November 6, 2008

Good design will solve the townhouse dilemma

  • Seattle has proposed making the design review process a part of all townhouse development in the city. It could also promote good design by holding design competitions, having an on-call pool of professional reviewers and creating more flexible zonin
    Johnston Architects


    It seems like we have been talking about townhouses for a long time. Theoretically, townhouses offer a wonderful solution for addressing urban density. However, in reality the public’s experience with townhouse developments has left many feeling they are caught in a dilemma: Build them and we’re stuck with development that mars the character of our neighborhoods with monotony and bad architecture; or don’t build them and contribute to urban sprawl.

    As a forward-thinking city, we have the capability to solve this dilemma. One answer that has been proposed is making the design review process a part of all townhouse development in the city. This approach could work if we have a streamlined process that incorporates flexibility and encourages innovative public/private partnerships to further the cause of good townhouse design. Finding creative ways to realize the benefits of design review without adding significant time delays and costs will result in townhouse developments that we can all live with.

    Why cookie-cutters?

    Photo by Benjamin Benschneider
    The Fremont Lofts have a Dutch “woonerf,” which is a winding street that knits the townhouses together and helps build a sense of community.

    Many lots suitable for townhouses occur in transitional zones — the L zones (L-1, L-2, and L-3) — between single-family and higher density areas. These developments often become the gateways to our neighborhoods and the areas we most love. Townhouse sites tend to be small and have an infill quality. They are subject to acquisition by smaller developers, and often are subject to the design and construction of buildings based on a formula.

    Why are formulaic buildings so tempting and so ubiquitous? Consider the risks of land development. A developer invests in the property, the design and the engineering. He or she commits to a lengthy permitting process at best.

    With a piece of land, a design and a permit, banks may be willing to lend enough money to build the building and carry costs while sales are developed. If the project does not sell rapidly, the developer’s fee and any potential profit are expended. In the worst-case scenario, the development goes bankrupt. In the best case, the developer makes a handsome but not unreasonable profit.

    The cookie-cutter approach involves the purchase of plans that successfully have been permitted and built in the past. These formula approaches have a proven profitability. And by building small enough projects, a developer can avoid the costly, and sometimes time-consuming, public process known as design review.

    Great townhouse potential

    Older cities around the world share the townhouse building type with us. These prototypes frequently were built without zoning codes or ordinances. They were the product of expedience and market forces. Accommodations for private transportation were secondary or not considered at all. If one wanted to live in an urban core — downtown Manhattan or Chicago or a hill town in Italy for that matter — one walked or made arrangements for a horse, a car, a bicycle or public transportation. This is still true today in our older cities.

    In the West, however, this traditional model often is ignored, and townhouses are considered simply small-scale, single-family dwellings. Developers are required to provide many of the elements of a stand-alone house within a site that is much smaller than a single-family site. We know that the potential for great, dense townhouse neighborhoods exist — history and the physical evidence tell us that.

    How do we create the conditions whereby developers and designers can rediscover these potentials within the context of our great city? The following are a few ways:

    Design review benefits

    Mayor Greg Nickels has proposed, with the support of the Seattle City Council and the Department of Planning and Development, an administrative design review process for all townhouse projects. Consultants have been hired to explore the manner in which this review will occur and plans are under way for implementation.

    What will this mean? Many hope that it will mean better townhouses in our dense neighborhoods and around the edges of our single-family communities. Others fear that the burden of regulation will extend permit processing time and still not correct the problem of repetitive low-value townhouse development.

    There are excellent townhouse designs in our city. They tend to be good neighbors, enhance the streetscape and produce sales values that justify added time and effort. To promote the production of great townhouses, a smooth and streamlined regulatory process must be developed, but also an awareness of successful results must be nurtured.

    Encouraging good design

    Photo by Aaron Leitz
    These townhouses were designed to participate in the vibrancy of Alki, with glass facades that not only maximize views but also invite a dialogue with the neighborhood.

    There are several mechanisms that could be employed in Seattle to further the cause of good townhouse design:

    • Design competitions. In Portland, Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco, design competitions have spurred innovation and creativity in exploring a broad variety of housing types. Typically, these competitions highlight flexibility. Zoning rules and other constraints are thrown out the window in favor of out-of-the-box thinking. As a result, solutions often are realized that equal the financial potential of cookie-cutter designs, while enhancing the lives of townhouse owners and occupants as well as their neighborhoods. These competitions are educational for all, and have the potential to raise the bar for architects and developers alike.

    • On-call pool of professional reviewers. Administrative design review is conducted by planners within the Department of Planning and Development. With an expanded design review process, staffing likely will need to increase to meet demand but be flexible for when the volume of applicants is low.

    A consistently prepared applicant (CPA) is a professional — frequently an architect or architectural intern who has mastered the permit application process — that repeatedly submits plans that satisfy all permit requirements. An on-call group of willing CPA professionals could provide the flexibility in staffing required to meet fluctuating demand.

    • Flexible rules to promote design excellence. Great neighborhoods around the world have arisen within flexible zoning constraints. The common thread is that these neighborhoods were a response to market forces. Obviously, market forces do not always create good design. But, in the context of a discerning populace, an educated design and development profession and a competitive market, great design will arise.

    If a project is within a pedestrian district or near a college or university, perhaps parking requirements could be waived. If transit, bicycling and car sharing become significant themes in a development, perhaps the number of parking spaces could be dramatically reduced. If setbacks were averaged to create varied and interesting yards, perhaps flexibility in their specifics could be provided. If quality community amenities were provided and sustainability enhanced, perhaps lot coverage constraints could be relaxed.

    With the help of a properly structured, expanded administrative design process, the development and design community can create exemplary solutions worthy of our great city.

    The built environment

    A design review program can’t legislate diversity in designs, but it can encourage it.

    Design review has been a huge benefit to many projects around the city. But design review alone can’t make better projects or change neighborhood perceptions. Our city’s land-use code should encourage and incentivize great townhouse design.

    Well-designed townhouses reflect a new awareness of the built environment and its ability to stimulate, and even create, a sense of community. Our cadre of developers is seeing the benefits and rewards of creating small places for community in and around their projects. Our codes and ordinances are evolving to promote these kinds of solutions and to enhance the built environment. Our young city is learning ways to build with a sense of place that typically grows organically in older population centers. We are coming of age.

    Ray Johnston, AIA, is a founding partner of Johnston Architects, where he designs a variety of projects from custom homes to multifamily and mixed-use developments to civic projects such as libraries and cultural centers.

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