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

…look in the mirror. All those scorn-reaping townhouses are simply a reflection of the state of our culture. There is no alien invasion involved here. Townhouses are financed, regulated, designed, built, bought, and lived in by members of our community. The trouble is, the community is broken. And no amount of building code updates or panel discussions can fix that.

In a broken community you are likely to find both builders and buyers without strong connections to place. And so builders become more inclined to produce shoddy, overbearing townhouses because they know they won’t be around to face the neighbors. And buyers tend to not so much mind living in a home that sequesters them from community life on the street — exhibit A: the six-foot cedar fence along the front property line. Should we be at all surprised when the the most individualistic culture in human history produces housing that has little respect for the common good?

Weak community bonds also enable the domination of a purely economic perspective, encouraging builders to see townhouses solely as a means to make money, while encouraging buyers to see them as an investment rather than a home. We Americans are always on our way to somewhere else, to something better, so the townhouse becomes nothing more than a vehicle to keep up with housing prices until we can get that dream house and really start living.

As for the sorry state of townhouse architectural design, the cause couldn’t be any more obvious: Our culture just doesn’t care very much about architecture. Today, utilitarianism and bottom line economics are what drive “design,” if you can call it that. The buildings still tell the story of our culture, but the story reads like a technical manual — it has no poetry, no soul. If more people valued design, if they sought something more culturally meaningful than a utilitarian box with openings for a home, then that’s what the market would deliver.

In terms of urban design, the typical townhouses currently going up in Seattle’s neighborhoods are a choice example of how we can’t have it both ways. We want dense, affordable, livable urban housing, yet we also want maximally convenient access to our cars. And so we try to make the townhouse do both, and we end up with the all too familiar compromised schlock. We simply don’t have the money and we don’t have the urban land to accommodate a car in every housing unit.

The townhouse, or more generally, the rowhouse, is one of the oldest and most successful urban building types in history. Our culture has the dubious distinction of being the first to so effectively wreck it.

[ Historic London townhouses ]

Alright then: But all this is not to say that better building code would be useless for mitigating townhouse blight. And the single most effective code update that the City of Seattle could implement to help improve townhouse design would be to do away with parking requirements in all lowrise zones. Alas, of this, the City of Seattle shall not speak.

Townhouse garages take up space that could be lived in, increase unit cost, raise the building height, and relegate main living spaces to the 2nd floor, disconnecting residents from the street. Townhouse driveways take away green space, increase stormwater runoff, reduce the site area available for the buildings, and drastically limit the site design possibilities. In the typical configuration with the driveway running between buildings, the buildings tend to get squeezed outward as close the property lines as possible. Mandating even wider driveways, as is proposed in Seattle’s multifamily code update, will only result in more cases of townhouses beating up on neighboring buildings.

When so much of the site is given over to driveways, there is little space left over for yards. And this is a major reason why so many townhouses have tall front yard fences. If the only place that isn’t paved is the front yard, then it will need a fence if people want a private bit of outside space. If the community was more closely knit, perhaps people wouldn’t feel they needed a fence to keep their BBQ from being stolen. Instead, the fence reinforces community breakdown and the vicious cycle continues.

Removing parking requirements might also encourage developers 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.

The thing is, even if the City removed parking requirements, change would be slow because in the short term, most builders would put parking in their projects anyway. But we should at least give them the option — now. It is inevitable that eventually, parking requirements will be revoked across the entire City of Seattle. Global warming and peak oil guarantee it. And the sooner it is done, the more pain we’ll avoid in the long term.

And all apologies, but I’m going to continue to repeat myself and leave you with this 1961 Lewis Mumford quote:

“The right to access every building in the city by private motorcar, in an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.”

18 Responses to “If You Want To Understand The Real Reason There Are So Many Sucky Townhouses Going Up…”

  1. Sabina Pade

    Dan, those gorgeous London townhouses in your photo -do- have have parking, and even a small stable with servants’ quarters above it, to their rear.

