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Originally published Friday, January 27, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Corrected version

The changing face of town houses

A recent update to Seattle's land-use code aims to have new multifamily dwellings take on a different look. Changes include favoring front porches over auto courts.

Special to The Seattle Times

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As the number of town houses in Seattle-area neighborhoods has mushroomed in recent years, one particular design feature has caught the eye of many a homebuyer and neighbor; the "auto-court" parking area around which some town houses are clustered.

With a central, cavelike driveway, often shaded by the town houses' upper floors extending overhead, auto courts typically consist of two rows of Smart Car-sized garages.

Rishad Quazi lives in a town-house complex with auto-court parking in the Broadview neighborhood of Seattle.

He is happy with his home, particularly the relatively large back yard, which he estimated at about 20-by-30 feet, the newness of the home when he moved in, and the fact that his is an end unit, with only one wall adjoining another home.

Quazi parks his car in his garage, though he said that it was tricky at first to maneuver his vehicle — at the time a Hyundai hatchback — into the small space.

"I scratched it on both sides before I figured out my correct angle of approach and my proper visual markers to get the car in correctly," he said.

Some of his neighbors choose to park on the street, he said, due to the tight configuration of their auto court.

The high cost of land, the push toward density, and earlier land-use code requiring off-street parking have all contributed to the proliferation of auto-court town-house development.

Town houses are meant to squeeze more dwellings into tight places. Taking up less space means that town houses are more attractively priced compared with free-standing homes.

For example, an upscale three-bedroom, three-bath, 1,730-square-foot town house built in 2006 in Fremont was recently listed for $479,000.

It's on a block where the land alone under a single-family house was assessed for a higher amount, according to county property-tax records.

Though popular for their affordability and relatively new construction, town-house design sometimes has appeared more awkward than functional.

A recent land-use code update in Seattle intends to change this, by favoring features such as front porches and common outdoor space instead of auto courts.

The Seattle City Council last year updated its multifamily- land-use code with new rules and incentives that steer development away from the auto-court style of town house and toward row houses, cottages, and apartments.

In place of car-oriented auto courts, the code update encourages visible pedestrian entry doors and more windows facing the street. These features aim to connect homes and their residents with neighbors and communities.

In addition, a system of "floor-area ratio" incentives allows the building of slightly larger units on the same size lot if developers choose dwelling types other than auto-court town houses.

The code update also allows common outdoor space in town-house complexes, rather than requiring individual, enclosed yards. And in certain areas with frequent transit service, multifamily complexes do not have to include parking for each unit.

To arrive at its final update, the council took feedback from the public. Councilmember Sally Clark hosted a neighborhood forum in 2008 titled "Townhomes — Can the Patient be Saved?" and drew on input from neighborhood groups and developers.

Among citizens speaking up was Bill Zosel, a resident of central Seattle's Squire Park neighborhood. He felt too many formulaic, auto-court style town houses were popping up in his community. He brought to Clark at another meeting a photo of an auto-court development with a red circle around it and diagonal line striking through it; the graphic symbol for "No."

Interviewed recently, Zosel said he objected to what he called the auto-court town houses' "diminished relationship to the street."

Most of the existing single-family homes in his neighborhood, he said, have "useful front doors and ground-level living space facing the street." By contrast, the only visible entrance to many auto-court complexes is the driveway.

Some areas outside Seattle have stricter rules regarding town house developments. Snohomish County updated its multifamily code in 2009 with new design standards that aim to foster attractive streetscapes and architectural design that blends into existing neighborhoods.

The code update was written "with Seattle's auto-court issue in mind," said Clay White, director of Snohomish County Planning and Development Services.

Under the new standards, "auto-court style town houses cannot be developed" he said.

Auto courts have been much less of an issue in Bellevue. The city has not experienced the same proliferation of auto-court town-house projects as Seattle has, according to Carol Helland, Bellevue's land-use director, who said: "We've had relatively robust design expectations in place for some time."

Such design concerns, however, aren't necessarily a priority for many people who buy town houses. Price, location and newer construction are what count.

Meredith Spacie and her husband, Tom, bought their auto-court town house in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood in 2008, though they did not set out looking for a town house in particular.

"Our most important element was neighborhood and location and not having to do any work on the house before it was satisfactorily livable," Spacie said. "There were really no single-family homes in our price range that fit those characteristics."

Based on what she recalled seeing at the time, Spacie estimated they paid at least $100,000 less for their town house compared with a similarly-sized single-family house in move-in condition.

Most of the neighbors in their complex of eight town houses do park their cars in their auto-court garages, but the Spacies do not.

"Our garage is no tougher to get into than anyone else's," Spacie said. "We basically just have too much stuff and are using it for storage."

Information in this article, originally published Jan. 27, 2012, was corrected Feb. 9, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to changes in Seattle's building code. The changes mentioned were made to the city's land-use code.

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