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Monday, November 5, 2007

Humongous Homogeneity

posted by on November 5 at 12:54 PM


130th and Dayton, Bitter Lake

Local developer Howland Homes is planning a 36 townhome developement on a 1 acre property on 130th and Dayton. While 10, 12, or 16 townhome developments aren’t completely unheard of, 36 seems like a lot, especially in a neighborhood that still doesn’t have sidewalks. Still, area residents aren’t fighting the massive project because they know a massive wave of development is coming to the neighborhood.

Bitterlake and the nearby Linden neighborhood are already going to be seeing an influx of nearly 2,000 people in the next few years, as several massive apartment complexes go up in the area. Right now, the neighborhood is more concerned about issues with traffic, parking and pedestrian safety than aesthetics, but neighbors have still been participating in the Department of Planning and Development’s (DPD) design review process for the Howland project.


“It’s pretty sardined in there,” says Dale Johnson, President of the Broadview Community Council. Indeed, Howland’s development will is going to cram a number of people into a not-so-big space. What’s more, a potential mass of drab, boxy townhomes certainly brings up the issue of density versus aesthetics. Howland’s past projects—pictured above and below—aren’t offensively ugly, but they don’t stray far from the current trend of bland, standardized townhome design.


Although Johnson is concerned about the size and look of the project, he says he knows density is coming to the neighborhood and he trusts the city to keep things under control. “I presume that DPD regulates [these things],” Johnson says. “We’re [more] concerned about the city putting in sidewalks and drainage to support that density.”


DPD is currently working passing new townhome design regulations that would—among other things—require developers to install a certain number of doors and windows on townhomes, lower fence heights, and require townhomes’ front doors to face the street.
The code revisions are expected to be done third-quarter 2008.

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Fucking ugly. I see these things going up everywhere, and they are all just as bad. Whatever balance exists between density and aesthetics for a project like this is desperately skewed away from aesthetics.

Posted by Hernandez | November 5, 2007 1:12 PM

I don't think 36 on one acre is too many. I recently went on a trip to San Francisco and one of the most striking differences between it and Seattle, is that block after block is essentially just row after row of 3-4 story townhomes. But many of them are Victorian style and there is much more variation in color and style from one to the next than what we see going on in Seattle, where, usually it's just 2 or 3 townhomes rather than a row of connected houses, and they tend to all look the same--like the ones pictured. Our city definitely has suffered from a shortage of townhomes for a long time--a shortage that is finally beginning to be corrected--but I hope that they start requiring better and more individualistic designs.

Posted by Scott H | November 5, 2007 1:24 PM

People *design* this shit? I figured they just drew architectural elements out of a hat and then let a monkey have at them. End result: housing!

Posted by Gloria | November 5, 2007 1:31 PM

The weirdest design detail you see on this type of design, and the first thing that should be outlawed, is the sliding glass doors on upper stories that open onto...nothing.

No deck, no lanai, just a door that buts up to a handrail. Ugly on the outside and worse than ugly, non-functional.

Posted by Westside forever | November 5, 2007 1:39 PM

I think I can set you up with a guy who can write you a Perl script that will generate very authentic Stranger anti-condo rants of any desired number of column inches. Just ping me if you're interested. Think how much time this could save you.

For a couple bucks extra it could churn out some pre-fab anti-condo Slog posts to follow up. Niiiice.

Posted by elenchos | November 5, 2007 1:51 PM

You probably could get an intern to do that for free.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 5, 2007 1:59 PM

@5 - There's a difference between being flat out anti-condo and being anti-ass-ugly-does-this-even-pass-for-architecture-condo.

I like seeing nice looking, innovatively-designed condo projects. I don't like seeing bullshit like this. It is totally within our prerogative to demand creativity and innovation from our design community.

Posted by Hernandez | November 5, 2007 2:01 PM

It's a perfect expression of what's popular in design right now. This is "craftsman". It looks funny because it's out of scale for Craftsman, but that's what they're going for. It's no better or worse than any other cheap apartment-house trend.

You say "the current trend of bland, standardized townhome design" as if there's ever been any other kind (in the last 100 years at least).

Come back in thirty years and see if they're still ugly. Most of the crap built in the seventies makes these look like the Taj Mahal in comparison -- including some of the stuff they tore down in Bitter Lake to build these.

Using words like "sardined" just plays to people's irrational and mistaken fears about density. "36 townhouses" without context doesn't tell you ANYTHING about density. It's an acre, which is a big plot -- 36 units isn't extreme at all. How many square feet are the units? I'll bet these units aren't any more "sardined" than any others going in around the city. And as Scott H points out, 36 units per acre isn't even particularly dense by some cities' standards.

Posted by Fnarf | November 5, 2007 2:31 PM

Ugly == cheap.

I'm for it.

Posted by MHD | November 5, 2007 2:32 PM

What Fnarf said.

