Designers figure out how to sell density

Baylis Brand Wagner Architects

The rules laid down by the Growth Management Act are a necessary response to the problems generated by rapid population growth and California-style (sub)urban sprawl in the Puget Sound region, particularly in King County.

While some have been angered by the effects of GMA on individual developments and property rights, the arguments for controlled distribution of population growth have never been more valid. Current estimates hold that between 170,000 and 220,000 new households will be formed in King County in the next 20 years.

While the city of Seattle will absorb a large percentage of them, at the present time it is estimated that 60,000 to 86,000 will be distributed among nine smaller cities in the county. Collectively these cities Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Kent, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton, Seatac, and Tukwila will need to absorb between 3,000 and 4,000 new households per year.

GMA and related city/county zoning rules confine development to specific areas in each city, with the primary intent being to preserve green space. The effect, ultimately, may be to stop or seriously slow down the making of suburbs as we know them. Developers are building up, not out, and as a result there are, and will be more, densely populated "urban villages" in semi-rural or small town settings.

These projects typically house singles with or without unrelated roommates, childless-by-choice couples, empty nesters and other somewhat non-traditionally family groups in diverse types of mixed use and/or multi-unit buildings. To make these new kinds of residences appealing, developers must offer well-made, higher-density housing at every price level. Making this "densification" work is perhaps the single most important challenge to residential architects in the Puget Sound region.

Working at a variety of densities, our firm has learned what makes higher density housing sell, at market rate and for the wealthy; and how best to organize mixed-use projects; and which types of multi-unit projects are most appropriate for specific sites.

Although most Americans believe that anything other than a freestanding single family residence on a large suburban lot is less desirable as a home, for many of today's homebuyers, other kinds of housing is more readily available, and often more practical as well. For a young single or childless couple, a small condominium priced around a $100,000 offers an opportunity to get into the market and begin building equity.

For a childless couple or an older "empty nest" couple whose children have left home, a higher end condominium or townhome offers reduced maintenance and greater security, and the possibility of a previously unaffordable view. These condominium projects also are often designed to enhance interaction with neighbors, which can be especially appealing to singles.

Some architects have learned to "make it feel like a house," when building multi-unit projects. Regardless of the price level, floor and site plans are organized to maximize privacy when and where possible, and to enhance the flow of daylight, the sense of entry and the views.

Building in the right balance of rooms for the potential buyer is critical for example some two bedroom units might be designed with two master bed and bath suites, so that a single owner can more easily find a roommate. Finishes and details, both inside and out, are chosen for their homelike qualities, to lend a sense of permanence and value.

A not-necessarily-definitive list of higher density types might include detached single family residences with zero lot lines; zipper lots; townhomes; stacked flats; rowhouses; cottages; garden style apartments; accessory or carriage units; duplexes and triplexes. There are overlaps among them, and there are other types as well, but this list lends a sense of what's out there.

The project called Rivertrail, in Redmond, designed by BBWA architect Julie Stiteler for Intracorp, is a neotraditional townhome complex. The 55 units of its first phase, called Springfield Village, are clustered in pairs or fours, and affordably priced from $139,000 to $192,000.

To create the feel of freestanding houses, they feature traditional gabled roof lines, bay windows, private porches, small private landscaped areas and/or patios, and a palette of colors drawn from Seattle bungalow neighborhoods. The perimeter units have garages on the street, while the units within the complex have garages on alleys, in the urban style. It is this diversity, of color, streetscape, and detailing, that lends the project a kind of hybrid, semi-urban charm.

The other housing types have been around in one form or another for years, but recently developers and architects have grown more savvy about what sells. They have learned to manipulate space, inside and outside, to enhance privacy.

In projects located away from city center, they build in amenities. For example at the Park Highland apartment complex, a 250-unit project Stiteler and her BBWA associates designed for Intracorp at Wilburton in Bellevue, shared amenities include a swimming pool, day care, a party room with a fireplace, tot lots, a sport court, and a deck with barbecue. One building in the complex is designed especially for seniors, and features a laundry room, underground parking, indoor postal service, and a club room.

The Park Highland includes some subsidized rental units at affordable price levels, and market rate apartments with views of downtown Bellevue and the Olympics beyond. The design has overtones of the Craftsman style, enhanced by plantings, trellises, and wood detailing.

Other elements which come into play when planning mixed used and/or high density projects are proximity to places of employment, retail centers, and/or transit, to lessen automobile use; and designs which encourage good old-fashioned "neighborliness" while maximizing the limited available privacy. It's a delicate balancing act, and not always an easy sell, particularly this comes as something of a surprise at the lower, starter end.

The people that should be in the market for affordable, ownable housing are often not aware that the option exists, and so continue to rent when they could buy into an equity situation for the same money. The problem with buying into equity is usually the down payment. Several federal, state, and local programs have been set up to subsidize down payments to encourage entry into the affordable housing market.

The town of Kirkland is one of the nine King County cities pegged for expansion in the coming decades. Kirkland has already evolved from a little lakefront suburban town into a bustling small city, with its own civic institutions, infrastructure, and a fair number of high density apartment and condominium complexes built up along the Lake Washington waterfront.

There's a real urban quality to downtown Kirkland these days, as people compare its lakefront land- and cityscape to that of Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco. That may be a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying the urban energy that's taken hold there.

Two BBWA projects, both fitting the description of the "stacked flat" housing type, are located on or near the Kirkland waterfront. With or without mixed use retail and/or office space in the same building, stacked flats are the ultimate means to densification, and the presence of these kinds of projects in downtown Kirkland suggests this town is well on its way to small scale city status. A closer look at these two projects lends some insight into some aspects of densification.

Marina Pointe is a Mediterranean style 24-unit condominium project, designed for Conner Development, with 1900-2500-square-foot units that opened in 1993. Re-sales since have seen value increases of over $100,000, suggesting that in the luxury end of the generally unpredictable condominium market, things are solid.

Marina Pointe Marina Pointe (126k jpeg)

The three-four story height (above a parking garage) was dictated by zoning, and the building's u-shape resulted from the architect's efforts to provide water views from every unit, and to arrange the units so that each of the four elevators only served two units on each floor, enhancing the sense of privacy, of "home." The luxury lies in the attention to details, the decks, the extensive windows, and the views.

Not yet completed in its location a couple of blocks off the Moss Bay waterfront, the Plaza on State Street in downtown Kirkland is an example of a different kind of stacked flat, mixed-use project. The Kirkland Avenue Associates, L. L. C. project includes 81 condominiums on an acre and a half ranging in price from $80,000 to $350,000.

With 14 different floor plans, the project offers a wide range of size and price options. The more expensive units are larger and have better views, but all the units share elevators and entry lobbies, and equal amounts of garage level storage and parking.

The building exterior is split-face concrete, dryvit, and horizontal lap siding forming a base, middle, and top. The ground floor spaces are to be occupied by retail. With the city transit center, the public swimming pool, the library, shopping, grocery stores and the new performing arts center located within a short walking distance, the project takes full advantage of downtown Kirkland.

Condominium investment can be volatile for many, but given the inevitability of the increase in this kind of housing, price stability will come, especially as buyers become more sophisticated and are able to evaluate different projects with some sense of what they want, and what they should be looking for.

Like it or not, densification is a fact of life in King County as we approach the year 2000, and many more of us are going to be living in these kinds of dwellings in the future. Hopefully the architects and planners responsible for creating them will give us density with beauty, privacy with community.

Thomas Frye is a vice president at Baylis Brand Wagner Architects in Bellevue.

Return to Design 95 top page