Town homes spark neighborhood debate
On small plots of land, tall, skinny town homes have sprung up like rows of corn across Seattle. With a garage for the Subaru and a 300-square-foot...
Seattle Times staff reporter
But the developments have sown discord among their neighbors who own single-family houses. The front doors of town homes often don't face the street. Their second-floor living rooms encourage residents to squirrel away upstairs instead of chatting with neighbors. And the shared driveways are so narrow that parking spills onto the streets.
While Seattle's goal is to encourage more housing on less land, some unhappy neighbors question the permit process that allows such dense developments, and whether it's eroding Seattle's prized single-family neighborhoods.
They also question how some developers are skirting public review by "micropermitting," a legal loophole that allows a builder to submit several smaller land-use permits instead of one single permit for a bigger project, which would trigger neighborhood input and design and environmental reviews.
Vlad Oustimovitch, an architect who lives in West Seattle, calls the loophole "stealth permitting." "They have managed to put together a methodology of bypassing the intent of the state and city laws," he said.
But some developers don't see it that way. They say lengthy review of a large project will drive up the price of homes.
Brittani Ard, a consultant who files permit applications for town-house developers, said builders look for ways to speed up permitting. "Every permit fee that gets added on, every month the job gets held, it's $5,000 a month. One year in, it's $60,000. All of those fees trickle down to the sales price."
There's no question that in Seattle's pricey housing market, town houses offer an alternative for homebuyers. The median price for a Seattle town home sold this year is about $395,000, compared with $481,500 for a single-family house, according to an estimate by Windermere Real Estate. Town homes also make up a sizable percent of the real-estate market: As of April 18, Windermere said there were 552 town homes for sale in Seattle, compared with 1,923 single-family houses.
City officials say although micropermitting is legal, it may be time to close the loophole and incorporate new design requirements for town homes, skinny, multistory houses that share common walls. Residents, architects and builders alike wonder why Seattle has been populated with faux-Craftsman fortresses, rather than the elegant brick town homes of Portland's evolving Pearl District.
"I don't like what I'm seeing with some town homes," said City Councilman Tom Rasmussen. "They are bleak, poorly designed and not consistent with the neighborhood. Some are not sidewalk- or pedestrian-friendly."
Diane Sugimura, director of the Department of Planning and Development, said micropermitting is legal, but she acknowledges some developments don't fit in with their neighborhoods.
"What we've seen is one basic design is plopped on different lots," she said. Her office may propose stricter design review for town houses this year, which would require City Council approval.
Last week, the City Council actually eased the rules for town-home projects on Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. The change, first proposed by Mayor Greg Nickels, reduced environmental reviews, which required developers to disclose when a project affects endangered species and pollution.
In a low-rise zone, for instance, a project with four or more units previously required review. Now, only projects with 10 or more units will undergo the review.
The public can still weigh in on projects, and the city can require the developer to make changes.
A row of 13 town homes in Oustimovitch's West Seattle neighborhood should have required environmental review, he said, even under the new law. Instead, the developer chose to micropermit the project and avoided much of the neighborhood's input.
The project broke apart a mile-long crescent of undeveloped land residents had sought to preserve in their neighborhood plan, said Oustimovitch, a former design-review board member. The town homes also blocked a cherished neighborhood view of several historic, turn-of-the century buildings.
"If there had been even the slightest notice, people would have said, 'Hey, do you know about the green crescent?' " Oustimovitch said. "A project would have been built that would have been appropriate for the neighborhood. Instead what we got was a very vanilla, cookie-cutter town-house development."
Oustimovitch said he's not opposed to greater housing density, if it fits with the neighborhood.
The builder, Soleil Development, declined to comment for this story.
Realizing the dream
Krishna Viswanathan, who lives in a town house in Seattle's Madison Valley neighborhood, said when he and his wife shopped for a house in 2005, a single-family house cost about $550,000 in the area. They had hoped to spend less than $300,000, but ended up buying a $382,000 town home in a block of 10 units on 21st Avenue East.
"We like the area so much and this was the only thing that was affordable to us," said Viswanathan. "We were able to scrape together our savings and make it happen."
His family is the type that city planners want here — they live on a small footprint of land and only have one car.
Still, half his paycheck goes to his mortgage each month.
"It's a stretch," he said.
Viswanathan said he holds two master's degrees and works as an environmental scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Belltown. "My income potential is high, but I choose to do this work."
He has read complaints about town homes on a community blog, and says the solution is to promote diverse building styles in neighborhoods — some town homes, some single-family homes, some older architecture, some new.
Taking a different route
Ard, the permit consultant, said she understands the frustration with bad design, but the problem is the city's code, not a lack of design review. In order to work within the codes, developers often pave a driveway between the town homes.
Jim Barger, a builder who does green projects, said his company, Greenleaf Construction, has found a way to build town houses without the paved auto court and add more open space, but he agreed the city's codes are too complex.
"The problem is once one guy cracks the code and develops one plan, everybody jumps on board and says, 'I'll just do that because it's easy,' " he said. "For us, we chose to not really go that route."
On a recent Judkin Park project, he built a garage on the back alley with a studio above, and two homes in the front. That allowed him to the meet the code requirements and freed him to landscape the space between the homes, instead of laying asphalt.
"What we did was we put in a carriage house and open space in the middle, sort of a courtyard," he said. "So neighbors can get a cup of sugar and talk to each other."
Information in this article, originally published April 30, 2008, was corrected June 16, 2008. A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Soleil Development built a town home project in West Seattle. Soleil Development owned the property and applied for building permits, then sold it to developers Seattle City Homes and Umani, which built the homes.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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