Town houses are the cockroach of Seattle's latest building boom. Colonizing almost every neighborhood, the shared-wall cluster houses are typically characterized by blockades of fencing, concrete driveways leading to interior bays of garages, and gabled roofs that replace the character of whatever was torn down to make room for them. From the street, it's often impossible to see the front door. The effect is discord with the neighborhood—an invasion of pests.
In the past 14 years, the city has issued permits to build 8,058 new town houses. Most are cheap interpretations of bungalows, squished into awkward proportions above the street—lifting residents far above the sidewalk and isolating them in bastions accessible only by car.
City officials are trying to make these bugs metamorphose into models for urban density and neighborhood charm. Later this month, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) will hand off three years of work revising city codes that determine what town houses can look like to the city council. Grabbing that baton is Council Member Sally Clark, who in January became chair of the council's land-use committee. But she's still nowhere near the finish line.
A community forum on Saturday, June 7, gave a hint at why resolution on town houses remains elusive. Sitting to Clark's right in a crowded theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Center was Brittani Ard, a private contractor who helps developers get city permits to build town houses. Ard's name appears on more town-house permit applications than anyone else's. Last year alone, Ard says, she helped developers get the nod for 400 town-house projects.
"If you want to know how to shoehorn too many units in a lot that shouldn't have them, Brittani is the person you need to go talk to," says David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council. Ard, Miller charges, "follows the letter, but not the intent, of the Seattle zoning code."
Ard herself readily acknowledges that she navigates the labyrinth of building codes to developers' advantage. But she blames the reviled finished product on rigid city laws that require fenced miniyards, setbacks from the street, and off-street parking on standard 40-by-100-foot city lots.
At last Saturday's meeting, panelists and officials suggested a number of solutions. But the ideas being proposed by the DPD, under the direction of the mayor, are essentially gestures: They include shorter fences, slightly wider driveways, less-imposing overhangs above garages, and additional height to allow varied rooflines.
"I'm not real impressed with it," says former city council member Peter Steinbrueck, who tangled with the mayor and developers over improving downtown's building codes as chair of the council's land-use committee. "It pretty much perpetuates the designs we already have, and that's a missed opportunity."
Brandon Nicholson, a developer for Nicholson Kovalchick Architects who was on Saturday's panel, suggested bolder steps. Among them: requiring the existing design-review boards to approve every town-house design and encouraging developers to include underground parking instead of central at-grade garages.
The upcoming debate over new town-house standards will give Clark a chance to channel the widespread loathing of bad town houses into a constructive movement to combine good design and density—establishing incentives to build the type of town houses that improve neighborhoods, and banning the traits that make them worse.
For example, Clark could explore the possibility of giving tax breaks, allowing additional floors, and waiving fees for developers who seek out community input on new buildings. She could consider requiring underground parking instead of the ground-level garages that currently lend themselves to bad design, eliminating parking requirements altogether, and creating incentives for brownstones and row houses in dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.
Clark should also identify the things builders cannot do: no driveways unless they serve as semipublic pedestrian courts, no garage doors facing the sidewalk, and no four-pack housing with garages in the middle.
But time is of the essence. Already, the DPD's proposal is years in the works. Thousands of lots in the city are zoned to allow town houses, and they will be developed. The longer the debate over what to do about ugly town houses drags on, the more ugly town houses will be built, and the momentum to change the rules will wane. Before last Saturday's forum, Clark told the crowd, "I want people's ideas. How do we lead developers to do more of the good stuff, and how do we protect ourselves from more of the bad stuff?" Now that she has heard from them, she needs to start leading the charge.