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February 19, 2008

Urban Squeezing

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It's not yet Hong Kong. Or even Manhattan. Not yet, anyway. But I wouldn't be surprised if Seattle's planners and their political and media allies, deep down in their hearts, would like the city to resemble those places.

When I was growing up, Seattle was a city of detached houses. There were a few areas with "high rise" (in Seattle's case, six floors and higher) apartment buildings. Other areas had lower-density apartments. But apartments were decidedly the exception, not the rule.

For the last few decades, in the name of saving the planet, Seattle zoning has encouraged both high (including 30+ floors) and low rise apartment buildings. Detached housing is still allowed, but lots have been subdivided in halves or thirds and the new structures pretty much fill the available land.

A new kind of housing hereabouts is the townhouse -- something I'd previously encountered in San Francisco and large cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

Here are some recently-built examples.



The lower photo shows the driveway and parking situation in greater detail than the top photo -- basically an "establishment" shot as they say in the movie trade.

There seems to be a little problem here for many car owners: where is the room to maneuver a car into those garages tucked under the houses? I'm pretty sure my car (the blue one at the right of the top photo) could never make it.

Therefore, I have to conclude that Our City Masters really want us to drive one of these:


That's if we are so brazenly anti-Earth to own a car in the first place.



posted by Donald at February 19, 2008


This is happening in Portland, too. Here it is as if every suburb in the U.S. had been up-ended and poured its technocratic nanny-stater child into the city. In my formerly blue collar neighborhood of St Johns, cafes have signboards protesting white facism or what have you posted next to the cash register.

We have mass transit but nothing humans can devise will make this degree of urban density palatable.

As far as thinking goes the city itself is as "right thinking" and smug as any suburb that supposedly existed in the Eisenhower era. Most importantly, however, as these heaps and heaps of vehmently anti-racist, anti-you name it young professionals flood the region the roads become choked, the coast is bought up for cottages, and green McMansions etc.

Honestly, before the best and brightest got here it was a unique place with a lot of real characters. It also had people who learned from experience and worked to make it a better place.
The Goldschmidt Democratic machine is still in the process of breaking down, but this just means that the newer rascals are sucking the blood of our one part town and county. All fresh thought (and most African-Americans) have moved to the suburbs or small towns like Hillsboro, etc in Washington County.

My, I am cranky. I'd move but I've got four generations of family on one side and 5 on the other. Convince the girlfriend to move to the ancestral lands around Clatskanie, someday.

Posted by: Larry on February 19, 2008 10:24 PM

Well, Donald, you're certainly right that the neighborhood in your pictures doesn't look like Hong Kong yet. The kind of low-rise housing you're showing is just about the lowest-density option available over here.

But I have to disagree with one point from Larry's comment above: high density isn't automatically bad. It's not for everyone, but the whole question is more complex.

If anyone is interested, I have written extensively on Hong Kong's urban density/town planning here, here and here. I've pointed out some of the pluses and minuses of living in an extreme high-rise environment here.

Oh, and one other link. The Atlantic has just published an interesting article on this very phenomenon (hat tip to Rob Dreher at Crunchy Con); the author owes a huge debt to Jane Jacobs, but doesn't mention her at all.

Posted by: mr tall on February 20, 2008 1:16 AM

While I live in the same Portland that Larry calls from, respectfully I don't really understand what people have against high or medium density housing?

Me personally, I wouldn't want to live in a place where stores and services were more than a 1/4 mile walk away from my home, be it a single family house, townhouse or apartment... I have no preference for housing type. All I care about is whether the building/house is nice and the neighborhood it is in is nice too. I will say that I find many high rise buildings going up to be ugly and cheap looking but the same can be said for any housing type.

I guess whatever floats your boat.

Posted by: JJ on February 20, 2008 2:22 AM

For me down here in Oz, the USA will be the place where Kim Novak cruises in her Cadillac listening to Perry Como singing "Seattle". I'm aware it's not quite like that...but if America ever expunges the brazen and the lavish from its soul it will cease to be the world's only truly revolutionary nation. It will forsake stupendous ideas for measly group-think. And nothing buggers a planet, or anything else, quicker than measliness.

By the way, I'm so proud of my younger niece. Offered a trip to any destination in the world, she chose Las Vegas. It's a wattage thing.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on February 20, 2008 7:43 AM

Looks like the sterility of the suburbs without the space. Worst of both worlds. For more years than I care to remember my life was hell because of the sounds from neighboring apartments coming through the walls. Guarantee these townhouses don't have either the thickness of walls or the costly sound insulation necessary to make apartment living bearable. It's criminal to do that to people. I'd rather live in a shack or endure a long commute than suffer apartment hell again. End of rant.

