Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Searchlights over Pike/Pine | About That Gay Day at the Mari... »

Friday, July 25, 2008

KUOW: On Building a Better House Trap

posted by on July 25 at 6:45 AM

I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of the city’s design-review process for new buildings—and whether it needs reform—on KUOW from 9 to 10 a.m. I’ll be joining a developer and the head of the city’s design-review program, Vince Lyons. You can listen here.

Mayor Greg Nickels recently suggested that all new townhouses should undergo a review by staff at the Department of Planning and Development. I’m tepid to the idea. It would be an onerous process for the city and developers (there are thousands of townhouses to review each year), but it wouldn’t necessarily reduce the repeating problems with Seattle’s townhouses, such as: four-pack housing separated by pedestrian-hostile auto-courts, living spaces that start on the second floor, and foreboding structural overhangs. Design review could put lipstick on those pigs—but the council needs to revise the multi-family code to require, among other things, shared pedestrian-friendly open space or row housing without several garages or driveways facing the street.

Meanwhile, design review has made striking improvements to bigger buildings. Just walking down any arterial, you can differentiate between the dysfunctional crap built before the program went into effect in the mid-1990s (that would never be allowed now), and the stuff built afterward, which relates to the sidewalk. However, design-review boards need to push more for functional buildings, but dwell less on esthetics and stop rubber-stamping poor designs to unload whining developers.

Think there are better solutions for townhouses? Or that townhouses in Seattle are fabulous just the way they are? Got an idea about better ways to review for function and tasteful design? Toss ‘em in comments and I’ll try to bring it up on the air.

RSS icon Comments


The townhouses we built in Seattle over the last decade pretty much all look alike. But why are we still building something that "assumes" the home owner will own a car? Seriously, if you are building a home that should last several decades are we thinking that in 2065 we will still need a garage? And a garage well within the city limits? (Like Cap Hill or Queen Anne)

Posted by Andrew | July 25, 2008 7:49 AM

Yes. In 2065, almost everyone will own a car, just like today.

Posted by Fnarf | July 25, 2008 7:57 AM

@2, you are totally correct; and knowing America, they will be some huge ass gas guzzling SUV's! :)

Posted by Andrew | July 25, 2008 8:01 AM

Design review for crap 4 pack townhomes is the only way to make developers not build them. That or change the rules governing open space. "Fee Simple" property laws & parking codes guide the risk developers are willing to engage.

Posted by max solomon | July 25, 2008 8:01 AM

There's nothing necessarily wrong with townhouses. With the projected population here in the next 20 years we don't have a choice but to embrace denser living. But there are better ways to do it than Seattle developers seem to like. When I was trying to buy a place every townhouse I went to, new or old, was this narrow garbage that was what I imagined it would be like to live in the hallway of a much bigger house. A lot of the townhouses I've seen just completely waste the space they have.

I've seen a number of concepts for denser living that allow for cars but have shared green space between the structures. I wish I could find an example but my google-fu is lacking for this. Still it's kind of weird the concept isn't popping up more in this town.

Posted by Jared | July 25, 2008 8:13 AM

Kelly O and Ari Spool give Incredible Hulk can of Rize, Incredible Hulk drink Rize, freak out, get bummed out, INCREDIBLE HULK BECOME DESPONDENT HULK!


And no, I don't feel like letting it go.

Posted by The Insatiable Sulk | July 25, 2008 8:47 AM

Easiest would be to look at how San Francisco, Brooklyn, and London "footprinted" their town/row houses. (Too late to copy the lovely materials used). But that would be admitting Seattle is a real city not a special case.

Posted by La Mareada | July 25, 2008 8:48 AM

To Comment #5: Coming soon will be a 5-star built green, super modern townhome project in the highly desirable neighborhood of Eastlake. This project encompassed a double lot, and then they designed six lofts with a large community space in between and around them. Further, they went through the design review board, solicited public opinion, and received the blessing from the neighbors.

I think our current standards are horrible, and while it promotes quick and fast development and an increase in density, it overlooks many factors that help a community's image and values. The rubber stamp of the DPD needs to be destroyed, and we need to have creative and new row housing, townhomes and duplexes to increase the character and livability of our neighborhoods.

Posted by Jon H. | July 25, 2008 8:50 AM

first off, let's get the fucking semantics right.

these are not townhouses, these are sets of duplexes built on the same lot. i don't know why it is people can't figure that shit out...

as for design standards, let's get rid of the freaking canyon of shit that happens when the builders build a narrow road between 2 sets of duplexes. there is on on fremont, that must be about 60' below the ridgeline, and it looks like absolute shit.

it'd be nice to see more courtyard homes instead of the [poorly designed and built] sets of duplexes all over this friggin city.

Posted by mike | July 25, 2008 9:03 AM

first off, let's get the fucking semantics right.

these are not townhouses, these are sets of duplexes built on the same lot. i don't know why it is people can't figure that shit out...

as for design standards, let's get rid of the freaking canyon of shit that happens when the builders build a narrow road between 2 sets of duplexes. there is on on fremont, that must be about 60' below the ridgeline, and it looks like absolute shit.

it'd be nice to see more courtyard homes instead of the [poorly designed and built] sets of duplexes all over this friggin city.

Posted by mike | July 25, 2008 9:03 AM

I LIKE the weird overhangs.

And if the parking entry into the center of the developed space, then the individual garage driveways will eat into the usability of the setback for plants or tables or mini-gardens.

Posted by cracked | July 25, 2008 9:30 AM

This radio panel is a bit crowded... geez. Why not invite a few more people? I half-expect Mark Shields and Eleanor Clift to show up.

