Saturday, June 14, 2008

Townhouses and Seattle City Code

My first "political" rant, ever. It may be my last, ever.
We recently attended a Seattle council meeting discussing possible rule changes covering townhouse construction in Seattle. The meeting was titled: "Townhomes – Can the Patient be Saved?" Afterwards we felt strong enough about the discussion, we decided to write Councilmember Clark a letter. Here it is:

Dear Councilmember Clark,

My wife and I attended the June 7th PLUNC meeting up on Capitol Hill. I want to start by thanking you for organizing and publicizing this meeting, we found that it was very informative.

Although we are not as informed on the subject of townhouses as many professionals and community activists who were present at the meeting, I felt compelled to write to your office to give my opinion concerning the issue of townhouses in Seattle. I want to make my opinion known because I believe that my wife and I, both 30-something year old working professionals who are starting a family, are fairly representative of the demographic who is interested and is likely to buy a townhouse. I feel that we can express some concerns and interests shared by this demographic. Currently, we are condo owners who live in the Interbay area and we are planning to buy a house one day somewhere in the Seattle area. We had been considering purchasing a townhouse, although not any more. We walked into the meeting on Saturday very open-minded, even with a favorable opinion towards townhouses, and walked out convinced that the patient should not be saved. We believe that with respect to both density and affordability condominiums, as a form of ownership, offer a much better solution.

I will not belabor the much-discussed issue of esthetics here, which has received so much attention in the meeting and the online forums. What really concerns me is that townhouses, as they are now built, are practically designed to be an easy, liability-free money maker for the developers, while leaving a home buyer with all the consequences of poor design and construction. What I find particularly telling is that practically all successful examples of townhouses mentioned in the meeting, like the Comstock street houses on Queen Anne or the projects from the Portland design competition, were actually condominiums, not townhouses. They can be referred to as ‘townhouse style condominiums’, if one so chooses, but it doesn’t change the fact that they sit on a fee simple lot, share a common parking structure, common grounds and have a condominium association which plans and organizes long-term maintenance and upgrades of common elements.

Condominiums, as a form of ownership and organization, are superior to private townhouses on a number of accounts:

Parking and green spaces: the parking mess in the townhouses seems largely due to the lot subdivision and lack of common parking structure – it is simply not possible when lots are subdivided. These lot sizes are far too small to allow for anything meaningful. Same goes for green spaces – the ability to have common or green spaces and flexible positioning of structures can only occur in larger lot sizes. Since it’s obvious that a majority of solutions to dense living issues require the use of common spaces on private property, we believe it is clear that condominium form of ownership is a better answer. Whether it is a shared courtyard space or a joint underground parking area with shared driveway access to the street: you cannot do this in a 4-pack style townhomes owned by individuals. We had no opinion before, but we do believe now that there should be a moratorium on unit lot subdivision, if not an outright ban. Additionally, as plans from Portland’s competition illustrate, truly flexible design of multi-family complexes can be achieved on lots that are at least 8000 sq.ft. lots of larger. We believe that the city of Seattle should require developers to build on such double lots, instead of a single 4000 sq.ft. lot.

Holding the developer accountable: the most telling part of the meeting was when Dan Duffus decried the necessity of having a 7-year liability when building a condominium and how this made it unprofitable for developers to … wait… actually stand by their product! Having no comparable liability for townhouses practically invites and encourages poor construction practices and dishonest builders. Lack of such liability does not serve the needs of the public; it simply increases the ease with which the builders can make a profit. It also further disenfranchises townhouse buyers, most of whom are already on the lower-end of the income spectrum: these people are stuck fixing builder’s short-cuts and outright defects when they become apparent years later, with seemingly no recourse against the builder.

Maintenance and affordability: as trivial as it sounds, there is a safety in numbers. Townhouses are sold as being free of pesky associations, and that’s fine for now. But in 10 to 20 years, what will these townhouse clusters look like? If a home owners association is not setup right away (and they typically aren’t) it becomes much more problematic down the road. Without all parties in a townhouse cluster being required to enter a joint agreement, how do people expect the upkeep on these crowded shared areas to occur? Also, I think that developers love the thought of selling to individual townhome owners instead of condominium association members, because it’s easier to deal with people who do not have the support of others. Again, these buyers are especially vulnerable since they tend to be entry-level buyers. With the issue of long-term maintenance in mind, the much-proclaimed affordability of a townhouse is really not true: a buyer purchases an inferior product, ends up with no organized maintenance plan and, due to the design of the townhouse, is stuck maintaining 3 exterior walls and a roof – all items that would normally be the responsibility of a condominium association.

Stairs (why flats are better): you are probably surprised to see stairs mentioned here, especially since city regulations can’t do anything about the interior design proper. But stairs, the hallmark of townhouse design, in fact spell out “lack of accessibility and efficiency”. We believe that multi-storied flats not skinny townhouses are a more livable option. Let’s face it: townhomes have a large amount of square footage dedicated to stairs. Stairwells are not great living spaces. Stairwells are not great for the disabled or the elderly. Flats give a higher degree of space usage than vertical townhouse layouts. Several flats in a single building mean you can install an elevator, which provides great access for all, including the disabled. Builders can install additional sound proofing between levels to anticipate buyers’ concerns about noises from their upstairs neighbors.

To reiterate: we entered the meeting last Saturday thinking that yes, of course the patient can and should be saved! But after consideration, I have to say we think the patient should be left to die. It is not a good building type for increasing density in Seattle, or for any place. Instead, to increase affordability and density, Seattle should do more to encourage the condominium form of ownership and the construction of multi-storied flats on larger lots.

No comments: