Over the weekend, I drove through Wallingford after picking up some groceries and along the way one particular row of houses caught my eye. At first glance, I thought they were just some nice brick homes that all happened to look similar. But upon closer examination, I realized that lining the street was four attached houses smack dab in the middle of a single-family area. Shocked by this rare sighting, I immediately stopped the car in the middle of the following intersection and told my passenger that I had to capture an image of it. I got out my camera phone and took closer to a half-dozen photographs to memorialize the event. Once I got home, I decided to confirm my assumptions and was even more surprised with my findings.

Just a few of the rowhouses in Wallingford.
Just a few of the rowhouses in Wallingford.

The site upon which the homes sit is relatively small with only 25,000 square feet to put into use. Yet, three separate structures and 16 dwelling units manage to fit on it — something you wouldn’t necessarily think in brief passing. The two residential buildings are single-story rowhouses that look much the same as any other Wallingford single-family home would. Typical of the Craftsman era, the buildings feature embellished red brick with strongly pitched roofs, semi-Tudor patterning, and dormers to top it all off. As an added bonus, some units also happen to have basements, which are only noticeable from daylight windows skirting bottom edges of the buildings.

Both residential buildings are “L” shaped themselves, split only by a rearyard driveway access in the middle of the site. The frontages of the site are essentially flanked in full by the buildings, but given the scale of the structures it feels almost natural. In the rear of the property, there is a paved courtyard and carriage structure based upon the traditional mews approach. The carriage structure presumably serves as long-term storage for the cars and kayaks of residents.

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N 49th St rowhouses.

If the architecture itself isn’t a strong hint, this series of homes aren’t new to the area. They date back to 1929, around the time when Wallingford was ending its early round of infill development. For some context, it’s worth noting that the property is zoned SF 5000 like all of the surrounding blocks to match the largely residential character of this part of Wallingford. North of the site is home to St. Benedict School, a local parochial school, while the remainder of the adjacent properties are mostly single-family homes with a modest mix of duplexes. And, just a few blocks to the south is the heart of Wallingford.

There really is more to single-family residential areas than meets the eye.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for promoting sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He advocates for smart policies, regulations, and implementation programs that enhance urban environments by committing to quality design, accommodating growth, providing a diversity of housing choices, and adequately providing public services. Stephen primarily writes about land use and transportation issues.

29 COMMENTS

  1. I lived around the corner from them in the early 00’s. That section of Wallingford is a living refutation of the “quality of life requires exclusionary zoning” theory propagated by the anti-HALA crowd. It’s got small apartment buildings, converted older homes, duplexes, etc. It’s a lovely neighborhood with high property values and a strong sense of community. There’s no earthly reason to outlaw creating neighborhoods like this.

    • +1 live close by today – now the area is all SF 5,000 and small lot zoning has been constrained since our house was built, but on our street: duplex on corner, bungalows on 3,000-4,000 SF lots, 2 2,500 SF lot infill skinny houses, 2 ADUs, 1 DADU. I think only 2 SF homes on 5,000 SF or greater lots. There’s a house on large lot that just sold, suspect it will be prohibited by current zoning but you could do 3 row houses easy in place of one SF (or a 2 x 3 stacked flat).

    • I lived less than 2 blocks from these row houses throughout the 1980’s. Yes, it was and is a desirable neighborhood, at least in part because of the diversity of homes — mostly owner-occupied SF houses but also some small-scale rentals such as these.

      But let’s be realistic. If that half-block was empty and zoned LR today, the development would look nothing like those lovely brick buildings of 1929. It would be 3 stories tall, sided with hardi-boards, and built to the maximum permitted by the code. And we can be sure nobody would be waxing poetic over those structures 80 years later.

      So: how do we get from here to there? Is it possible to replicate this Wallingford environment in other neighborhoods today, or do we just acknowledge that upzoning SF neighborhoods will mostly lead to more ugly, and accept that as the price we must pay for more density, for more housing?

      • I continue to find this general view to be quite bizarre. People have different aesthetic taste when it comes to architecture. Do I prefer these rowhouses to most modern townhome developments? Yes, I do. Does everyone else? No. Should my personal taste in architecture dictate what kinds of homes are and are not legal to build? I’ve never once heard a good argument for that position. And I’ve never seen anyone try and argue this in other areas of life. I don’t know anyone who thinks, for example, that PT Cruisers aren’t ugly. But I’ve never heard anyone suggest selling them should be illegal so we don’t have to look at them.

