75 Replies to “Sunday Open Thread: Big Houses, Small Lots”

  1. This developer is full of it. Building a tall SFH on a smaller lot promotes density? Only if you’re renting out the bedrooms, and I doubt anyone in the houses depicted in the video would consider that for a second.

    I don’t think anyone would object to building a 1-2 story cottage on the same lot, and it would likely hold the same amount of people as the ugly behemoths they’re putting there now.

    1. Yes, by definition, building a house on a lot that would otherwise have been vacant promotes density. (I wouldn’t want to live there, just because it is a half hour’s walk from the nearest bus stop.)

      Consider other consequences: Who is responsible for maintaining the vacant lot if it sits vacant? The owner? The neighbors? The City? Does it just go to weeds?

      I bet the practical answer ends up being choice 3, the neighbors push the City to turn it into a pocket park, and the whole of the city’s tax base then has to fund maintaining a new, mostly unused, pocket park, instead of getting a little more tax revenue from the former property owner. If the park ends up getting used at all, the neighbors request a curfew on it, and then police resources get diverted each time a non-neighbor is seen near that park in the neighborhood, since some of the homeowners don’t get it that the sidewalks are public property.

      1. Weren’t these lots typically owned by the owner of one of the adjacent houses? This owner usually would have had to agree to sell to the developer. I bet that owner refused to be interviewed for the story.

      2. I guess that adjacent owner probably sells the two lots together to the developer, possibly without knowing it’s a developer. Anyway, I think in almost all these cases the lot, even if it’s “vacant”, has a clear owner, and that clear owner is in a position to use and maintain the lot.

      3. Whoever built the neighborhood in the first place probably owned whole blocks and went through the subdivision process. Maybe he couldn’t figure out a use for the leftover space. Maybe he was thinking he could get the City to buy it for a pocket park.

      4. Sure, but is the only choice between a super-tall house or wasted pocket park? There are lots of more modest examples of how you can build a decent-sized house on a small plot of land. You can look at San Francisco for examples of that. Many of the outer neighborhoods there aren’t proper row houses so much as SFHs built out to within an inch or two of the property line.

        I agree with a lot of people here that the neighbor in the video is being kind of whiny– lots of people have back yards where an adjacent house is overlooking, and it isn’t always because the other house is tall.

      5. @Greg: The only real difference between these houses and the older ones in other cities is that elsewhere these houses are surrounded by others like them. In Seattle they’re surrounded by houses on wider lots whose owners don’t want their neighborhood to change.

        Because houses like this are built on a one-off basis in random locations they certainly won’t make or break Seattle urbanism in any case, where when they’re built in significant quantities along with mixed-use development they make their own kind of neighborhood.

    2. Yes, putting a house in a spot that didn’t have one before obviously supports density. If at least one person lives there, and the area of the neighborhood doesn’t change, and the presence of that house doesn’t cause any neighbors to flee the area, the population density will increase.

      1. That wasn’t my point. Thanks for the 7th grade math lesson, I guess.

        Yes, of course density will go up by .01% or whatever if you build a house on an empty lot. That’s fine and I have no objection to it. My point is, unless I’m misunderstanding him, that this developer is apparently hyping a four-story single-family house on a small lot as “promoting density” when it would not do that any better than a 900 sq ft cottage on the same plot of land.

        I assume he’s trying to take advantage of the “taller building = density” association people tend to make?

      2. Yes, and density went down when my son went to college and we didn’t take in a boarder or move to allow a larger family to move in our house. I don’t think that’s what public policy gives a hoot about either.

      3. Doesn’t a larger house have room for more people thus a higher potential for density than a small one? Whether a larger family will move in is not the point. If you build a small house a larger family won’t.

        My family is in this situation, we need a 4 bedroom but the 3 bedroom homes outnumber them 4×1. Building larger houses on smaller lots improves my chances of moving 5 people into the house. A smaller house is only useful for smaller numbers of people. I’m not sure why there’s so much confusion about 7th grade math.

    3. Aren’t the majority of Seattle home owners long time residents? Meaning, they may have paid 10% of current price and probably paid off their mortgage and may not even be able to buy into the neighborhood they live in at current rates.

      All of this creates a very unstable dynamic as the big dieoff continues on the West Coast.

      1. “may not even be able to buy into the neighborhood they live in at current rates”

        I’m always surprised by your lack of understanding of the real estate market. To buy a home, they’d need to sell their home. At current rates.

