Skip to main content

Originally published September 13, 2013 at 12:17 PM | Page modified September 21, 2013 at 9:02 AM

  • Comments ()
  • Print

Small-scale solutions to Seattle’s huge urban-housing needs

Good density depends on lively variety, and the more imagination applied, the better, according to architecture critic Lawrence W. Cheek.

Special to The Seattle Times


BILL PARKS IS hanging out there on an edge with his next housing project, soon to arise in Ballard at 24th Avenue and 65th Street. For Parks, a longtime developer, the edge is a familiar perch; he’s been there before with his town house complexes such as Stonewater and Fremont Lofts, experiments in maximizing community rather than revenue. “If I didn’t do it that way, my spirit would just die,” Parks says. “To get up every day and go build those boxes — I just couldn’t do it.”

Parks’ projects, created in collaboration with Seattle-based Johnston Architects, aren’t edgy because of swoopy curves or cantilevered boxes angling into space. They’re quiet and neighborly. It’s the “neighborly” aspect of this new five-story Ballard apartment complex that will make it unusual. Its three buildings will surround a courtyard with a fountain, and the public — the larger neighborhood — won’t be locked out of the courtyard, at least not during the day. It’s a modest and cautious gesture toward openness, but in a rapidly densifying Seattle it stakes out a principle that’s increasingly rare. As Parks puts it, “The people who live in this building won’t be isolated from the community. It won’t be an exclusive club.”

I have lately been combing the city for examples that point toward what I call “humane” density. After affordability, it’s our thorniest urban-housing problem: How to squeeze another 70,000 bodies (the Seattle Department of Planning and Development’s current projection) into the city limits over the next 20 years while retaining a livable, scenic, user-friendly city? How to do density with grace?

I have a prejudice, and I may as well lay it open right here. I doubt that high-rise housing can ever be rendered “humane.” Yes, a condo in a 40-story tower can perfectly fulfill the housing needs of people who find energy in urban hubbub and are happy to dodge the nuisances of single-family home maintenance. But it’s exceedingly rare for such a tower, let alone a neighborhood bristling with them, to give humanity and beauty back to a city at sidewalk level. Seattle’s skyline is an awe-inspiring sight to contemplate from Elliott Bay on the Bainbridge ferry, but standing at the base of a 400-foot tower, we’re more likely to feel alienation and intimidation. There’s a reason that Paris is always cited as one of the world’s most intimate big cities: its scale. The whole city is six stories high. (Though in 2010, the Paris City Council voted to raise some building height limits to an alarming 590 feet.)

Another problem with high-rise housing is that the denser a city packs its quiver of skyscrapers, the less desirable a habitat they become. A few years ago I took a tour of the then-new 5th and Madison condos. We hit the 24th-floor penthouse just as a spectacular sunset unfolded over Elliott Bay. The developer’s rep could hardly contain his thrill, but the reality was that the glorious panorama was shattered by the bisect of the widebody tower across the street.

“Reality” is the word to remember when considering the high-rise. Because skyscrapers are such a compelling city symbol, we tend to be in denial about their shortcomings.

Architects have been trying to remedy the high-rise condo’s intrinsic drawbacks, and while we can appreciate the efforts, they illustrate how tough the problems are. The 5th and Madison tower includes a nicely landscaped half-acre plaza open to the public, but there’s no escaping the feeling of being a pika trapped in a pit, looking up at the towering walls looming overhead. In Belltown, Weber + Thompson’s Cristalla keeps the modern glass tower from hitting the street with a visual thud by wrapping its base in the Italian baroque facade of the 1915 Crystal Pool natatorium that used to inhabit the site. A bold idea, but it might have been even better if the ornamental wrap had been artificially eroded, as if a new glass tower were blossoming from the old building’s ruins.

The more interesting ideas in a densifying Seattle are happening at the small-scale level, such as where architects are figuring out how to squeeze two or three town houses onto a lot that a generation ago would have seemed barely adequate for one unit. They report that it’s been a struggle, but recent changes in the building code are finally enabling more innovation.