        • Judging from your comments, you must also oppose the city’s Design Review program. I think you and I just need to agree to disagree on matters of aesthetics.

          • Why, though? Why is this the one thing where we should have a say over other people’s aesthetic choices as a matter of law?

            I could more easily make my peace with some version of a design review process that hadn’t been turned into a tool in the arsenal of the anti-housing crowd.

            At the end of the day, people need housing, and we need to build more of it for that reason. Housing ought to be a human right. Having pretty buildings around you is not a human right. So if the latter interferes with the former, I don’t think it’s a good process to keep.

          • If you truly believe that aesthetics don’t matter when it comes to housing, I invite you to search Google images for housing in the Soviet Union or East Berlin. Or in this country, Pruitt Igoe.

          • I wouldn’t go so far to say that DR lacks any value. Quite the contrary. This is a discussion that we’ll address in the future. The process isn’t simply about aesthetics. Itms way more robust and comprehensive than a matter of materials, modulation, and colour pallete. But there are issues that certainly need resolution to enhance and streamline the process. DPD is currently addressing these with their review of the programme. I agree with your other points in full though. We absolutely need more housing and housing options.

          • Absolutely nothing is your right. You don’t get something just because you think you deserve it and you certainly don’t have the right to take it from someone else. This is not the conversation we are having. Sf is sf because people want it and can afford it. If you cannot afford it you need to look for something you can afford, whether that means sharing housing or moving to a place that is more affordable instead of asking for someone else to sacrifice their way of life for yours. This is clearly being fueled by millennials; my generation would never even……

          • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25, section 1:
            “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

            The United States, along with virtually every country that might be remotely classified as free, is a signatory to this declaration.

            Out of curiousity, when you say “noting is a right” what exactly do you mean? No free speech rights? religious freedom? That’s a pretty radical position, certainly not one that’ll ever be taken seriously in Seattle, thankfully.

          • i have to say you have far less ‘right’ to you ‘way of life’ then people do to housing. Your apparent expectation is that working class folks who can’t afford to live in SF neighborhoods near the central city should just suck it up and move to Kent? Then bear the transit ‘tax’ (time and money) to reach their place of work? Your generation…

        • One of the main reasons I find it hard to take design review at face value is that it’s biggest proponents also tend to support the rigid zoning rules (especially regarding parking requirements but also setbacks, mandated space between units, and so on) that lead to the predictable and inevitable consequence of a not particularly attractive, oft-complained about style of townhouse development. If they were serious about better aesthetics, they’d advocate loosening some of those rules such that we could get a more interesting and better variety of design.

      • I personally think it’s possible and I think the HALA recommendations would achieve that. Many people (including you) have disagreed, suggesting we won’t get buildings like these from the HALA recommendations. While neither of us can predict the future, we both know that the status quo, no code change, will prevent these types of buildings and neighborhoods.

        So the only question left is how should the code be changed. The HALA recommendations are one path forward. If people agree these buildings and neighborhoods are good but they oppose the HALA recommendation, they should actually put forward a reasonable alternative.

        • I would begin by revising the RSL zone, and then carefully applying it to areas like this that are close-in to high-frequency transit and within urban village boundaries. And where the community is engaged in the planning process — as Michael says below, yes, let’s have a real conversation with residents; don’t try to jam something through, via top-down planning, from City Hall.

          • Suggesting that politicians are trying to jam through SF zone changes without talking to residents is simply not true. The HALA recommendations were the start of the conversation. As everyone can see, they are now having community level discussions about these ideas. Unfortunately, due to loud opposition to the SF zone HALA recommendations, these points are off the table. It was opposition to these changes that is effectively ending discussion.

            I think it’s much more accurate to describe this debate quite differently. It’s nearly impossible for politicians to discuss these types of changes because they fear backlash.

            I think your proposal about changing RSL zones is good, but this again avoids talking about most SF zones. Asking us to focus housing around transit and urban amenities is a bit distracting. Every neighborhood in Seattle has the infrastructure it needs for additional housing when compared to outlying areas. A low income family looking for housing in the city that can’t afford a detached single family home might be able to afford a smaller home, such as a row house, stacked flat or duplex. But they will need multiple bedrooms, something they won’t be able to find in apartments outside of SF zones. If they can’t find these smaller, lower cost units they are going to move to the suburbs where there is less transit and less urban amenities than any neighborhood in Seattle. The real choice is more housing types in Seattle low density areas or more houses outside of Seattle.