      2. I doubt many houses in Seattle have had the same owner since before 1970. Less than 25% of the people I meet have been here that long. Plus, their children will be middle age by now and have probably bought a house at the higher price levels.

  2. It seems too many Seattleites think that they not only own their own lot, but their neighbors’ lots, too.

      1. … as well as the not-yet-blocked airspace in all directions from their house.

        However, if someone comes along and digs up a nugget of gold on the lot, goes down to the assayer’s office and makes the first claim to have found gold on the property, things could get messy.

    1. A lot of the controversy around the small lot development relates to developers finding undersize lots that were made possible by a loophole mentioned in the video. My understanding is that many of these lots didn’t appear on the City maps so that no one around them (and perhaps even the old property owner) knew they were developable. I think this is a lot different from situations where there’s clearly an available (if undersized) lot from the original plat that’s available for development.

      The essence of good zoning is predictability. I think surprises like some of the developments folks are surprised about could ultimately have a chilling effect on density.

      1. Not all predictable zoning is good zoning. If price forces a family to move into a cul-de-sac in the middle of a food desert, and thereby have to drive everywhere for everything, is that good zoning?

      2. You’re confusing what might be good or bad from a policy perspective with the underlying principles that make zoning possible. People having a sense of what will happen on adjacent properties in the area would be the latter, the lack of walkable amenities in a given area would be the former.

      3. “You’re confusing what might be good or bad from a policy perspective with the underlying principles that make zoning possible.”

        Nope. Zoning was created in the first place in large part to create predictability. I don’t think anyone raised their hand and said, “I will oppose zoning because it will create unpredictability.” Nor do I hear anyone saying that the solution to unexpected developments is to do away with zoning.

        I happen to like the existence of zoning. My beef is with existing zonings that undermine livability, such as zonings for 2-story office parks that put jobs where the cost of infrastructure to get people to those jobs is massive; or residential zonings that push the nearest source of non-gardened food 45 minutes away except by car; or keeping the areas around train stations limited to 6 stories and not allowing for commercial uses on the first floor; or, for that matter, putting industrial facilities abbutting residential areas.

        Generally, it is particular zonings that have a chilling effect on density. But it isn’t the existence of zoning that creates that chill, given that Houston has sprawled while not having zoning, while many other cities with zoning are much denser. Making whole areas residential only, including along major thoroughfares, was a poor decision.

      4. I’m not seeing your point. So predictability is good except for in instances like the loophole provides where people are surprised by development on lots they didn’t know were buildable?

      5. Kevin,

        You’re the one placing highest value on predictability.

        I agree that if predictability enables neighbors with blocking power to agree to densification (and such densification is good for society and Gaia), then predictability is good.

        If predictability means no density can ever be built around a train station, then predictability is bad.

        Consider the the essence of predictability: inertia. Predictability and densification are opposing concepts. And yes, density and densification are also two different concepts. But would you claim that predictability in Laurelhurst enabled density in Laurelhurst?

      6. I’m seeing predictability as different from policy discussions. Predictability to me means that someone can look at a zoning map and code and have a clear sense of what will happen around them, and that any changes to that predictability would come through a public process where neighbors would have the ability to comment (different from controlling the outcome).

        My earlier point is that a lack of predictability can actually result in a backlash against densification. I don’t think the emergency legislation would have been passed if it weren’t for a small number of developers (Dan Duffus comes to mind as the poster boy) exploiting the loophole in the land use code.

      7. Kevin, what percentage of the population do think has actually looked at a zoning map?

      8. I hereby propose a compromise. Let’s announce that in 10 years all SF zones will change to allow for more density. And that pattern shall be repeated every 10 years. Predictability? Check. Allowing for increased density? Check. Everyone’s happy.

  3. Old guy in the video is typical. Change = Bad. The only thing i dont like about these places is when they put in a place for 500k$ or more and only have a one car garage…. Just more cars parking on yhe street…

    1. Yes…because clearly everyone who buys a $500k house in the city owns more than one car, and our zoning code should not allow for exceptions because there will never be any.

  4. This whole thing of big houses taking over their neighbors has gotten way out of proportion. The problem is the existing residents trying to get something for nothing. If zoning allows the lot to build to 30 feet, they are taking away from the developer by limiting the height to 20 feet. This could be managed contractually instead of politically. If say, the current owner of the adjacent lot is opposed to a 30 foot house being built next door, he can agree to compensate the developer for lost value of the lot. If say, the price for the developer to limit the house to 20 feet is $100,000 the adjacent owner can decide whether he would be happier spending the money to limit the adjacent lot, or to move somewhere else. The right solution is the one that maximized the utility of both the adjacent owner, and the developer. This kind of thought has be addressed in depth by the discipline Law and Economics, see Coase Theorem.

