The Urbanist is kicking off its new weekly scavenger hunt series with a call for readers to search out examples of “missing middle” housing in their communities.

Recently as I was walking through the Judkins Park neighborhood near the I-90 greenbelt in Central Seattle, I saw a sign in a house window advertising the Judkins Park Community Council’s neighborhood scavenger hunt. Spoiler alert: I completely failed to locate any other signs or other clues related to said scavenger hunt, but as a result of my blundered search, I found myself paying more attention to neighborhood surrounding me with its quirky mix of traditional and contemporary architecture. I also began thinking about how much we can learn from close observation of places we take for granted.

So I’d like to propose to readers of The Urbanist that we pause and look closer at the urban landscape we inhabit. Let’s use this time to explore, safely and with respect to social distance, the places that are closest to us, and share with others the discoveries we make along the way. As people spend more time hunkered down at home, community scavengers hunts are making a big comeback, not only in Seattle, but across the globe. Let’s use the framing of the scavenger hunt to better understand our cities with all their greenery, sprawl, messiness, and splendor.

This article is the beginning of a series of articles in which I will present an urbanism-focused scavenger hunt theme and invite readers to reach out to me with their discoveries. Then the following week, I will post an article with photographs and descriptions submitted to me by readers, present a new theme, and so on and so on until a vaccine for COVID-19 is deemed effective and safe for the general public, or until Amazon perfects the art of drone delivery systems so that buyers can get sundry items delivered with optimal social distancing at the touch of a button, but with the new risk of facing concussions and other injuries caused by plummeting packages each time we step outdoors. It’s also distinctly possible that we could run out of themes.

Urbanist Scavenger Hunt Theme #1: Find the “Missing Middle”

Like most good ideas, the concept of holding a scavenger hunt to find the “missing middle” was stolen. I first saw an announcement for a similar scavenger hunt organized by Laura Loe of Share the Cities about a year or so ago. At the time I thought it was a an super idea, which is why I’m stealing it now to kick off The Urbanist’s scavenger hunt.

At Yesler Mews in the Central District, eight townhomes and two carriage houses share a gated courtyard. (Photo by author)
At Yesler Mews in the Central District, eight townhomes and two carriage houses share a gated courtyard. (Photo by author)

Some of you right now might be thinking, aha, a scavenger hunt to find the “missing middle” how clever! While others might be thinking, wait a second, what is the middle and why is it missing?

In short, the “missing middle” is a term that was coined by architect and urban designer Daniel Parolek in 2010 to described the range of smaller residential building types frequently found in pre-1940’s American neighborhoods. Although they tend to maintain the scale of single family residences, these buildings, which can include duplexes, triplexes, and courtyard apartments among others, often provide affordable housing choices and help to create walkable neighborhoods.

Missing Middle housing types ranging from duplexes to small apartment buildings. (Opticos Design)
Missing Middle housing types ranging from duplexes to small apartment buildings. (Opticos Design)

Sadly, the broad shift to single family residence zoning that occurred in the mid-20th century led to housing types that existed in the “middle” between single family residences and mid-rise apartment buildings to go “missing.”

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to locate examples of “missing middle” housing wherever you might be in Seattle or beyond.

For my own personal quest, I returned to Judkins Park, which is covered by low-rise zoning regulations to find examples to share. I was also interested to see what kind of residential density currently exists in an area that will be served by Sound Transit Link Light Rail service after the completion of the East Link extension in 2023.

The Judkins Park Station will provide travelers a short ten minute trip to Westlake Station in Downtown Seattle after East Link is completed. (Photo by author)

As one of the older residential neighborhoods in Seattle, there are a quite few examples of pre-1940’s buildings that fall into the “missing middle” category. Many newer buildings also seem to tick many of the boxes; although personally I have questions about whether or not large townhomes that fall into the $700k-$1 million price range technically qualify as “missing middle” housing. (Maybe I should consult Daniel Parolek.)