Posted by jmr | July 25, 2008 9:42 AM

We have some good examples in Seattle. Check out the townhouses (or whatever you want to call them) on Fairview in Eastlake, the set on 27th and Madison, or numerous examples on Queen Anne. They are not fronted by a garage or a fence, but open onto and engage with the street. Garages (if they have them) are on the side or the back. They lack the useless interior auto court. There is some good design out there - but greed is driving developers to throw up cheap, poorly designed, crowded tenement housing. I'm not sure what the answer is to that.

Posted by rb | July 25, 2008 9:59 AM

Are there better solutions?

Sure, how about 40 to 100 story tall inexpensive residential rental apartment buildings built near transit connection points, with adjacent public greenspace?

That would be easier.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 25, 2008 10:55 AM

La Mareada @7, the rows in Brooklyn, SF, London, ad infinitum would be illegal to build today due to zoning laws and a million other things. Change the zoning laws, sure, but that's a much bigger job, and while other people have had that idea before, it's almost impossible in practice to make that kind of change.

And in case anyone thinks Seattle's new housing is unusually ugly, the new stuff they're putting up in the UK makes the meanest Seattle "townhome" look like Fallingwater squared.

Ten years from now none of the people upset at these buildings will even be able to remember where they are; they, like every other building in town before it, will fade into the general fabric of the city. No one will care. Anyone who thinks that they are now ugly enough to require special city review shouldn't be allowed to attend city meetings.

Posted by Fnarf | July 25, 2008 11:25 AM

Good show...You sounded great Dom.

I was listening but then I had to go. Did anyone correct the DPD staffer who said we are behind in fulfilling our housing growth goals under GMA?

He is conflating 1) the fact that there is a lot of unused zoning capacity in the city (for example a single-family house occupying a lot that is zoned LDT - or Lowrise, Duplex, Triplex) with 2) the completly different issue that we are far surpassing our targets/goals whatever you want to call them under GMA and Seattle's Compl Plan.

See here:

Posted by LH | July 25, 2008 12:14 PM

I listened to part of this show, and I just have to say that far too many panelists were using the dreaded word "townhome" to describe these buildings. It's not a fucking "townhome," it's a townhouse.

I agree with Fnarf that most of these buildings will fade into the background over time. I do think the ones with ugly dominant garages will still look like crap and hopefully be torn down in favor of something better. And, even though it's not easy to do, we should change our zoning laws to allow for London-style row houses.

Posted by Cascadian | July 25, 2008 12:37 PM

1. They are not townhouses. They are not rowhouses. It is illegal in Seattle to erect such structures which have common walls over lot lines and which are one "house" per lot.

What we have is double 4plexes (one front and one back -- not even on the street!!! of course that's ugly!!), or minidevelopments where they put 2, 4, 6, or 8 "townhouses" on one parcel but they leave a space between that structure and the structures on the adjoining lots.

These are not townhouses, nor rowhouses. They are just bad multifamily design.

Rowhouses are on one parcel. You get a whole line of them all down the block. IF you make them with porches or stoops, and some kind of connection to the street, and without driveways, and perhaps with bay windows and some nice architecture, they work aesthetically very well.

But they say "urban" not "suburban" so here in Seattle they the nice kinds of brownstones and rowhouses they have back east are illegal here.

3. Gee loads of hope and change there Fnarf.

Let's have something better, but since we can't change the code to make that possible, um, I guess we should just continue to bitch and moan like everything else in Seattle? adn discuss for 20 more years?

Have all the joy of demanding change but also being resolutely dead set against actually changing?

Very Norwegian you know.

3. Also illegal, and also what they have elsewhere:
rowhouses that have a basement unit, an owner's unit of 1, 2 or 3 floors, and 1 or 2 apts. on top of that (all without parking). Like in the movie Crooklyn. OR Dressed to Kill. Perfect for relatives, tenants, nannies, uncles, friends, etc.
Notice how all over London, NY Dc these types of structures can be worth $3 million or $300,000 and all exist in a variety of socioeconomic strata?

4. If we prohibit what looks great and is proven to work in other places, over the last 500 or 2000 years of urban housing or so, and if we demand suburban setbacks and driveways and parking refuse to countenance any real change away from this kind of auto dominated design, then we asked for it and we shouldn't complain that it is ugly.

5. Also all that stuff about unifying with the street and not having high fences to the street etc. Stoops and porches rule. Prospect, refuge, etc. See McPhee article on Prospect Park in New Yorker ages ago. J. Jacobs, eyes on the street, etc.

6. to be a "city" you have to be "urban." Get over it.

Posted by PC | July 25, 2008 2:02 PM

@18 - you mean it's illegal now.

Go and look at the brick "houses" at N 49th and Fremont Ave N sometime.

Posted by Will in Seattle | July 25, 2008 2:19 PM

Oddly enough, the closest thing to row houses built in the region recently are in...downtown Bellevue. They're not true rowhouses, because as PC correctly points out, they're not separate parcels, but condos (divvied up single building). But they LOOK a lot like Boston's South End (not Southie).

If I was dictator I'd rezone to allow mega lot subdivisions, making room for a standard Seattle lot to be cut in half width-wise, and mandate the construction of a zillion Boston/Cambridge style three-deckers -- standalone houses with three levels, each a separate unit, each with capacious front and back porch, a back yard for the ground floor unit. These things sometimes go through five or six generations of the same family, grandparents in one, kids in the other, rotating for eternity. Same thing they do in Brooklyn Brownstones and all these others (until they chop them up into a dozen 250-sq ft. apartments).

Posted by Fnarf | July 25, 2008 3:53 PM

Comments Closed

Comments are closed on this post.