    They very frequently also have a beautifully tended (sometimes neighbourhood residents-only) public park directly in front of them.

    America has a memorably lovely small city on the Savannah River whose urban core is entirely devoted to townhouses, villas and churches regularly arranged around small public parks.

    Our major northeastern cities contain thousands and thousands of townhouses – wonderful townhouses. Many of them have garages to their rear that open onto alleys. Few of them have more than a token couple of ft2 of garden separating them from the sidewalk.

    By all means, bring on the townhouses! But let’s not attempt to fool Seattle. Good urban townhouses are not low-rise. Nor are they wood-frame. They build to the sidewalk. And the space to their rear is very important, because they can be troublingly dark inside if not well-lit from both facades.

    Many of Seattle’s currently single-family neighbourhood street grids would comfortably receive 5-storey townhouses with parking to their rear.

  2. Sara N

    “Many of Seattle’s currently single-family neighbourhood street grids would comfortably receive 5-storey townhouses with parking to their rear.”

    That’s true! And given that the city is just about out of low-rise zones (which makes me wonder why we are spending so much time trying to fix the townhouse problem since there aren’t room for many more), maybe we should start looking at the SF areas!

    Back on Planet Reality, however, upzoning SF to allow townhouses is a sure way to mobilize an opposition to density that would take many decades to overcome. And I dont think we have that kind of time to hash this out. But I do think that adding some modest density to SF areas, in the form of detached accessory dwelling units and cottage developments would help meet affordable housing and growth management goals in a way that still respects neighborhood character.

  3. Steve

    Sabina Pade –

    You make a great point — many of those old, pretty rowhouses do have backyards and sometimes even garages, which means they take up more lot space than people think, sometimes. Could a developer fit more than two such rowhouses on a typical Seattle lot? If not, it seems like rowhouses may not be a very effective way to increase Seattle’s density. (Not to say they might not be desirable for other reasons, though)

  4. Steve

    Sara N –

    Is there a significant market for detached accessory dwelling units? Has much come out of the legislation allowing them in SE Seattle?

    (To be clear: I really like the DADU concept — I just haven’t seen many going up, so I’m curious if I’m missing them or if they just haven’t happened.)

  5. mahalie

    Anyone whose been to a major city, as in NYC, London, Rome, etc…will not a clear difference in Seattle’s current dense development. In addition to big mixed-use complexes, there should be a place for far denser SF units…like the brownstones and town-homes so coveted NYC and SF. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a tiny bit of a yard…or even a garage, how many garages were the start pads for budding entrepreneurs? Shouldn’t one be able to have a life, and hobby, outside work that demands a place like a garage?

  6. old timer

    FWIW –
    I lived in New York, in a ‘townhouse’ that had been converted to apartments. 2 to a floor, 5 floors high, 10 units total. The basement rear apartment had the ‘garden’ access. My place was the ‘parlor’ floor front, 1/2 story above street level, with 14 foot ceilings.

    No garages, but space was available in a garage building about 2 blocks away. Rent for garage was equivalent to my rent controlled apartment rent, and you were allowed to take the car out once a day. An attendant would bring it down on an elevator.

    The author makes extremely incisive observations about the lack of community connection and economics as a driver of the townhouse ‘problem’. But, we are also being told about all the newcomers we have to accommodate, and developers are developers.

    Can we expect the houses we build to solve our aesthetic angst about their existence?

    Don’t know. Maybe limiting units per plot would be a start. No more 4-packs or 6-packs, just doubles or 3 packs.

    I’m counting on Seattle’s “Boomtown” history to put a stop to the townhouse issue. The money will dry up, and no more will be built for a while. Maybe we can figure out something before the next boom.

    Thanks for the chance to spout off.

  7. JoshMahar

    It’s absolutely true that vehicles are, in the words of Jane Jacobs, another 60’s city guru, “eroding our cities”. But, as you point out Dan, even getting rid of parking requirements doesn’t change the market demand. How many condos in the Center City have been built without parking, where there are no requirements? None.

