The skinny house scourge

And what it tells us about local design problems
Crosscut archive image.

Townhouses in a Seattle neighborhood.

And what it tells us about local design problems

A huge complaint of Seattleites over the years has been the proliferation of skinny houses, tall thin abodes jammed onto lots and eating up open space. But skinny houses are proliferating in Portland as part of in-fill strategies there, and some neighborhoods aren't happy about it. The current plan is to encourage the building of hundreds of such homes in the city, whether neighborhoods object or not.

That's infuriated local neighborhood activists like Eric Goranson who complains in an Oregonian op-ed: "Like invasive weeds, infill homes are creeping into more and more Portland neighborhoods. Many, if not most, take hold before they are recognized for their destructive nature." Goranson would like to see a halt to construction until an overall city plan is in place, and he'd like to see property owners within four blocks of such in-fill projects be given the right to approve or reject them. He doesn't want Portland to look like "another Jamaica, NY."

The battle over neighborhood "character" is being fought in thousands of small brush fires throughout the Northwest, but is likely to heat up as cities like Seattle and Portland push density goals from the top down. Seattle would like to see more density, more townhouses, more detached dwelling units permitted in single family neighborhoods, along with mother-in-law apartments or what they call in Vancouver, BC, "granny pads." And both cities want to concentrate development in transit areas.

But "character" issues are both real and complicated, and highly subjective. We can't always quantify what it is, but most of locals know it when it ain't.

Seattle land use and environmental attorney Chuck Wolfe has an interesting blog post, "Learning how to grow: Nothing can come from nothing", in which he says we need to "take care" when importing ideas from overseas: you can't build an Italian hill town in Seattle without risking it becoming like Leavenworth's Bavaria or Las Vegas's Paris.

In building walkable neighborhoods, he advises, "We should emphasize the qualities and characteristics we seek, but remember our history is short and contextual and cannot recreate what evolved over thousands of years." In other words, there is much that is organic and cultural that cannot simply be imported by design.

The flip side is that while Portland and Seattle are young cities, neither are they blank slates. It's essential to understand local character, not so that all change can be resisted, but so that designers can help create neighborhoods that are integrated and work in the details. I suspect skinny house objections are a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.