[ Lowrise apartments on 10th Ave, just north of Broadway on Capitol Hill ]

About a year ago the good people of the City of Seattle became exceedingly alarmed about the assault of the awful townhouse. Piling on, I put forth a theory on the root causes of the suckiness, and also pointed out that the City is full of examples of good alternatives to townhouses for lowrise housing, but that we almost never build them anymore.

Tonight the City of Seattle is holding a public meeting on a proposal for a new administrative design review process that would apply to townhouse development. The idea has been gaining momentum. I’m agnostic.

No doubt there are cases when design review can enable a better design response. But I can’t help being skeptical about whether design review will have the power to put much of a dent in the fundamentals that are driving the 4-pack model — condo liability, the requirement to accommodate cars, and inexpensive cookie-cutter design and construction.

When you’re out of ideas, recycle old ones — so I’m posting pictures of some nice old lowrise apartments. We need to figure out the current barriers to this building type, and then dismantle those barriers. Because getting better housing in Seattle’s lowrise zones is about more than just raising the bar for townhouses. At some not too distant point in the future, lowrise apartments like these examples will start to seem a lot smarter than townhouses, and the City’s interests would be well served by enabling more building type diversity in its lowrise zones ASAP.

[ Narrow lowrise apartment near 13th and Spring in the Central District ]

24 Responses to “Lowrise”

  1. Ellery

    Why doesn’t anyone here build with brick anymore? Is it the expense? It is the earthquakes?

  2. Phil on qa

    The requirement to accommodate cars is probably the biggest cost. A 3 story building can have 12 units. Are new 3 stories now required to have elevators? That would also add to the cost.

    Bricks – still seeing it used on some high end buildings around the south slope of QA, but that is just exterior brick. Not much structual brick (or brick with concrete block core) used on the West Coast. Many of the existing brick walk-ups around Seattle are just exterior brick over a wood frame structure.

  3. Keith

    I think an alternative — from an aesthetic standpoint; I can’t comment on the financial side — is to build mid-rise buildings that are narrower, a la the Alex in Belltown and the Pensar building on Lower QA. Developments of this size seem to be common as infill projects in NYC, at least according to some of the photos I’ve seen on Brownstoner.

  4. Matthew Amster-Burton

    I used to live in one of those 10th Avenue buildings…and then in another one across the street.

    This is probably putting it too strongly, but it seems to me that it is nearly impossible to design beautiful high-density housing with lots of parking, and nearly impossible to design ugly high-density housing with no parking.

    Capitol Hill already has a reputation for being hostile to cars and devoid of parking spaces. Let’s make it official. I hereby offer Capitol Hill as Seattle’s playground for carfree development. Let’s build midrise with zero parking spots, put curb bulbs all over the place, traffic-calm the hell out of 12th. If you don’t like it, I have plenty of other neighborhoods to offer you. And if people flee, you can come back and say you told me so.

  5. holz


    wie vauban? geil.


  6. Michael

    I can’t seem to Google up any images but, Tacoma’s New Tacoma neighborhood (stupid name) has some reasonably good examples of new low-rise development.


  7. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    That’s funny, I was just about to ask if this devil’s bargain would work: remove parking requirements in a few places (Pike-Pine, Broadway, Center City, U-District) in exchange for protecting other single family areas from evil scary density. Pit NIMBY vs NIMBY. Maybe do all the curb bulbs and bike lanes with LID or developer trades for upzones. Watched Arlington’s Smart Growth Journey documentary which gave me the idea.

    Downtown Tacoma (aka 1881 New Tacoma) is pretty nice, except there’s not much retail. Old Town is better but too far from good transit. UW Tacoma is well done. It’s a better urban campus than the main UW in my opinion.

  8. dan cortland

    Unless things have changed recently, one possible obstacle to your proposal is that many commercial property owners (not exactly NIMBYs) in the neighborhoods you mention want their retail strips to be destination shopping areas–they want people driving to Broadway, for example.

