. The first in the early 80’s was only slightly less onerous than today’s. In the mid 80s a declared emergency led to late 80s corections that did NOT include the “unit lot”.

    Like redundant signage, the land use code is amended and interpreted excessively. Discount any statement claiming a code was last changed 20 years ago (not sure Tom said this, but it was said and repeatedly).

    Extra leniency to encourage townhouses (not a typical Seattle housing type) appeared in the 70s (maybe farther back), increased in the early 80s, and stayed in the late 80s corrections.

    The “unit lot” did not arrive until 1998. Each section of the land use code online (see DPD, Resource Center) has a history at the bottom. The link at the earliest history, I copy below. Additional changes in 1999 & 2006, but no declared emergency yet, no work on an interim ordinance. Those take a groundswell. Are we there yet?

    DCLU, now DPD, knew what was up by 2001, but to keep production up, continue favorable, unrecorded interpretations, enabling what they jokingly call a fungus among us, and we see as access, fire safety, and amenity stealing problems, plus lost potential as a city, as neighborhoods, and unsuspecting buyers.

    Ord. 119239
    Date of Mayor’s signature*: December 2, 1998
    Committee: Business, Economic and Community Development
    Sponsor: DRAGO

    Omnibus Land Use Code Amendment Ordinance

    AN ORDINANCE relating to land use; adding Section 23.22.062; amending…[and many othersections] of the Seattle Municipal Code to correct typographical errors, correct section references, clarify regulations, and make minor amendments.

    Section 1. A new Section, 23.22.062, is hereby added to the Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) to read as follows:

    23.22.062 Unit lot subdivisions.

    A. The provisions of this Section apply exclusively to the unit
    subdivision of townhouses, cottage housing, and clustered housing in Single Family, Residential Small Lot and Lowrise zones, and single family residences in Lowrise zones.

    B. Sites developed or proposed to be developed with dwelling units listed in subsection A above may be subdivided into individual unit lots. The development as a whole shall meet development standards applicable at the time the permit application is vested. As a result of the subdivision, development on individual unit lots may be nonconforming as to some or all of the development standards based on
    analysis of the individual unit lot, except that any private, usable open space for each dwelling unit shall be provided on the same lot as the dwelling unit it serves.

    C. Subsequent platting actions, additions or modifications to the structure(s) may not create or increase any nonconformity of the parent lot.

    D. Access easements and joint use and maintenance agreements shall be executed for use of common garage or parking areas, common open space (such as common courtyard open space for cottage housing), and other similar features, as recorded with the Director of the King County Department of Records and Elections.

    E. Within the parent lot, required parking for a dwelling unit may be provided on a different unit lot than the lot with the dwelling unit, as long as the right to use that parking is formalized by an easement on the plat, as recorded with the Director of the King County Department of Records and Elections.

    F. The fact that the unit lot is not a separate buildable lot and
    that additional development of the individual unit lots may be limited as a result of the application of development standards to the parent lot shall be noted on the plat, as recorded with the King County Department of Records and Elections.

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