Seattle's 'new urbanism': making smart, sustainable, stylish dwellings
As questions of density, affordability and livability continue to drive discussions about how to design our urban worlds, architects, citizens and city officials are all looking for a shared sense of what the "new urbanism" means — whether and how to regulate, encourage and ultimately create the kind of built environment we want.
Future Shack competition is on
Speaking of the "ugly town house" problem, the American Institute of Architects Seattle is taking a hard look at the new model for city living with Future Shack: Housing the 21st Century.
On Sept. 13, in a celebration of urban living done well, 10 projects will be recognized for housing design that not only meets our needs but elevates our style of living. Those projects will also be featured in the Sept. 13 Pacific Northwest magazine.
The jury is looking at projects that offer solutions for families, incorporate Seattle's historic fabric, offer new models of production and delivery, use resources economically and are adaptable. Only projects completed after June 2004 are eligible.
The public is welcome to the event, beginning at 5 p.m. at the Fisher Pavilion in the Seattle Center. It includes a discussion by the jury, made up of three outspoken Seattle citizens and four architecture/design professionals. Steve Scher, host of KUOW-FM's "Weekday," will moderate.
Cost is $15 general admission, $5 for students and seniors. For more information go to www.aiaseattle.org/futureshack.
Is it time for Seattle to finally exorcise the ghost of Emmett Watson? Some architects think so. The late, beloved Seattle newspaper columnist was not an architectural critic. His spirit would no doubt be bemused at being dragged into arcane zoning-code debates about design review and the "ugly townhouse" problem.
But Watson was a champion of "Lesser Seattle." He was a spokesman and symbol for a smaller, quieter, working-class city when families could, on a union wage, afford a bungalow home on a single lot with a union wage. A yard, a parking spot and 10 precious feet between next-door neighbors seemed an inalienable Emerald City right, like dispensing with an umbrella in our desultory drizzle.
But Seattle, with an estimated 593,000 residents, has grown by 100,000 people just since 1980. At the same time, two in every five households now has just one person — meaning more dwelling units are needed to house a given population size.
Worse, even after the recent price drops, the median house price here is more than six times the median household income: a ratio nearly twice the national average, according to figures compiled by urban demographer Richard Morrill, a former University of Washington geographer.
More people, more households, high prices — and the same amount of land. What's a Lesser Seattleite to do?
About 10 percent of the city, including some old, single-family neighborhoods near commercial urban hubs, is zoned for multifamily housing such as apartments and condominiums. In some of those zones, town houses — typically three-story, narrow dwellings that share a common wall — have exploded in popularity.
Some architects, however, see the result as a failed compromise between Watsonian nostalgia and affordability. "There was a lot of neighborhood pressure to retain the feel of the single-family home," explains architect David Neiman. Neighbors oppose large apartment buildings, and rules were written to try to pretend four houses on a lot should look like one house on a lot. "It was the Emmett Watson way of politics."
To try to keep housing within reach, developers have been allowed to squeeze four town homes on what used to be a single-family, 50-by-100-foot lot. Regulatory requirements to shoehorn in amenities once taken for granted — such as off-street garage parking, driveways, a scrap of yard and a privacy fence — are so prescriptive and inflexible that they have resulted in cookie-cutter vertical design.
Architects derisively describe them as "four-packs," like four beer cans jammed together. The code requires a garage for parking, so the ground floor is all garage. But no one wants to look at four garage doors, so typically a driveway splits the four-pack down the middle so that the garage doors face each other across a shadowy, blacktopped courtyard hard to drive in and out of.
The living space typically sits above, like a medieval farmhouse built over the barn. Required setbacks from property lines force each town home be tall and skinny, energy codes limit experimentation with windows, and well-meaning height limits create monotonous gable roofs.
Square footage is eaten by stairs, and the beer cans shade each other and their neighbors. The "yard" is a cell-like postage stamp enclosed by a blank cedar fence that walls away the sidewalk.
It's legal. It's relatively affordable — say, $500,000.
And it's as homely as it is dull.
In an attempt to make town houses blend in with Craftsman bungalows, Seattle codes created a hybrid, half house and half high-rise, that satisfies no one.
This is not developer greed. It was an earnest attempt by the city and builders to retain the flavor of Seattle's traditional single-family neighborhoods while stuffing in 100,000 more people. Which brings us back to Watson's ghost.
NEIMAN IS ONE of about 110 design professionals who have joined the local chapter of the Congress for Residential Architecture, or CORA Northwest, which is lobbying for a new "design review" approach they think would allow more innovation and variety.
Ideas include encouragement of flat (and possibly green) roofs, which allow a fully-usable third story while lowering the overall height of the building. Under existing rules, the third floor fits only Munchkins unless builders go upward with predictable roof pitches.
How about a shared carport with a shared courtyard above? Window walls or balconies? Elimination of street-side setbacks to give room for an interior courtyard? Or brownstone buildings: those New York-style town homes that come nearly to the sidewalk but have large steps and porches?
What neighborhoods lose in letting new development crowd the street, architects argue, they would more than gain in livable, innovative, flexible design.