  9. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I knew this could be a problem in places like Fremont, but Broadway? Honestly who says “Let’s go try to park on Capitol Hill!” I guess if that’s really the case we should probably pave the rest of Pike-Pine.

  10. Ross

    I think a lot of the new housing (over the last couple of years) is actually better than that built 10 years ago and much better than the stuff built in the 1960s (a horrible decade for architecture). You are absolutely right about the parking requirement. It was responsible for the extremely ugly set of duplexes and quadraplexes that devastated Ballard during the 90s. Architecturally, the worst crime was to the landscaping. If you walked through a typical neighborhood containing mostly houses, you would have seen a variety of interesting plants (as well as houses). This was replaced with lots of concrete and the occasional (almost always red) Rhododendron (I really like Rhodies, but this was really boring). It is no wonder, then, that high density got such a bad name.

    A good example of a nice townhouse is here: http://tinyurl.com/dgj2fe (this is a front view, but the side view is almost as nice). The landscaping is boring (now) but as time goes on, this could improve (there is plenty of room for the plants). More importantly, the building themselves are interesting. These town houses are only a block away from Aurora, so it would have been easy for the builder to make them ugly. Instead, you have a pretty nice addition to the neighborhood, which will get nicer over time.

  11. Matt the Engineer

    These are my favorite new low-rise, on upper Queen Anne. They’re dense, beautiful, and in a walkable neighborhood. Parking has been hidden underground.

  12. dan cortland


    Sure, it sounds unlikely to happen, but Broadway owners have called destination shopping a goal, as in the days when there were furniture stores on the street.

  13. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    dan cortland, sorry for my overreaction. It’s worth noting that existing parking near Broadway would not be effected, and that developers would be able to choose to include some parking.

  14. Kathryn

    Broadway Market seems to keep a full parking area underground. I know underground parking is expensive, but if the businesses will validate and the garage stays full, I think it should ‘pencil out’ for NC.

    For residential, likely one half the parking spaces could be built and they could charge a premium, yes?

  15. Sophia Katt

    The reason buildings as designed above don’t get built is that buyers deeply prefer ownership rights free and clear without having to deal with condo boards, and want as much square footage as possible for their mortgage dollar. The banks like that as well, so the present design has to conform to zero lot requirements that provide that kind of ownership. And people who have the credit/$$ to handle such a package also want offstreet parking for a car. The design above doesn’t really provide much of that, sadly. I like those buildings, too.

  16. Mike Stanger

    Sophia: Couple things I don’t understand. When you say, “ownership rights free and clear,” do you mean fee-simple? Do all those condo buyers wish they’d bought fee-simple townhomes? Or is there some other type of “free and clear” ownership without land? Sorry for my ignorance, but I’d desperately like to know the answers to Dan Bertolet’s original question.

  17. Kathryn

    There are issues with the condo laws in the eyes of some builders, There is also a truism (I think Urban Myth) that Seattle people don’t like apartment style condos! It is also true that underground parking is expensive.

    Those are the ‘reasons’ to not build apartment style buildings (they claim) for sale in L3 zoned areas. It’s like the builders get to decide to really screw the Urban Village strategy.

    It is easier to just subdivide a lot legally, so each owner is not responsible for a shared building envelope. That drives to townhouses. Now the claim that the people want a garage? Well someone got plans through DPD with those skinny buildings with a garage on the bottom floor and everyone just bought those and replicated them. I think it’s not about parking — those garages are not usually used for cars — it’s that if a carport were built the group would have ‘shared space’ and, again, the lot is not a neat and clean subdivision.

    To come clean. I live in a townhouse group built in 1993 by an early adopter trying to show how small (1000 sq feet) homes could be affordable. We have a carport. There are only two things I would rather have. First, if the carport had been cut and cover with green space on top or if we could put a cistern under the existing carport. Second, separate sewer hookups, since we share water.