          • Re how the City does zoning changes, I was meaning that in a general sense, not referring only to HALA. If done right, the process needs to be more than simply holding a public meeting and taking “citizen input.” Talk off the record with City insiders; changes in SF may not be entirely off the table — just less dramatic than what HALA proposed.

            No; every neighborhood in Seattle does *not* have the infrastructure it needs for additional housing beyond typical SF. Think about all those neighborhoods with no sidewalks or with low levels of transit service. Trying to force more density everywhere regardless of the details, that’s a losing strategy.

            Yes, over time, families with children may come to accept living in MF housing as a good thing. But right now, most of those families are seeking SF housing, and if they can’t find what they want at a price they can afford in Seattle, they *will* go find it in the suburbs. My children and nieces and nephews are doing that already!

            Part of the development discussion needs to be how to make family-friendly MF — it’s more than just multiple bedrooms. Lets create a row-housing zone that has backyards big enough for a swing set, a BBQ, and a picnic table.

            We need to find or create a forum where we can talk some of this stuff through with the City. Repeating Michael again, let’s have a real conversation.

          • Talk off the record with City insiders; changes in SF may not be entirely off the table — just less dramatic than what HALA proposed.

            That’s very gratifying to hear, Roger. Can you say a bit more for those of us who don’t have your connections?

            Trying to force more density everywhere regardless of the details, that’s a losing strategy.

            This is a really dishonest way of talking about what’s being proposed, Roger, as I expect you know. The proposed rules changes “force” nothing the current owners don’t want. They legalize options. If an elderly couple with a large house, whose children have grown and no longer need it, and find it difficult to afford, want to subdivide it into three apartments because they like their neighborhood and don’t want to leave, it’s currently illegal in most of the city for them to stay in their home this way. Allowing them to pursue such an option isn’t forcing anyone on anything. Frankly, if their house is located in a low transit, no sidewalk area, that might reduce the amount of rent they’re able to collect.

            Also, we have a ton of constitutional and statutory limits on how much the city can raise tax rates, so we’re always going to be behind on paying for more infrastructure. Broadening the tax base is our most realistic path forward for more revenue to pay for infrastructure improvements. When I hear “infrastructure first, before even minor density increases are legalized” I’m pretty confident it’s a tactic to delay density increases as long as possible. Most of the people who say that know how taxes and funding work around here, and they know it’s unlikely to work that way. It sounds a lot more reasonable than “I just don’t want more people to be allowed to live here” but as a practical matter there’s really any meaningful difference.

            My children and nieces and nephews are doing that already!

            Roger, your preferred strategy virtually guarantees family housing in Seattle will become a scarcer luxury good. Those 400K houses you like to complain are getting replaced by 600K townhouses aren’t going to be even remotely affordable in a few years, if the anti-housing forces you support prevail, because there will be too many people bidding on them. We have a choice: we can make Seattle accessible to a wider range of people, with a greater diversity of options for family housing, or we can make family housing in Seattle a luxury only the rich can afford. You’ve chosen to support the latter approach, whether you’re willing to admit that to yourself or not.

          • I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on some of this, David. Those are not “anti-housing” forces I support, rather they are pro-planning. I support up zoning MF housing in MF zones and modest expansion of MF zoning around urban villages. That’s not anti-housing! Those changes, if done right, will allow all the MF housing this city needs, without going to war with SF neighborhoods.

            I don’t support changing SF zoning to encourage developers to buy SF houses and convert that property to MF, at least not in the way that HALA proposed (and Murray has now disavowed). That puts developers in competition with families for those SF houses, thereby driving prices up even further. And the shrinking inventory of SF houses also drives up prices.

            And infrastructure does matter. Study up on the issue of “concurrency” in the GMA. Upzoning non-walkable neighborhoods is good strategy only if we want to encourage more driving.

            SF neighborhoods are part of Seattle; they are part of what makes Seattle Seattle. You see them as something unfortunate (or maybe even evil) that ought to be phased out over time. “Allow more density everywhere, regardless of the details,” is not a winning strategy. As a Seattle resident and follower of city politics for 47 years, I can assure you it ain’t gonna happen.

          • without going to war with SF neighborhoods.