Posted by: ricpic on February 20, 2008 9:44 AM

hey guys,

T. from The Rawness here. Found this blog because you guys linked to me last week. Really love what you guys have going on here. Sharp stuff! Glad this is on my radar now.

As for me, being born and raised in NY gives me a higher than normal tolerance for urban density. In fact, I actually get anxious and uncomfortable when in low density area. I guess it's like the opposite of claustrophobia (is that agoraphobia? too lazy to google it)

Posted by: T. on February 20, 2008 12:53 PM

Thanks for this interesting update on Seattle!

If you have the time, I'm curious to know where exactly in Seattle this area is located (e.g., what are the nearby cross streets?) -- so I can look it up on Google maps and see the area's relation to the rest of Seattle. (In other words, is this development close to central downtown?; or is the area, perhaps, close to an older outlying downtown that has been swallowed up by an expanding Seattle?; or is it located in a brand new development on the outskirts of Seattle?)

Also interesting to know -- and the satellite view of the area on a Google map will possible reveal this -- is how extensive the development is? Is it one block, or many blocks? How far away are stores, etc. Do people drive or walk to church, parks, the movies, schools, stores, etc.? (I'm assuming that most people drive to work.)

Approximately, when was the development built?

And finally, socio-economically speaking, what kind of people live there and how do they like it?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 20, 2008 1:33 PM

My first thought on looking at that second photo was yours -- "How on earth are those people supposed to get in and out of their garages?" Then: "My, what an ugly bunch of buildings."

All that said, I like density (live in Manhattan, after all), *and* I like spaciousness. I'm glad they're both available. At the moment apartment living suits me pretty well. We have thick walls, thank heavens. And it's lovely to be able to forget the lawn, not worry about the roof, call in a super when something goes wrong with the plumbing, and (when we want to leave town for a few weeks) just close the apartment's door and go. Haven't owned a car in 30 years, have 5 yoga studios, three museums, and a dozen movie theaters studios within ten blocks of where I live, and I can find a variety of delis, grocery stores, and high-end food places within a ten minute walk. Nice! But maybe some day I'll decide to move someplace quieter and more spacious. Like I say, I'm glad the choice is there.

Not sure how I feel about high-density being required by law ... Ok, I think it's lousy that it's required by law. But I think it's pretty lousy when sprawl is required by law too.

I'd love to hear from someone familiar with the history of development regimes and zoning laws -- Benjamin, maybe? -- why we seem to have such bossy and dictatorial legal matrices these days. Why on earth is it that sprawl and/or density are *ever* required by law?

My impression is that, in the past, cities, towns, and countrysides just kind of happened all on their own. And then it all got sliced up by crazy zoning and development in the '50s. And now some intrusive urbanist-types are fighting back against sprawl by using the same bossy-zoning-strategies only now with the goal of increasing city densities.

Is that about it? Anyone?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 20, 2008 2:24 PM

Absent national population growth being limited to as near zero as possible, combined with restricting where people are allowed to move to insure localized population stability, the question for most localities, especially metropolitan urban centers, becomes how to manage the growth. If the population of Seattle - or any city - rises, density will, by definition, increase.

"Nanny state" name calling aside, what would Seattle look like if there were no zoning laws, no new municipal infrastructure, no height restrictions, no density restrictions, no environmental protections? Certainly the current reality is that cities use all of these tools to shape and manage their increasing density. Virtually all urban development projects undergo public hearings where citizens can comment and voice objections. Generally few citizens other than directly impinged on NIMBY groups and those with vested financial interests attend these meetings. After the fact, some inevitably complain bitterly about the results.

If you don't like what you see, what do you envision as an alternative? While gentrification is not an unmixed blessing, should we root for stagnation or 'slumification' instead? I would have thought that townhouse clusters, with their traditional architecture and New Urbanism leanings, would be applauded here on 2 Blowhards.

Larry is cranky. His neighborhood isn't what it was for generations, but his own ties to it make moving impractical and emotionally painful. Are the negatives he sees the fault of those damned lefty kids moving in ... rehabing buildings, and opening businesses that appeal more to the new residents than the old timers? Or does the blame (if any) lie with all the former neighbors who moved somewhere else? In what way did the efforts of those "people with experience ... to make it a better place" succeed (or fail) if it is now awash in yuppies? And, if he moves to "the ancestral lands around Clatskanie" someday, won't he become 'one of those damn Yanks taking over the old sod around Clatskanie' to a bunch of other folks who've families have been there for the past however many generations? It's not that I'm not empathetic. There are places I lived in my younger days that no longer have the attributes that I loved about them, but that's life.

for the past few years we've lived in a little house on a couple of acres off a dirt cul de sac in a town that was was mostly farm, field, and forest fifty years ago, but is now part of Portland's (the original, east coast one) suburban sprawl. When we were in the market, we couldn't find an affordable in-town bungalow, condo or loft. Today the places we might want downtown, say a loft condo with some roof or terrace space, are so far beyond our price range that we could never consider them.