  8. dan bertolet

    Sabina @1 said: “Many of Seattle’s currently single-family neighbourhood street grids would comfortably receive 5-storey townhouses with parking to their rear.”

    Actually no, 5-storey housing unit density is too high to fit a 1 stall per unit parking ratio in the rear of the building. Unless you’re proposing very large units, which of course means they would be more expensive and lower density.

    I’m not sure what you mean by 5-storey townhouse – a single unit on five-levels is a very impractical design. Some projects in Seattle have two or three floors of flats over 2-storey TH base with street entries, which works well – e.g., the back side of Brix on Broadway. But these buildings couldn’t really be called townhouses.

    Those London townhouses may have parking behind them, but the higher the parking ratio, the more expensive the housing, and the less space left for people.

    Yes, townhouses with parking can be done well. But my point is that accomodating cars is at odds with affordability, density, and livability (i.e. urban design). And given the prospects for the future we are dumb if we let the cars dominate the equation.

  9. Spencer

    What a lot of you are talking about are planning issues and also legal issues. Brought up in the PI article about last Saturday’s forum was the Landuse Code’s inflexibility to allow for other methods of developing on city sized parcels. Also cited is the legal advantage to zero lot lines. We can not just look at this as a problem of people either not wanting, knowing to want, or building something different. This is a deeply rooted problem in economic, landuse/building code, and legal issues.

    Building Townhomes different than they are now requires different applications of the building code (sprinkling systems, increased fire protection, etc.). This all equates to cost for developers. It is short sighted to think that all developers are about the bottom line. Many do see themselves as providing a needed service to the community but modifying the design produces more costs in turn raising the sale price of these homes.

    Our landuse code may not approach density in proper and realistic ways. I’ve always wondered why north green lake is zoned low-rise residential. It’s clearly close to only automobile oriented commercial. Above there is a comment about building apartment buildings in place of townhomes but that would require a rezone or more property to get the increased density needed. Which makes me wonder if we had too much low-rise zones to begin with and not enough high density zones.

    It also seems the size of the lots to density is not right. If any of you attended the Tuesday forum on Portland’s courtyard housing design competition it was clear that to make courtyard housing work lower density zoning and a minimum of two lots are needed. Which means that a developer has to be involved in so good timing and a certain amount of luck to get two 50×100 lots to develop courtyard housing on.

    All in all, what DPD is proposing at this time are baby steps in a long and rooted problem.

  10. Sabina Pade

    In our debates over how to build a convivial, pedestrian-oriented, sustainable Seattle are we perhaps overlooking something?

    FWIW, I’m approaching 50, and I’ve never held a driver’s license. I’ve always felt that cars, albeit useful sometimes, are our planet’s Enemy No. 1.

    But it could be that technological evolution is about to fundamentally alter the equation – and our discussions. Check this out:


    Apparently, at a recent Shell Oil-sponsored eco-car marathon in California, vehicles were recording mpg figures far surpassing those of the Aptera. The marathon winner reportedly achieved 2,843mpg!

  11. Johnny Hartsfield

    I agree with everything you are saying in most of these entries. Townhomes, zoning and open space especially.

    I have a sustainable design blog http://green-fab.com/blog/ for my new development company GreenFab that is attempting to highlight these and other sustainability issues. I live and breath Seattle too, check it out and we should chat.

  12. mike

    i hate to hit semantics, but these projects (at least the ones going up all over fremont and interbay) are not townhouses. 90% are duplexes built on subdivided lots.

  13. Spencer

    Mike, are you thinking of “Row Houses” when you see “Townhouses”?

  14. Eco Homes

    We have to find more solutions in order to help save our planet. Good reading about this.

  15. Sifali Bitkiler

    Hi friend do you’r had other articles ? I appreciate clerical develop pro me … ..

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