            Why do you characterize allowing an elderly couple the financial flexibility to stay in their home of 40 years by creating three units in their large home a “war”? I live in a SF neighborhood. I consider it a basic courtesy to my neighbors, who also live in the neighborhood, to grant them that flexibility, even if it mildly inconveniences my use of free on-street parking, because it’s the decent thing to do. The defenders of SF zoning say otherwise.

            I suspect it’s for one of two reasons. Either it’s because they value their free, subsidized parking more than their neighbors property rights, or it’s because they value the kind of economic/class segregation SF zoning has created for them–they don’t want to have to live near renters and people with lower income.

            Both of those assumptions are uncharitable and unflattering, but I’ve never heard a reasonable, plausible alternative.

            As a Seattle resident and follower of city politics for 47 years, I can assure you it ain’t gonna happen.

            You may be right. On the other hand, you may not appreciate how the city is changing. Your standard-bearers–the anti HALA, SF zoning now and forever candidates–got 10, 15, at most 22% in the most recent election. Your prejudices and desire for segregation aren’t really shared by the city’s younger residents. So your confidence here may not be entirely warranted.

          • Just for the record, I support liberalizing the rules for ADUs and DADUs, including eliminating the parking requirement on blocks where parking is not an issue. And I expect for every elderly couple converting their home into a triplex, there would be dozens of developers demolishing affordable SF houses to build new rowhouses or other MF. Developers were well represented on HALA; elderly couples not at all.

            I think it’s time to dial back the drama, and remember what Mayor Murray himself said when he withdrew the HALA recommendation to upzone SF — “[Single-family] isn’t where the numbers are for creating affordable housing and low-income housing. It helps, but the numbers aren’t there.”

          • As Martin points out, though, duplex/triplex development is a lot more likely to produce the kind of housing that will make it more possible for families to live in the city. You occasionally present yourself as someone who cares the affordability of family housing for people not fortunate enough to have bought in before the boom. But you promote a policy that will keep 3+ bedroom options in Seattle increasingly scarce, and scarce things get bid up, even if they’re not particularly luxurious. A friend of mine is retiring early after inheriting an entirely unremarkable, non-updated rambler in Silicon Valley; he sold it for 1.6 million. Your view that family housing will remain affordable by preventing more of it from being built, making it scarcer, doesn’t make any sense. Either you just haven’t thought this through, of you don’t actually care about affordable housing for families without your good timing than you claim to.

          • Martin Duke does a good job today of pointing out the blindingly obvious: you simply can’t oppose duplex/triplex/townhome development and claim you care about families being able to afford to live in the city. You just can’t. Most other forms of MF development are just way less profitable at 3+ bedrooms, and we’re not going to see many of them.

            Your goals–protect SF zoned neighborhoods from any change whatsoever and allow Seattle to be affordable for non-rich families in the future–are pretty much in direct conflict with each other.

            http://seattletransitblog.com/2015/08/29/leave-out-duplexes-leave-out-large-families/

          • Whether you like it or not, there are thousands of families who aspire to buy and live in a SF home. Essentially you are telling those folks to go to the suburbs because there’s no future for them in Seattle. In your scheme of things, affordable SF neighborhoods will get converted to MF (either by “elderly couples” or developers) and rich SF neighborhoods will remain intact and unaffordable.

            But I’m not giving up on Seattle. I’ve been telling the next generation in my extended family to keep looking for their SF home here.

          • Just as I suspected. You know your approach will make family housing impossibly scarce and out of the reach of the non-rich, you just don’t care. Your investment and preferred aesthetics are protected, and that’s really all that matters.

            You keep talking about “affordable single family neighborhoods.” They’re disappearing very, very quickly, because of your preferred policies. You’re not protecting them.

          • Time to dial back the rhetoric, David. HALA’s SF recommendations were not transformative. Read the mayor’s statement quoted in an earlier comment of mine above.

          • RDPence, your state ‘Essentially you are telling those folks to go to the suburbs because there’s no future for them in Seattle.’, as if this isn’t already the case. You are encouraging your next generation to believe in a fantasy. Do they still believe in Santa too?

          • You clearly need to stop being so reasonable. Pre-planning? Involving residents at more than a superficial level? Requiring designs that include yards and social areas to encourage community? Crazy talk!

            It’s more important to force upzoning on people who already live in these areas no matter if they want it or not and no matter HOW they want it or not. Compromise is for the weak. The good of the many always outweighs the good of the few. Etc. Etc.

  2. Sounds like a great area to consider upzoning. Let’s have a real conversation with residents about it…

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