Posted by: Chris White on February 20, 2008 2:29 PM

MB wrote:

But maybe some day I'll decide to move someplace quieter and more spacious.

Benjamin Hemric writes:

Funny that you should write this, because just yesterday evening, while I was strolling around Midtown East, for some reason, I was thinking of you in relation to River House (Henry Kissinger's apartment house); the Towers (correct name?) (Greta Garbo's apartment house, across the street from River House); Beekman Place; Tudor City; and Sutton Place. In my mind I was wondering if you were familiar with these areas and what you thought of them? Also, hoped that you might post about these areas (and include some photos).

The connection to today's post: apartments in these locations (with the exception of Tudor City) are plenty spacious (!!!) and they are both a) very close to the "action" and b) very, very quiet. (Of course, even if the area wasn't so quiet, the people who live in these areas (again, except for perhaps Tudor City, which has apparently become a young professionals hot spot) probably get plenty of peace and quiet in one of their country or vacation homes!

- - - - - - -

MB wrote:

Not sure how I feel about high-density being required by law . . . Ok, I think it's lousy that it's required by law. But I think it's pretty lousy when sprawl is required by law too.

I'd love to hear from someone familiar with the history of development regimes and zoning laws -- Benjamin, maybe? -- why we seem to have such bossy and dictatorial legal matrices these days. Why on earth is it that sprawl and/or density are *ever* required by law?

Benjamin writes:

On many occasions, zoning laws require low densities (i.e., forbid high densities) but, as far as I know, zoning laws never (see possible exception below) REQUIRE "high" (or higher) densities (i.e., forbid low densities) -- although given the way newspaper writers, etc. sloppily write their stories, I can see why you (and others) would make that mistake. What zoning laws typically do (again, as far as I know) is set an upper limit for development. In areas where there is a demand (i.e., market) for high(er) densities, builders then are allowed to build to this density.

The one possible exception -- which doesn't really seem like an exception to me -- is mandated "inclusionary zoning." With mandated inclusionary zoning, a community that has already zoned certain areas for low density, must also then zone other areas for higher densities (so as to not be guilty of socio-economic or racial discrimination). But even here, I don't believe high densities are really mandated -- a community is just not allowed to zone solely for low densities. But even with inclusionary zoning, it's then up to a developer to actually build high density developments -- if there are an effective (i.e., solvent) market for them.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 20, 2008 3:33 PM

Benjamin -- I've certainly strolled through those Midtown East neighborhoods, but I have no special knoweldge about them. If you're in a mood to email me some jpg's and thoughts I'd be delighted to run them in the blog though. Me, I'm a Village person. As soon as I'm done with the job I scoot downtown and stay there.

Thanks for the info about how zoning laws tend to work. My mind usually does little but spin when I try to make some sense of these things. I'm also curious: Historically (as in, before the '40s and '50s) how did cities and towns tend to regulate building and development? I was under the impression that the kinds of regulatory schemes we have today were creations of the post-WWII years, and that matters were much more freewheeling before then. But maybe I've been reading biased sources. Do you have any idea how it used to work?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 20, 2008 4:10 PM

Benjamin -- Those townhouses are on 25th Avenue N.E. a few hundred feet north of the intersection of N.E. 65th Street, another arterial. They are on the west side of 25th. As for their age, call it about two years, and almost certainly less than four. The development is pretty small; what you see in the pix is close to what's there. I know nothing about the characteristics of the residents.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 20, 2008 4:13 PM

What are those shacks made of? Is the exterior supposed to look like it's about to fall off?

Posted by: beloml on February 20, 2008 5:19 PM

Addendum to my previous post:

Actually I forgot to mention another way (in addition to inclusionary housing) that one might say that government mandates high(er) densities: that’s when a governmental body is actually the builder of housing -- as in public housing. But I don’t think public housing is what people are usually thinking about when they are mistakenly saying that government is mandating higher densities. I think they are really most likely to be complaining about “up-zonings” (i.e., a government ALLOWING FOR higher densities than it did in the past).

- - - - - - -

Donald wrote:

Those townhouses are on 25th Avenue N.E. a few hundred feet north of the intersection of N.E. 65th Street, another arterial.

Benjamin writes:

Thanks Donald! I haven’t had a chance to check them out yet using Google maps, but I will. I find Google maps (and the satellite view feature) to be an amazing tool. I’m always interested in the context of things, and Google maps have allowed me to better understand such things as the relationship of the memorial at Pearl Harbor to the rest of Pearl Harbor and the relationship of Disneyland to what surrounds it in Anaheim, etc.