“We found this tiny little lot five years ago, purchased it and sat on it through the recession,” says architect Tiffany Bowie of Malboeuf Bowie Architecture. “Finally the city changed the zoning to allow three units, and that’s when we began to think, hey, this might be feasible.”

This First Hill lot was just 28 feet wide, so with the required setbacks, it translated into a building 18 feet wide and 90 feet long. With the necessity of building to a tight budget, this was about to be boxcar architecture. What redeemed it was a sculptural “mask” crafted with cedar planks and thrust out in front of the black steel-clad box. It softens the severe functionality of the box to give it a friendly presence in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of gesture that would look pretentious or self-consciously clever on a larger building, but it works at this scale.

Architect David Foster’s row houses at Denny Way and 25th Avenue South, completed in 2009, helped prompt some positive changes in the building code, and his story illustrates how some restrictions inhibit creative urbanism.

When Foster designed this project, row houses were all but forbidden in Seattle because of the open-space requirement mandating, in effect, little front yardlets. The space eaten by the stoops — the steps to the front entrances — was subtracted from the required open space. Foster confesses he tried to “sneak it through” on the plans, but got nailed. The developer then slogged through the design-review process and won a variance, but it ate months and added at least $10,000 in costs, Foster says. The good news is that after it was built, three City Council members toured the project, and a more liberal interpretation of required “open space” appeared in the 2010 code. Today, Foster says, the project’s third-floor decks would count as open space, and the required setback in front would be 7 feet instead of 15.

“Getting closer to the street is good,” Foster says. “Stoops are a great urban-design element that add more value and life to a project, and getting closer to the street improves the ‘eyes on the street.’ ”

Still more innovative is David Neiman’s Beacon Green town-house project on Beacon Hill, a beneficiary of that code revision.

Like a lot of local architects, Neiman had steamed for years over Seattle’s dreary “four-pack” and “six-pack” design convention for infill town houses, which typically feature two flanks of craftsmanoid units with a dark and dreary concrete “autocourt” between for driveway and parking. In 2006 Neiman hatched an idea for a three-unit commission he had: Why not put a lid on the autocourt, preserving ground-level parking, and turn its topsides into a second-floor outdoor commons?

“It violated about 15 different parts of the code,” Neiman says. “We had to submit to a very high level of scrutiny, and it was a two-year process just to get from idea to permit. By then it was 2008, and the bottom fell out of the capital market, so the project never saw the light of day.”

Neiman didn’t have much work for the next few years, so along with a number of underemployed architects in other small firms, he spent considerable time working with the city toward liberalized multifamily housing rules. The efforts bore fruit, and Beacon Green, an improved version of the lid/deck idea, is now nearing completion. Six modest-sized (885 to 1,350 square feet), three-story town houses will share a second-floor deck of 1,240 square feet with parking underneath. Each unit will have a semiprivate area on the deck delineated by planters. An idealist, Neiman expects that sharing the rest of the deck will energize a sense of community within the development.

“People who buy here will self-select,” Neiman predicts. “If you want a yard with a 6-foot fence and want to be left alone, you won’t be coming here. If you want a certain level of interaction with your neighbors, you will. My intuition is that the world is probably divided 50-50 this way.”

Like an increasing number of Seattle town-house projects, Beacon Green also provides each unit with a private roof deck, kind of an urban counterpart of that suburban yard. Beacon Green’s roofs are attractive perches, offering views (on good days) of Mount Rainier and Elliott Bay. The problem is that this being Seattle, there is a shortage of those good days. The roof decks would be more useful if they could be partly covered by a translucent rain shield, but city code won’t allow it. More versatile use of urban roofs will be a keystone of humane density.

ANOTHER PROJECT, “Greenfire,” serves up several more fresh ideas about density, along with the controversy that almost invariably accompanies innovation.

