We Don’t Build These Anymore


[ 16th and Howell on Capitol Hill ]

But we should. (I’m talking about the building, though that is a pretty sweet two-tone pickup.)

This apartment provides about twice the housing unit density of today’s typical townhouse 4-pack. And because of its modest scale and substantial setbacks, it would also be less obtrusive in a single-family neighborhood than zero-lot line townhouses are. Yes, the apartment units are much smaller than those in townhouses, but Seattle has a greater need for affordable apartments than for half-million dollar townhouses.

So why aren’t we building any more of these small apartments? Short answer: Cars.

In most Seattle neighborhoods this apartment, if built today, would require 1.1 off-street parking spaces per unit. Most of the first floor of the building would be taken up by parking stalls and the building couldn’t possibly pencil out. So bring on the 4-pack.

Of course, even if the City reduced the parking requirement to zero tomorrow, most housing developers would still not build projects without parking, based on widely held assumptions that housing without parking is not marketable (assumptions with which the lenders tend to agree). But couldn’t we at least allow the possibility?

As greenhouse gas emission regulations become more entrenched, eventually there will come a time when the City will either do away with parking requirements or face lawsuits. But we’d be much smarter not to wait that long, given the massive reductions we need to achieve, and knowing that every car-oriented building that goes up today will likely still be around in 2050, at which time our goal is to have cut vehicle miles traveled in half.

It is astounding to me that even after CO2 has become a household word, and even in liberal Seattle, the most common neighborhood objection to proposed development is that there won’t be enough parking provided. It’s as if people believe there is an inalienable right to park two cars on the street right in front of your house.

Your cars or your planet, people, which is it gonna be?

28 Responses to “We Don’t Build These Anymore”

  1. vanderleun

    “Your cars or your planet, people, which is it gonna be?”

    The very essence of a false dichotomy. We’ll take both. You really have to think that sort of stuff through. Otherwise you’ll just keep writing things that sound good to you and your friends.

  2. Dan Staley

    Good timing on the piccie.

    The reason, lad, that the dichotomy isn’t false is the simple fact that we live on a finite oblate spheroid and natural resources are not infinite. Despite the misbelief that classical economics can magically make materials substitutable forevah, it is simply not true. More folks are coming to realize this. Which is why we are asked about re-implementing good ideas.

    Maybe the OPEC fairy can sprinkle her magic dust on something else to give us cheap, efficient energy to continue mindless, happy motoring, but I’m not going to bet the farm on it. Neither is Dan’l, which is why he asks why can’t we go back to things that work.

    And maybe this time, what she sprinkles for cheap magic fuel won’t alter global climate.

  3. michael

    vanderleun, you’re in denial my friend, and unfortunately, you’re not alone…

  4. dorian gray

    I won’t build those because I’ll get sued for ADA access or lackthereof. Just to recap the picture from someone who actually understands why this building isn’t feasible anymore:
    - no offstreet parking = fight with neighbors
    - brick facade wrap is too expensive with only four units to spread the cost over

  5. JesseJB

    @Dorian

    Thanks for the information.

    And Seattle isn’t liberal at all. I just came to that realization recently. Its diverse and educated yes. And tolerating, yes. But conservative as hell.

  6. Matt the Engineer

    I don’t think you’d get opposition to these if you build them in already-dense areas, because there’s already no street parking available and there’s (in theory) easy access to public transportation.

    But in the neighborhoods, street parking is a real issue. Once we have a good enough transportation system or high enough gas prices that people start not having cars, then the problem will solve itself. Units with parking lots will be seen as overpriced, and street parking won’t be worth fighting over.

    Though I agree that having parking in the code isn’t a great idea, and probably slows this process down.

  7. keith

    My wife and I live two blocks from this building, in one of a similar era but much larger size. We, and about 2/3 of our building, don’t have offstreet parking and there is no “fighting with neighbors”; it’s actually quite easy to find a parking space. It was worse in lower QA where a lot of the spaces were taken up by office workers rather than residents.

    I agree with the author that there should be no minimum parking requirements for apartments (or any other type of building, for that matter). Driving is a luxury in which many of us don’t need to partake.

  8. flotown

    I’d be curious to find out what it would cost to replicate this building today, assuming modern building codes, ADA accessibility, and typical soft costs. Assume no parking ratios and neighbors who’d welcome that concept .

  9. Mark

    Ok – I’m with you on this, but let’s look a bit further down the road, and I’m being sort of literal with the road analogy…

    In the next 20 years, I’m fairly confident that we will solve or be close to solving the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and cars. Not greenhouse gas emissions and everything else, and definitely not the mountain of hurt we’re in now with global warming and the myriad related problems, but, with cars, we’ll be there or close.

    So let’s reframe the issue – if the car you buy has a dramatically lower (It’ll never be zero) impact due to zero (or close) emissions, doesn’t the discussion shift to congestion? Will we be better off in that regard, or right back to square one? When people will be buying the better-than-Prius cars in 20 years with reckless abandon because our needs for mobility haven’t changed, then what?

