Little boxes, crammed together

Like the skinny houses of two decades ago, dense townhouse projects seem to be everywhere, and they look terrible. An architect and former Seattle City Council member says Seattle can do better.
Crosscut archive image.

Townhouses in a Seattle neighborhood.

Like the skinny houses of two decades ago, dense townhouse projects seem to be everywhere, and they look terrible. An architect and former Seattle City Council member says Seattle can do better.

Mayor Greg Nickels' announcement Tuesday, July 10, that that the city will consider new design standards to address unwelcome townhouse development invading the city's neighborhoods was encouraging news. If Seattle is to willingly accept its share of the anticipated 1.7 million more people coming to our region over the next 20 years, we must do a much better job of integrating new, more-compact development with existing neighborhoods — or the neighbor battles will become uglier. But better design aesthetics and architectural detailing alone will not solve the problem.

While many see only the banal ugliness in the townhouses intruding in their neighborhoods, the problem with these so-called "six-packers" is less an issue of ugliness and more about how low-rise multiple family buildings are arranged on a site. As prescribed by the current flawed land-use code, they are typically three stories with the upper floors overhanging extremely tight driveways and garage entrances, and dark, narrow, mostly unusable front and side yards. This ill-conceived configuration is a pattern cropping up throughout the city and region, and while it might harshly accomplish density goals, it is at the expense of livability, efficient utilization of land, and successful neighborhood integration. Homebuilders apparently like it because it's a cheap and permit-ready, off-the-shelf architectural plan that can replicated to fit varying lot sizes, like sections of an egg carton, almost anywhere that's zoned for low-rise, multi-family development.

So what's the solution? First of all, just disallow them! Strike this housing typology from the code altogether, as was done with the objectionable tall-and-skinny houses of the 1970s and '80s. In a beautiful city of great neighborhoods such as Seattle, we cannot achieve urban density goals successfully this way, and the backlash we're beginning to see will only exacerbate the political challenges of accommodating future growth.

Second, rewrite the code to make it less prescriptive and more form- and performance-based. This approach necessarily entails site-specific design review (as the mayor proposed), and greater design flexibility (height, scale, setbacks, open space, etc.) to achieve results more compatible existing neighborhood character.

Third, we have an extraordinarily talented design community in the Seattle metropolitan region. Why can't we enlist them to develop a highly appealing yet affordable "Seattle model" for multi-family housing that, like the six-pack townhouses, could be easily replicated with a few adjustments through design review to fit in happily in most any neighborhood? The ubiquitous craftsman style cottage of the early 1900s, while single-family, is a close analogy of an enduring pattern design and highly popular to this day. Other good examples from the past are the many garden court apartments, such as the Anhalt Cottages, found interspersed throughout the city. They were successful because they provided attractive, affordable multi-family housing while integrating well with surrounding single family neighborhoods.

Once again, we might look to Portland's example, where city planners recently conducted a year-long design competition and a civic engagement process that resulted in the creation of a new garden-apartment style well-received by the broader community. There is no question that Seattle's seriously flawed and outdated multi-family code needs more than a tweak. It needs a serious overhaul. It's been more than 20 years since such major changes were made — let's be bold this time and do it right!


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