This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

For my money, the money quote from Ben’s epic 6-part live blog of the Urban Land Institute’s conference is this paraphrase of Gov. Gregoire’s remarks:

She’s discussing funding mechanisms for transportation, and who permits development – the fact that we need to streamline permitting, for instance, where we now have a mishmash of city, county, state, and federal, rather than an integrated system.

She’s addressing framing very well here. She’s pointing out that we are not forcing anyone out of their cars, or to move to places where they don’t want to live, but rather we’re creating affordable housing and transportation that people will choose to live in, and choose to use.

She’s brought up LA and Houston as examples of cities where the choices made, where the planning used, did not effectively address growth – and that we don’t want to go that way, but we need to work together now, because we don’t have more time to wait.

The key part is “choose.” You have to make it attractive. Which is why this Times piece today on the brewing backlash against town homes is so interesting. Some are quite nice, but many are bland and from the outside, and almost all hide themselves from the street with monotonous wood fencing.

Still, town houses are the most reasonable way to densify the city and keep it affordable to middle-class families. So how do you make them better? Ditching the onerous parking requirements would be a start, so the market has room to innovate. Better design review might help. But the real issue, it seems to me, is that there’s no real financial incentive for better-designed townhomes.

Why? For one, you can’t copyright them easily. So, as one builder quoted in the article says, “once one guy cracks the code and develops one plan, everybody jumps on board and says, ‘I’ll just do that because it’s easy.’ ” Second, there’s a classic collective action problem: a sub-par design affects the whole neighborhood, but no one person (say, the buyer) is affected enough to justify paying a lot more for a better design (mortgages are expensive!). Finally, a design review process, no matter how strong, is always going to be weaker than the market.

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to this problem, but I hope someone figures it out before the same townhome design populates the entire city.

PS: Ben says that Nickels is still planning a vote on ST 2.1 for this fall.

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