Sunday, December 5, 2010
Is Seattle ready for row homes?
By AUBREY COHEN SEATTLEPI.COM STAFF
Dense Seattle neighborhoods could start looking a lot more like those in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, under a proposal the City Council is set to take up later this month.
The plan would let developers build row homes right up their neighbors' side lot lines on in townhouse zones, similar to classic older homes in many other U.S. cities. It's one of many changes aimed at making townhouse development more diverse, attractive and sustainable.
The City Council's Committee on the Built Environment this week unanimously endorsed the plan, which the full council could take up as early as Dec. 13. The changes would apply to the approximately 8 percent of the city zoned for townhouses, but wouldn't impact single-family zones.
In townhouse zones, the city has long allowed townhouses on a single lot to have shared walls, but required them to be set back from side property lines. The idea was to continue a semblance of Seattle's tradition of detached houses and provide some protection to people who continued to live in traditional houses that remained in townhouse zones.
There's widespread agreement that the results of the current rules were often ugly, particularly clusters of homes around an auto court.
"We've seen some really great housing developed, despite some of the things that were in our code, and we've seen some things developed that were really not positive additions to our city," Councilmember Sally Clark said at a committee meeting Tuesday. "We can do better."
Squire Park resident Bill Zosel said that, at the community meetings he attends, community members cite bad townhouses as "the most or one of the most significant problems."
City planners proposed an overhaul of rules governing townhouses and small apartment and condominium buildings more than two years ago. The original plan called for giving developers more flexibility for different (and, hopefully, better) designs by allowing homes to be taller and closer to the street, while also adding new design, open-space and landscaping requirements, and addressing other concerns, such as high fences along streets.
Some people felt that the rules didn't go far enough to allow different kinds of homes, while others said they would allow even-uglier buildings.
Many agree that the recent change allowing attached row homes that go right up to the property lines on either side will allow prettier homes. It will also allow variation that makes for more attractive neighborhoods, Clark said.
"In the last development cycle we saw so much of the same thing over and over again," she said. "What we heard from architects and developers was: 'Well your code makes us do that.'"
The change also would put homes closer to existing neighbors and, over time, could result in block-long rows of houses, such as those that have long existed in older cities. Row homes would have to be set back from neighboring single-family zones, but not from single-family houses that are in townhouse zones.
"I think we realized that trying to force multi-family development to look like single-family development was yielding some really bad product," Clark said Thursday. "We weren't doing anybody any favors."
The new rules would still allow townhouses that aren't row homes. But the current auto-court-style homes would be limited -- allowing just two or three on a typical lot where three or four could go now.
Non-row townhouses could build to the higher density if they put parking at the rear of the lot, off an alley if there is one, and meet green-building requirements. Row houses would, for practical purposes, be limited to three on a typical lot by the width of the lot.
Row home parking is pretty straightforward if there's an alley. The garages go on the alley in a row across the back yard from the houses.
If there's no alley, developers could run a driveway down the side of the lot to the back, which cuts into row-home space, or build parking underground, which is expensive.
Another option is to have separate front driveways for each home. But that takes away street parking and creates more places where cars can conflict with pedestrians on sidewalks.
"That's a lot for pedestrians to be crossing, and it doesn't seem to serve anybody's interest," Clark said.
The solution that the Committee on the Built Environment adopted Tuesday was a compromise: Require driveways to be at least 18 feet from each other and, on lots too narrow to meet this requirement for all homes, allow two homes to share a driveway.
The plan eliminates required parking altogether in urban villages, which are designed to have services and transit within walking distance, and certain other areas close to transit.
Clark wants to get rid of parking requirements in other areas, leaving the decision up to developers and the market, eventually.
"I would like to get the city out of the business of prescribing how much parking you provide, because I don't think we're particularly good at it," she said.
But many existing residents still see parking requirements as needed to ensure streets aren't clogged with parked cars, she added. "We didn't go there yet. I would say that Seattle's probably on the way to that."
Overall, the proposal "does a lot of good things," Zosel said in endorsing the plan Tuesday. "I think that it will make things better in the future."
Architect Bradley Khouri, representing the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said the measure "doesn't address everybody's concerns, but it certainly goes a long way to getting us towards the kind of flexibility that we want to see within legislation that will allow great solutions."
But Seattle Community Council Federation Treasurer Chris Leman argued the rules would make things worse, saying: "The so-called solution for townhouses, and there has been a bit of a townhouse problem, is to build taller and larger apartment and condo buildings that are bulkier, that lack meaningful yards and are really a lot worse than even the worst townhouses."