"Do you solve the problem by getting more prescriptive or less?" asks architect John DeForest, another CORA member. If that was an easy question, you wouldn't be reading this story. "We want to see something unique out there," agrees Brittani Ard, a design-review consultant who is chairwoman of the Seattle Builders Council. But, "It's almost impossible for developers to provide affordable housing with design review."
She argues that reviewing and debating design slows the time between when a builder buys a lot and can resell it, thus increasing financing costs. Plus, the fancy-pants stuff that designers love costs money.
Architects are ready with examples of what they're talking about — small, multifamily complexes with winding paths or shared courtyards and names like Miller Mews and Secret Garden. These developments, covering several lots, allow architects to combine yard space into larger, shared courtyards that homes open to, providing more light and greenery and a greater sense of community. The units are less oriented to the car and more to the view and each other.
The projects are beautiful, Ard concedes — "but they're selling from between $700,000 and $1.2 million," whereas some of the housing architects most criticize, in Greenwood and Ballard, has sold in the $300,000 to $500,000 range. While prices fell last year, the premium price for the architect-designed products remains.
Besides, she says, one person's faux-bungalow eyesore is another's recall of old Seattle charm. Architectural modernism has a reputation as cold, impractical and industrial, as well as expensive.
Ard's suggestion is to loosen the code and let the market rule. Builders who put up ugly town homes will lose sales to those who do better. If designers have a better idea, the market will reward them. But force architects into the broth, she warns, and prices shoot up.
Neiman and DeForest concede that some see more architectural design review as simply a full-employment act for architects. But without design review, warns Neiman, "some builders will have the freedom to do even worse."
"It's a Catch-22 here," says Rod Novion, an architect who designs the kind of multifamily town houses that CORA decries. "I would like to design each building to fit each lot," he says. But builders like the standard four-pack "because it's straightforward to build. To me, even a cookie-cutter town house is more appealing than a big apartment building."
SINCE THE EARLY 1980s, architects and planners have been advocating a "new urbanism" that would reverse the postwar flight to the suburbs and bring people back into cities.
Such a trend cuts traffic. It reduces the need to extend roads and utilities. It provides enough customers to sustain neighborhood commercial centers. It promotes healthy walking and bicycling. Ideally, it fosters a sense of community. Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice talked up the idea with his "urban villages" concept, and Mayor Greg Nickels has pushed for greater height limits in downtown towers in return for the provision of some low-cost housing in each development.
Unfortunately, one result of the return to the city has been a soaring cost of land. Novion says lots in Ballard that now go for $600,000 cost only a half to a third of that 10 years ago. In the Central Area, prices have shot up to $400,000.
If you're a contractor trying to build affordable housing, that means you've already got $100,000 to $150,000 in the land for each town home, plus financing, permits and utility fees. Even a bare-bones town house rapidly reaches $500,000 if you want to turn any kind of profit.
Nor are Seattle residents who already bought their homes eager for more neighbors, no matter how many trendy shops they bring. "My parents' generation came to associate density with bad density," Neiman says.
City staff get complaints about new development all the time — that it's either too ugly or too costly. Unfortunately, solving one of those problems tends to make the other worse.
Or does it? At issue, says city planning supervisor Mike Podowski, are the 47,000 additional households that planners think will pack into Seattle by 2030.
Urban models are out there. Ones like the huge urban blocks of a New York or Paris or Copenhagen: massive, high-density apartment and condominium buildings that go right to the sidewalk, some lovely and others overpowering.
Another is that brownstone style with entrances that open right onto the sidewalk, creating an intimacy like Portland's Pearl District or San Francisco. Charming but pricey.
Still another is the "skinny tower" of residential downtown Vancouver, B.C., where widely spaced condominium skyscrapers let in light and air but pack a lot of people into a relatively small area. This is being proposed here for the areas north and south of downtown, with studies under way and action tentatively expected late this year for the south downtown and next year for South Lake Union.
Seattle's Unico Properties is partnering with the Mithun architectural firm on experiments with modular apartments that are built off site, trucked in and stacked like Legos. The idea is to save money on construction and shorten the time a project needs before completion.
Southeast Seattle is the site of another experiment that allows "backyard cottages" that provide a small dwelling behind a larger, more traditional one. It's a variation on the "mother-in-law apartment" idea.
And finally there's sticking to the four-pack, but trying to make it pretty, maybe even interesting. "Rhetorically, we in Seattle are big fans of density in the city," says Sally Clark, the councilwoman who chairs the committee that will review reform this year and probably adopt changes early in 2010. "But quite a few of us are loathe to let go of our single-family neighborhoods. We want them to pry it from our cold, dead fingers."
Not only are we trying to insert more population into existing neighborhoods, but we're doing it unfairly — the richest neighborhoods being exempt by zoning.
"What is the community I want to live in?" Clark asks, summing up a debate that's been steaming since the "Lesser Seattle" of Emmett Watson.
"The cheapest way for developers to proceed was to start by asking, 'Where does the car go?' " she observes. The result — with those tiny driveways and tiny garages so hard to get into — was that they've become storage units while all the new cars fight for space on the street.
Now the City Council is waiting to see if CORA Northwest architects can come up with an alternative that is not just exemplary but affordable. "They've been really good about saying the design should start with the person," Clark says, "not bad rules."
So. Would Watson want to live there? Would you?
William Dietrich is a former Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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