townhouseIf you live in Seattle, chances are that you like to complain. You might like to complain about parking or you might also like to complain about ugly new development. (Or, like me, you might like to complain about all the complainers.) So today, all of us Seatteites were happy to see the Seattle Times devote an article to people complaining about the new townhouses sprouting up.

There are about as many complaints as there are complainers. Here are some, swiped from the article:

Their second-floor living rooms encourage residents to squirrel away upstairs instead of chatting with neighbors…

..And the shared driveways are so narrow that parking spills onto the streets…

…it’s eroding Seattle’s prized single-family neighborhoods…

…said City Councilman Tom Rasmussen. “They are bleak, poorly designed and not consistent with the neighborhood. Some are not sidewalk- or pedestrian-friendly…

…Oustimovitch said, “A project would have been built that would have been appropriate for the neighborhood. Instead what we got was a very vanilla, cookie-cutter town-house development.”

Now, many of these complaints are legit. Some of the new townhouse developments are pretty bland, and many seem divorced from the street. But why are the designs so flawed?

  • Here’s one explanation. Nearly every townhouse in the city is required by law to provide offstreet parking. Since cars don’t fly, the practical effect of the minimum parking regulations is that each and every townhouse has a garage on the bottom floor. And these garages are often the prime culprit in walling off the townhouses from the street, and of sending the residents upstairs. They also severely crimp design possibilities, making the units tend toward uniform. Somewhat ironically, because the garages are small and the driveways are tight, the residents who have cars often end up parking on the street anyway. All this puts city planners in a lose-lose situation.

    One obvious solution would be to strip out the parking requirements, which would revolutionize the design possibilities. But so far, the city’s modest attempts to remove minimum parking mandates in a few urban areas have been greeted with howls of protest from angry mobs wielding pitchforks and torches. (Socialist-style parking requirements are apparently something akin to a constitutional guarantee in Seattle.) But the townhouses themselves are also met with equally outraged howls of indignation. What is the city to do?

    The answer: make housing less affordable.

    I snark, but it’s true.

    Contrary to the screeching of some neighborhood activists, the reason that townhouses are sprouting up everywhere is not because developers are part of a nefarious cabal dedicated to ruining Seattle’s aesthetics. No, the reason is because people want to buy them. And folks even want to buy the Plain Jane ones. It’s really not a big mystery. Consider:

    There’s no question that in Seattle’s pricey housing market, town houses offer an alternative for homebuyers. The median price for a Seattle town home sold this year is about $395,000, compared with $481,500 for a single-family house, according to an estimate by Windermere Real Estate.

    Not only are single-family homes about 25 percent more expensive, on average, but the single-family homes are more often older, requiring expensive fixes and upkeep. (Believe me, I know). Meanwhile the townhouses are sparkling new, very energy efficient, and often within walking distance of services and transit. As a result, the true price differential is much greater than the sale prices suggest.

    But now there’s a push to subject townhouses to more extensive permitting, increased design scrutiny, and more neighborhood input. And while those may or may not be wise public policy decisions, they are precisely the sort of regulations that—bit by bit—increase the price of housing. (That was the kerneloftruth in the recent Theo Eicher study about regulation and housing prices in Seattle.) It’d be nice to know, I think, what the cost of these rules would be, so that we can decide if they’re worth it.

    Another possibility is simply to downzone neighborhoods, so that it’s illegal to build townhouses. But that kind of supply-side restriction—already common throughout much of Seattle’s land-base — is likely onebigcontributingfactor to unaffordable housing.

    In the meantime, heaven help officials who want to allow development in places that are already zoned for it. For instance, check this sentence from the article: “Last week, the City Council actually eased the rules for town-home projects on Queen Anne and Capitol Hill.” Note the use of the word “actually” to denote incredulity that something so untoward could happen. Next thing you know, our elected officials will stop forcing developers to supply parking where it’s not wanted.

    Speaking of minimum parking requirements—the ones that foul up townhouse design—they may also make the townhouses more expensive. In fact, it’s been estimated that parking requirements can add tens of thousands to the price of a condo, and it’s fair to think that a similar price hit happens with townhouses. Turns out, freeparking is like freedom: it isn’tfree

    And free parking is ugly too.

    Photo of the townhouse pair (a pretty nice one in my opinion) is courtesy of Dan Bertolet, who’s running HugeAssCity, a blog on urban design and development that I find myself reading almost every day.