    I guess my question/statement is – are we considering mobility along with environmental concerns? Everybody will say “all of the above”, but really? If you’ve made the decision to go from two cars to one or none, will you run out and fill your garage once again when Honda comes up with a car that actually eats greenhouse gases to propel it forth??? And how far will you get down the road when your 20 best friends get one too – and maybe a couple for the kids to boot?

    Bring it…

  10. Steve

    Or another way of putting flotown’s comment: if we removed the parking requirement in lowrise zones, would we see this type of building? Or would we see something more like the townhouses getting built now, only without parking?

    That’s not to say that townhouses without parking might not be desirable; there’s a relatively pretty new townhouse at NE 63rd and 12th NE that put the required parking by the side of the building and has a comparatively nice form.

    But it’s not clear to me that parking rather than parking + the unit density requirements in low rise zones are what’s making the townhouse inevitable. Or that the high-quality materials of the 20’s would get used today when building a new apartment building.

  11. Matt the Engineer

    Mark, I think you’re missing a few points. The largest being what I see as the driving force behind this blog: the desirability of density. Taking the car debate off the table, one of the most energy-efficient lifestyle changes we can make (other than a vegetarian diet) is living in a city. If many people make this lifestyle change, it not only is a boon to out planet, but it makes life a lot more interesting. For the most extreme example of this in the US, see New York City (24-hour entertainment options, high amount of diversity, food options, opportunities to interact with people, ability to travel quickly and easily, etc.).

    Now back to the car debate. Another point I disagree about is the inevibility of cars as a primary transportation system. Energy costs will increase greatly in a sustainable world. Sustainable fuel costs are just unaffordable for our current lifestyles, under any model. Short of magical carbon-eating cars, road transportation costs will go up – thereby creating more demand for housing that doesn’t require cars. I personaly predict plug-in-hybrids becoming popular in the next decade, followed by electric cars. But I also predict electricity (and fuel) prices shooting upward as we take responsibility for our behavior (and implement, then raise carbon taxes), until we finally approach 100% sustainable energy supply (looong in the future, after many tragic avoidable “natural” disasters). At that point driving will be much less popular, and considered a luxury.

  12. the other db

    I swear I’ve been in that building before.

  13. Josh Mahar

    Just to highlight Matt’s point here, Peter Newman has been studying this stuff since the 70’s and he likes to replace the word Sustainable with “resilient”. Essentially he realizes that we are going to have to get out of our cars, its not even a choice. The incredible energy impacts from cars is just not going to work.

    Check him out here: http://cascadiarising.blogspot.com/2008/04/car-free-cascadia.html

  14. Andrew

    It’s not even just environmentalists, think of the affordability issue.

    Taking that land and making it available to cars is expensive, especially in the case of underground parking garages. It also closes the street down at that point, and puts the pedestrian experience at odds with drivers.

    Parking should definitely be optional. Nothing creates drivers more than parking spots.

  15. danb

    DG@4: as flotown@8 asks, can you tell us if a building like this with no parking would be economically feasible using modern construction and materials?

    Steve@10 is correct about the density maximums precluding a building like this in some of the lowrise zones. In the new code, LRT = 1 unit per 2000sf of lot; LR1 = 1 per 1600sf; LR2 = 1 per 1200sf; LR3 uses FAR instead of unit density. So an 8-unit apartment in LR2 would require a 10,000sf double lot. But it wouldn’t be doable in LR1.

  16. michael mcginn

    Great post.

    Note also the room left for green stuff like trees or grass if the ground level is not dedicated to moving and storing cars.

    There are buildings like this all over town, built before parking requirements, design review, and in some cases, any zoning at all. Far from ruining neighbhorhoods, they are often the nicest apartment buildings. Is it just as simple as designing a building solely for people walking to it as opposed to driving into it?

  17. Joshua

    To DG@4’s point: yes, ADA access is an issue, as is the materials used and costs associated. But let’s not forget about the land. Land is crazy expensive here, as we all know. I haven’t looked specifically at the economics of a building of this size vs. your typical 5 over 1, but land and parking are generally what require us to go somewhere over 4 stories (and, by “us” I mean real estate developers) to able to make a profit (excuse my french). Buildings like this were possible back in the day in large part because the portion of the budget dedicated to land was much lower. Simple reason: there was more of it. Also, we need to specify – is this rental or condo? If this were a very high end condo building, than it could possibly pencil, as most of those premiums would be passed on to the buyers. As an apartment complex, however, it would be very difficult to make happen.

    Now, for the sake of conjecture, what if you had a land owner that would be willing to JV with lower return requirements? Let’s also say this land owner could wave a magic wand and fast track the development process to make the economics of desireable projects work better. In return for a lower return yield on the land and other help, this land owner would ask for non-economic returns, such as better design, sustainable building thresholds, etc. Hmmm, I wonder what type of land owner would do this…? (hint, it would be similar to this: http://www.pdc.us/)

    Dorian Gray, what are your thoughts on the land economics of something like this?