 Older Judkins Park fourplex. (Photo by author)
Older Judkins Park fourplex. (Photo by author)
Two recently newer townhouse developments share a central driveway. (Photo by author)
Two newer townhouse developments share a central driveway. (Photo by author)
Contemporary rowhouse style townhomes. (Photo by author)
Contemporary rowhouse style townhomes. (Photo by author)
Even though this robin's egg blue building sticks out in a crowd, it's not so easy to immediately identify that it's a duplex. (Photo by author)
Even though this robin’s egg blue building sticks out in a crowd, it’s not so easy to immediately identify that it’s a duplex. (Photo by author)

After about an hour of combing through Judkins Parks’ streets, I returned home with new understanding of a neighborhood not so far from my own, and far more photographs of “missing middle” housing than I could share here. Now it’s up to you to continue the search. I look forward to seeing what examples of “missing middle housing” you are able to uncover.

Want to share your scavenger hunt discoveries with other readers of The Urbanist? Email your photographs with descriptions to natalie@theurbanist.org by Monday, April 13th for consideration. 

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Natalie Bicknell is Senior Reporter at The Urbanist. She is a writer and community college instructor who lives in the Central District with her husband and two dogs. In her research and writing, she is always on the lookout for better ways of creating sustainable, diverse, and vibrant cities. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Do the new box townhouses count as missing middle homes? If so I would say that the missing middle types may be less rare now because they are popping up everywhere.

    • Within urbanism currently, I believe everything between a SF house and a 4-story apartment building counts as “missing middle.” See the illustration in the article above. I wish the term focused instead on affordability.

      The need is for housing affordable to the middle class~ people who can’t afford market rate but are too “rich” for subsidized housing. Without major actions, in another generation, it will be middle class people who are the “missing middle.”

    • Hyra, townhomes are typically included within missing middle typologies, although a mix of types is usually considered ideal. The sense that townhomes are going up everywhere in Seattle is somewhat misleading. Lots of townhomes are going up in Urban Villages, but that’s maybe a tenth of the city, perhaps the most visible tenth since that’s where the major bus routes and commercial districts are. In contrast, townhomes can’t be built in single family zones that compose about two-thirds of the city. The prevalence of townhomes in urban villages is partially because our regulations encourage them over other options like courtyard apartments and stacked flats.

      As to Pence’s question of whether missing middle typologies are affordable to the middle class, it’s fair to say it can vary. But it’s pretty safe to say new missing middle construction is less expensive than new detached single family home construction and remodels. Thus, allowing missing middle typologies in single family zones would certainly do more for keeping the middle class in Seattle than setting aside two-thirds of the city for only detached single family homes. https://www.theurbanist.org/2017/08/31/map-week-high-cost-single-family/

      • In terms of affordability, market rate for a 1,000 square foot 2 BR home in a triple decker (stacked flat) in one of Seattle’s more expensive, walkable, and high access to opportunity neighborhoods (Wallingford), sold as a condo, would be around $500,000.*

        That sound expensive, but it’s bang on affordable for our middle class in this high wage city: two junior Seattle public school teachers ($63,000 annual income x 2) easily qualify, based on salary, for that mortgage (recommended max per ZIllow is about $550k).

        Conversely, the market rate for a single family teardown or buildable half lot in this neighborhood is $700k.**

        *I researched doing this with our house.
        **Per a recent property appraisal for a refinance.

  2. Yes, it’s fun to look for all the classic bungalow duplexes and such in older neighborhoods. If new construction looked like those, or resembled them in any significant way, NIMBY opposition would mostly go away.

    But nobody is building those anymore. Instead we get horrid 3-story flat-roofed boxes as shown, which are totally out of place when plunked down in the middle of most any Seattle SF neighborhood.

    • I doubt this is true. Opposition to new construction seems to always find a new complaint if an old one is neutralized. But sure, more thoughtful design may help convince a few more people.

  3. These type of 1940’s era duplexes can be found all over Madison Valley, Madrona, Leschi, and the rest of the CD:

    https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/2907-E-Olive-St-98122/home/147226

    Then we have these new construction town homes that have popped up along MLK between Cherry and Union:

    https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/712-Martin-Luther-King-Junior-Way-98122/home/170457570
    https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/1403-Martin-Luther-King-Junior-Way-98122/home/160337687
    https://www.redfin.com/WA/Seattle/715-Martin-Luther-King-Junior-Way-98122/home/147043998

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