Architect Ray Johnston shoehorned a five-story, 18-unit apartment building, a four-story office building and a restaurant onto seven-eighths of a Ballard acre, and still left half the site’s land area as open space. There are green roofs, a P-patch for every resident, rainwater collection, and a small public plaza that Johnston hopes will promote interaction on the 56th Street side. Besides the obvious orientation toward environmental sustainability, Johnston likes to talk about the project’s hoped-for “social sustainability.” By clustering so many social functions on one compact site — living, working, dining out and even growing food — the idea is for the design itself to promote community within the complex.

That’s a utopian concept, one expressed most pointedly by the visionary architect Paolo Soleri’s futuristic “Arcosanti” in the Arizona desert north of Phoenix. Soleri died last April, leaving his concrete beehive for a projected 5,000 residents very far from finished. It’s been roundly criticized (including by me) as a preposterous attempt to turn humans into social insects, and while Greenfire hardly has such hymenoptera ambitions, it does trigger the question of how much social engineering architecture can, or should, attempt.

A February story on Greenfire in The Seattle Times drew a flurry of 24 comments on The Times’ website, most of them negative. An example of “Seattle’s ‘progressive’ eco-fakery,” wrote one reader. Two aesthetic judgments were “tenement chic” and “ugly mess of a building.” Most of the critical comments targeted the aesthetics, most likely provoked by Johnston’s asymmetrical and irregular pattern of windows and mini-decks. In my opinion, it’s exactly that irregularity that makes Greenfire a refreshing antidote to the dreary predictability of most mid-rise apartment and office buildings.

Of all the ills Seattle may have to fear from density, monotony is the worst.

SO HOW DO we build good and humane density? Not by replicating the projects above, even though they’re good ones. Developers tried replication with the “six-packs” that spread like a pox in the early 2000s, with banal results. Good density depends on lively variety, and the more imagination applied, the better.

But some principles will help:

• Crinkly topography is our friend. Developments that occupy steep lots and stagger the building components as they cascade up or down slope, like Bill Parks’ Stonewater and Fremont Lofts, present a less monolithic mass to the street. This preserves more sky and makes a streetscape feel less closed-in.

• Break the box, violate the grid. One reason Ballard is starting to look deadly with density is that most of the big new apartment buildings are square to their streets, which itself is mostly a 90-degree grid. This is the formula for concrete canyons. While less efficient, skewing a building off the grid breaks down its visual mass and creates interesting open space. As Johnston says, “You can work with the edges.” The most delectable of 1920s developer Frederick Anhalt’s apartments is Oak Manor, which is rotated 25 degrees off the street direction. This simple deflection makes it seem smaller and friendlier.

• A little repetition is good, a lot is terrible. Repeating a pattern of forms in four units, as architect Foster did in the Denny Rowhouses, sets up a pleasing visual rhythm. Now imagine 10, 20 or 50 identical units (or take an excursion to the ’burbs, where you won’t have to imagine). At that scale, repetition is numbing. The magic threshold is about six. Beyond that, don’t repeat.

• Live/work is the future of urbanism. Boundaries between home and work have been crumbling over the past two decades, and the trend is certain to continue. Architecture and urban planning should reflect the culture. Building codes should evolve to encourage, not discourage, imaginative live/work buildings such as Graham Baba Architects’ “Building 115” in Fremont. The skinny three-story, which won a local American Institute of Architects award three years ago, layers a 900-square-foot street-level office or retail space with a second-floor office and third-floor penthouse for the owner. However, the industrial-zone code limited the living space to 800 square feet, so the architect had to expand it with outdoor deck space. Fine for about four months of the year.

• Above all, connect buildings to the street. Town-house and apartment complexes that blockade themselves with concrete bunkers and locked gates are guaranteed city-killers. They underline class divisions, turn neighborhood streets into canyons, and radiate the posture of a defensive, unfriendly urban culture. To see the contrast, look at the photos of the Alcyone Apartments in South Lake Union and the Terraza “aPpodments” on First Hill. Security is always a legitimate concern, but it can be designed in without creating a city of fortresses.

The problem is, and always will be, balancing civic spirit with profit motivation. And then stirring in a lot of creative design. It’s a lot to ask. We’re asking.

Lawrence W. Cheek is an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and formerly was architecture critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.