  18. flotown

    Joshua,

    I don’t think the rental v. condo is a good argument, because its not economically sustainable to assume condos will keep selling at a marked premium to apartments in the future when there has historically- pre-bubble- been little premium.

    the land argument is legit, under today’s zoning code, but we could eliminate that factor by assuming an FAR-based system, such as is likely to be included in the new multi-family code changes this year. In that case, we could have a) townhouses and b) stacked flats. If the FAR gets high enough (2+), in some neighborhoods (eg cap hill, QA) stacked flats could win out, but in most other townhouses, which can be sold as fee simple ownership units, will be the highest and best use…

  19. Steve

    flotown,

    Isn’t unit density a bigger issue than FAR? It seems like FAR affects the enclosed space of the building but doesn’t tell us anything about the space per unit, which seems like the key townhouse/stacked flat differentiator.

  20. Finishtag

    ADA doesn’t apply to housing.
    IBC Accessibility standards (ANSI) do.
    And the Seattle-specific building codes.

    Two story apartment buildings aren’t required to have the second floor accessible to people in a wheelchair, so no elevator needed.

    Brick veneer = 2 x metal siding in cost.

    People LIKE townhouses because they don’t have to live above or below each other. The idea isn’t getting rid of them, but making them better. As a building type, they’re here for the long haul.

  21. flotown

    Steve-

    the assumption is that unit maximums would disappear in favor of FAR in certain “L” zones (eg L3/L4, which would be renamed), and remain in the lower desnity zones. L3/L4 would flex bewteen flats and fee simple townhouses and L1/L2 equivalents would be townhouses. you’re right, though, that absent the removal of density limits additional FAR is not helpful

  22. Steve

    flotown,

    Got it — I hadn’t realize the unit density limits would be removed in L3/L4 under the new plan. Cool.

  23. Joshua

    Flotown – You can indeed argue as to whether or not rental is a more sustainable building product than condos, but I don’t think there’s a clear answer. Certainly rental is the choice du jour of developers currently due to high demand and rising rents, but of course the market is cyclical and condos will no doubt be back once apts get built out. And really, no matter what’s happening with the market, you can always find buyers if you hit a certain niche. Regardless, my point is that building a 4 plex such as this one and using it for rental product just wouldn’t pencil with land prices being what they are (and loan pricing being what it now is). I would guess your net operating income would take at least 5 years to catch up to debt service. You’d be hard pressed to find an developer/investor who would take that on.

    Also, I’m not sure how the land factor would disappear with new FAR regulations. If you remove density limits (which would be great in certain areas for sure), this land becomes more expensive, and thus constructing this type of building becomes even less feasible.

  24. Almost What We Don’t Build Anymore | hugeasscity

    [...] This is the Opal Condominiums at 16th and Pike, just a few blocks south of the older two-story apartment in discussed in this post. It has some obvious similarities. Why, in this case, did the developer not go with a townhouse 4-pack? [...]

  25. danb

    Finishtag @20: Nobody is suggesting that we do away with townhouses. They are an excellent urban building type. But they do need to be better balanced with other building types like the 2-story apartment in the photo, i.e., we’re building too many of them right now, in my opinion.

    Also, it’s the building form that matters, not the brick facade.

  26. If You Want To Understand The Real Reason There Are So Many Sucky Townhouses Going Up… | hugeasscity

    [...] Removing parking requirements might also encourage builders to try other building types such as small apartments, that would help break the near monopoly of new townhouses in lowrise zones. I suspect that those who are disgusted with townhouses would find the apartment discussed here much less objectionable — but there is no parking in it. [...]

  27. Spencer

    “So why aren’t we building any more of these small apartments? Short answer: Cars”

    Wrong. It’s zoning, building code and economics.

    Cars are what makes a good arguement, but is not critical as to why a building like the above can not be built on a lowrise zoned lot. Density is the first issue. Most lowrise requirements on a 50×100 foot lot only allow for 4 dwelling units. The building code requirements to build like this are considered too costly for a developer to take on (I’m not advocating that is right, it’s just the arguement) and to build with brick is an expensive alternative when fiber cement siding is available.

    So it leaves me to believe the root issue is philosophical. If a developer wants to build it, they will find the place and the way to. Right now, we as comsumers are not giving it to them because we treat our housing options like our MP3 player options. We can, buy the used one that might be a bust, buy the cheap new one and hope it doesn’t break or wait until we have enough money (hopefully) to buy the expensive one that will last.

    A good casestudy for an example of something close to the picture above was built in Columbia City last summer. The units sold for $700,000. That’s twice the average home value in that area.

  28. rosenrod dokumentation

    rosenrod dokumentation…

    We Don’t Build These Anymore | hugeasscity…

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