- - - - - - -

MB wrote:

I'm also curious: Historically (as in, before the '40s and '50s) how did cities and towns tend to regulate building and development? I was under the impression that the kinds of regulatory schemes we have today were creations of the post-WWII years, and that matters were much more freewheeling before then. But maybe I've been reading biased sources. Do you have any idea how it used to work?

Benjamin writes:

I think one does have to be careful about which history of zoning one reads, as most histories of zoning do seem to me to be slanted in a pro-zoning, pro-planning (and anti-Jane Jacobs) direction. Although these days I’m more than a little rusty about the particulars of zoning history, here’s my recollection of the general history of zoning in the U.S.:

Zoning laws typically regulate uses and built form (height and setbacks of buildings, density of districts). What distinguishes them from previous laws that may also have regulated land use and built form is that zoning laws regulate such things differently in different parts of a city, depending upon what type of zone that part of the city has been put into. Generally NYC seems to be credited with the nation’s first modern zoning law (1916). Another landmark in the history of U.S. zoning is the U.S. Supreme Court’s validation of Euclid, Ohio’s zoning laws in the 1920s (?).

I get the impression that the Euclid decision really gave zoning a big boost across the U.S., but that zoning’s impact was somewhat low-keyed in most places in the 1920s because the automobile age (and the kind of development that it made possible) had not quite arrived yet, and in the 1930s and early 1940s because the Depression and WWII limited new construction. In NYC, however, during boom years of construction, the 1916 zoning law probably had a great deal of impact – most famously in the shape of the New York skyscraper. (The 1height and setback regulations of the 916 zoning law are responsible for the “ziggurat” shape of NYC skyscapers like the Chrysler, Empire State and GE, nee RCA, buildings.)

Zoning seems to have hit the bigtime in the post-WWII era because of the flowering of the auto age and the boom in the construction of highways and new suburbs and post 1960s flowering of NIMBYism (attributed mistakenly in my opinion to Jane Jacobs). Zoning essentially made Levittown-type suburbia possible – or at least practic al as a long running propsition, as it enabled (I believe) communities to mandate particular uses (e.g., only residential, no businesses – even home businesses), miniumum lot sizes, the number of unrelated people who could reside in a house, the use of clothes lines, etc.

In 1961, NYC made some radical changes to its zoning system – and, among other things, began “encouraging” tower-in-the-park/plaza skyscrapers (modeled along the lines of the Seagram Building) by providing zoning bonuses for their construction. In ensuring years, NYC amended its 1961 zoning regulations to allow for even more incentive zoning provisions (i.e., you, the developer do this, and we will allow you to build more than you normally would have been able to), which in retrospect seem to me (and, I believe, to others too) to have opened a Pandora’s box and created a zoning free-for-all. So zoning was actually rather staid in some ways, until the 1960s, and then became more and more “creative” -- and in some ways it has probably never been more freewheeling than now. (On the other hand, development was more freewheeling in the old days and is more controlled – although amorphously controlled, due to the possibility of negotiations with community activist mandarins – now.)

Personally (and I realize that this is likely to be very much a minority opinion – even in New York City, let alone in other parts of the country!), it seems to me that a slightly “looser” version of NYC’s 1916 zoning regulations (one which would allow for more mixed uses) is vastly superior to what we now have in New York City. (Very roughly speaking, a looser form of zoning is, more or less, what Jane Jacobs was in favor of.) In terms of NYC, at least, think of the buildings and districts that New Yorkers like best and the buildings and districts that New Yorkers like least, and chances are that the best liked were SHAPED by the 1916 zoning code (or were essentially built before zoning regulations were adopted) and the least liked have been SHAPED by the 1961 zoning code and its amendments. In terms of places outside of New York, especially suburban areas, I can understand the appeal of zoning, however, since allowing for mixed-uses and high densities might make things worse (a acommunity that is neither pleasantly suburban nor delightfully urban) before they again get better with further mixes of uses and increases in densities (and become a popular and hip mixed residential neighborhood, like those that can be found near some colleges and universities).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 20, 2008 9:23 PM

Zoning is one of those things people hate but at the same time realize is necessary. I think even most planners dont like zoning, afterall it is zoning that created this sprawl-based built world. It seems most people understandably don't like it when zoning applies to them but at the same time see it as a way of protecting their largest personal investment (house and land) from negative effects from others. I think land is a very unique form of property where some restrictions are very necessary primarily because land can't move, has neighbors and externalities from one can damage/ruin other people's land. This is much more of an issue in urban areas where people live in closer proximity and have less land to contain their negitive externalities on their own land.

Posted by: poncho on February 23, 2008 12:29 PM

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