    But, all in all I prefer the shared parking and would hate to be living over a garage. Our cars, unlike all the people who live in the newer developments, are off the street. The trade off is that we have an association to pay for water and keeping that common area nice.

  18. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    You all might enjoy this: What are Puget Sound Buyers Thinking? (Nov 2008) The money shot survey question: “What do they want to buy?” 29.8% Urban Condominium, 20.8% Highrise Condominium, 20.0% Single Family Residence, 13.5%
    Townhome. The biggest location priority (70.2%) is a walkable neighborhood.

    This issue with “people who have the credit/$$ to handle such a package” is the part of townhomes also contradicts the affordability goal of density (and John Fox knows it). I know people who bought into the market with a townhome they didn’t really like because of the location. This is sad considering for the same price you could have an attractive lowrise mixed-use condo if there were more of them.

  19. ktstine

    Capitol Hill already has a “no parking” requirement. The City was really forward thinking about this a couple of years ago and exempted all new multifamily development in certain urban center villages from parking requirements.

    So the reason that parking is still built up here is not related to code. It is related to two things: 1) market demand and 2) financial underwriting of a project. Obviously, if you are building luxury condos, some buyers have an expectation that it will come with a parking space (even if they have to pay for it). Liz Dunn recently said that her tenants don’t use their cars but really want a space to “store” them. It is going to take time for this to change…maybe the arrival of a streetcar?

    Second, in this financial climate, banks are really nervous about underwriting any deal that doesn’t meet the “norm” and unfortunately, at least a parking stall per unit is the norm in America, even if not in Seattle. Often times, your underwriter is examining your project from a suburban office park in Maryland (that they drove too from an hour away) and can’t conceive of people renting a unit without a dedicated space. This is just a very very sad reality. To get the loan, you add the stalls and the cost of building parking to make your bank less nervous about risk. And virtually every project, even Vulcan’s, is built with a permanent mortgage.

    Lastly, I do think that there is an inherent tension between businesses and the idea of developing a “walkable” neighborhood. Parking on Broadway is a nightmare and a lot of folks say that it directly loses them business. This is a tension that will continually need to be addressed but at some point, the density will reach a tipping point, and there will be enough people in the immediate vicinity (without a car) to support a really vibrant commercial district with very little dedicated parking for businesses.

  20. Kathryn

    Thanks for some facts, Joshua. When I bought 4 years ago, in a hot sellers market, I was outbid on two condos on Capital Hill. The townhomes were sitting there..at least for longer.

  21. dan cortland

    ktstine@19 wrote:

    Capitol Hill already has a “no parking” requirement. The City was really forward thinking about this a couple of years ago and exempted all new multifamily development in certain urban center villages from parking requirements.

    As far as I know, that’s only true of multifamily in commercial zones within the Station Area Overlay. Elsewhere in multifamily zones in the CH Urban Center Village, one space is required per unit. (See SMC 23.54.015 Q.)

  22. ktstine


    I think you just need to read further down the code to this:

    K. Residential uses in
    commercial zones within
    urban centers and Station
    Area Overlay District, No minimum requirement

    I believe this is all NC zones in urban centers and station overlays. Please correct me if I am wrong. I am working on a project in the 12th Ave Urban Village right now and bc it is affordable we are proposing only 6 stalls but there is no requirement for residential or commercial. My banks have already flagged this as a concern for them.

  23. dan cortland

    That’s further up the Code, technically :-). Yeah, you’re correct, it’s waived if a project is in either a commercial zone or a Station Area Overlay. I miscontrued the text as requiring both. Still, that leaves a parking requirement in place for a lot of Capitol Hill.

  24. ktstine

    This is true @23. I should have clarified that I was talking about mid-rise and low-rise buildings, which often happen in the NC zones, not single family or the L zones (although I think Dan is making a good case here for low-rise instead of crappy townhomes). Really, we need to get rid of all parking requirements in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown, especially once light rail and the streetcar are operating.

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