I live in a 1906 farmhouse. When it was built, it was bland, derivative, a carbon copy of every other house in the area, and cheap, cheap, cheap. But now? It looks charming as fuck. Nothing much about the house has changed in 101 years except the lens we look at it through. And the neighborhood it is contrasted against.

It's also worth saying that 90% of new car designs are bland and insipid. And 90% of clothes. And TV shows. And everything else. Most of the reason that you see it as being so horrible is that it is so commonplace. By definition. Greatness is rare; that's what makes it so great.

Whining about the way the world is day in and day out without offering any practical means of doing anything about it gets very old. What were you mumbling about the Design Board? What exactly would The Stranger like to be done here?

Posted by elenchos | November 5, 2007 2:48 PM

@10: Are these thing built to last 100 years? Or even 30, Fnarf?

Posted by DOUG. | November 5, 2007 2:58 PM

My 100 year old house was not built to last a century. But here it is. Though most of the ones like it are gone. If the whole neighborhood had lasted that long, it would look pretty uniform.

Anyway, what's wrong with condos that are ready to be torn down or renovated after 25 to 40 years? If they did build them to last 100 years, can you imagine how much The Stranger would bitch and moan about the cost?

I can't help but think that this tiresome reaction against new condos is nothing more than a very deep seated conservatism. What would you like to see? Nineteenth century robber baron mansions built of marble converted into apartments? Should the developers supply all the money and let a group of broke-ass Cap Hill hipsters make all the design decisions? What do you want do be done about this?

Posted by elenchos | November 5, 2007 3:09 PM

these are the perfect example of the architecture of FEAR: fear of offending with "modern" design, fear of using good (more expensive than the buyers deserve for this price point) materials, fear of engaging with the condo law (these are all "fee-simple" townhomes; i.e. they are on their own legal lot).

most of them don't even have architects involved at this point - they're standard plans that are adapted to the site. and the developers keep the number below the trigger for design review.

there's almost no way to stop them, except for people to stop buying or renting them. they're the inevitable result of our zoning laws. they're the ghetto of the future, and the greatest tragedy to befall this city since the music box theatre was torn down.

Posted by max solomon | November 5, 2007 3:11 PM

You know, in other states, the developer is required to put in water mains, roads, and sidewalks. The cost is built into the new house, so those who benefit pay. Why isn't it like that here?

Posted by Gitai | November 5, 2007 3:48 PM

Oh, for chrissake, they are not the "ghetto of the future" any more than the gazillion crappy dingbat apartments in Ballard were the ghetto of the future when they went up, or anything else around here. They're just some buildings. They're cheap, which gives people a foothold in the city.

Do you know what was on those lots before these? Then how do you know they're a step down?

Ghettoes, jesus.

Posted by Fnarf | November 5, 2007 4:50 PM

This could be a horrible development in Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis or San Francisco. It has no identity for its place whatsoever.

Posted by Boomer in NYC | November 5, 2007 5:18 PM

I don't think they are too ugly, but am I correct in that the second picture has them one in front of the other? That's pretty nasty, if one of the buildings faces the behind of the other.

Posted by mla | November 5, 2007 5:49 PM

@17, that's a picture of the standard-issue "2x2" townhome development in Seattle. Take a single-family lot, chop it into 4 quarters (2 in front, 2 in back) put a driveway in between, and voila, 4 "townhomes". When Seattle rewrote its zoning codes to allow more density, they didn't exactly have this in mind, but when you read the code, and you try to maximize the number of units and their square footage on a typical Seattle lot (which is what you do when you're a developer trying to make a profit), this is what you get. It was an unintended consequence and the city is now trying to 'fix' it with some revisions to the code.

Fnarf: I hear you, we need affordable housing like nobody's business. But crappy disposable housing is not 'affordable'- it's just cheap up front. Cheap construction just shifts the cost into future maintenance, and people who buy cheap often can't afford the maintenance required. It's the same reason why trailers and manufactured homes are a bad deal- they fall apart and depreciate instead of appreciate. So the people who would benefit the most from building equity end up losing money.
Long story short: build it right the first time.
And "Craftman-esque" is not the current trend. It's what developers think is a safe bet, because people buy them. And people buy them because that's what developers build, so they don't have much choice- it's a chicken-n-egg phenomenon. The contemporary-styled places that do get built get snatched up in an instant. The market is trending away from Craftsmanesque- it is slowly trickling away, just not fast enough. But no matter the style, there will always be ugly. Even when the uber-conservative builders finally release their deathgrip on Craftsman Style, they'll just uglify whatever comes along to replace it.

Posted by grumpus | November 5, 2007 8:35 PM

you can't have a lanai on the top floor, but you can have a loggia.

and those ARE offensively ugly and should all be burned. where's ALF or a crew of architecture students when we need them?

Posted by holz | November 5, 2007 11:08 PM

The first set isn't bad for what they are. The second and third are bore city, though.

Posted by laterite | November 5, 2007 11:21 PM

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