  5. Some of the comments from Lake Union NIMBYS who are opposed to Ride the Ducks building a ramp in the Eastlake neighborhood crack me up! They make it sound like they are living on Walden Pond. Remember, this is a neighborhood yards from I-5, underneath the flight path for SeaTac airport, next to an industrial lake with dozens of seaplanes taking off and landing each day. From KIRO’s and KING’s websites …

    “It’s where we live, we like the quiet in the middle of the city and we would lose that.”

    “We’re worried about the fumes, we’re worried about the pollution.”

    “We came here for this idyllic setting, and now it’s endangered.”

    I needed a good laugh.

    1. The Ducks are so obnoxious that I actually feel a certain amount of sympathy for the NIMBYs in this particular case.

      1. Well… the duck vehicles also have lousy sightlines for urban travel. Some time ago one ran right over a stopped motorcycle at a red light because the driver couldn’t see what was directly in front of the vehicle.

        Unless they fix problems like this the vehicles aren’t fit to drive on public roads at all… and I’d particularly worry about any driveway crossing a sidewalk. Unfortunately a neighborhood group is more likely to get traction complaining about a mostly imagined problem like noise than the real safety problems of the vehicles.

      2. Al, in 2002, a Metro bus going west on N. 35th street and turning south onto Fremont Ave N. ran over two women, a mother and daughter, who were crossing in the crosswalk. The mother died. Are Metro vehicles fit to drive on the road?

        Brent, why do you think the people who run this blog haven’t blocked me from commenting? I’ll tell you why. They are in awe of my intellect.

      3. It’s important to understand why collisions occur.

        City buses are designed to help their drivers see their surroundings; at Fremont and 35th the issue is the unprotected left and the aggressive turns that drivers often take in the presence of heavy oncoming traffic. It would be much more fruitful to fix the intersection than the bus.

        When the “duck” vehicle hit the motorcyclist the driver didn’t even realize he’d hit someone and just kept rolling right over him. If you can’t see normal-sized traffic directly in front of you on a street because of your vehicle’s design, that’s a problem with your vehicle.

      4. Sam, I think you haven’t been banned because nobody has been run over while reading your comments, and the odds that that will happen are slim.

      5. Sam,

        They are in awe of my intellect.

        Ooopsie. You may just have gotten yourself banned.


        Your honor, the charge is overweening narcissism. The facts of the case are directly above. What is your verdict?


        Guilty as charged! Off with his connection!

  6. STB covered the Publicola article on microhousing earlier, here’s some other information.

    Seattle Home Meets Aggressive Passivhaus Standards

    A 13-home micro-community located in the Columbia City section of Seattle has always aimed for sustainability since it began a few years ago by local builder Dwell Development. Today, Phase 4 of the project, known as Columbia Station, can officially be called a “Passivehaus” after passing a rigorous test to prove its hyper-efficient thermal characteristics.


    Micro communities and cottage homes seem so much more appealing than vertical density and apodments (though it’s not for me to say what the Free Market wants to build).

    Still, I would look ideally towards smaller homes that can share footprints of larger ones, and add to more shared space around each (versus the horrible “air condos” that each up every last square foot of plot).

    1. Thanks to the underlying physics, all other things being equal, it is considerably easier for a large building to make Passivhaus than a small one.

  7. Congestion is the ready way to easy taxation and accelerated “development”.

    The technocrats persist in their strategy of homogenization, which fosters a filling-in of all the older “spaces” of the city with massive structures, obliterating all intervals of human scale and their Victorian vestiges. It kills community.

    -Marshall McLuhan, Take Today, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972, pp 30-31.

    1. Odd. Laurelhurst seems perturbed because a house ruined the homogeneity of their neighborhood.

    2. Some infill is good, others bad. Some legacy structures are worth preserving, others not. (Although we mustn’t look at one “structure” in isolation but their cumulative effect on an entire block’s liveability.) There’s a variety of acceptable sizes, and a few people have pointed out that 2-4 stories can produce adequate density if it’s compact, not space-wasting. “Human scale and their Victorian vestiges” means pre-WWII construction. Those are exactly the kinds of buildings urbanists want to preserve and return to. But large cities do need some highrises to fit everybody, and did have as soon as the elevator was invented.

      When you talk about preserving 1970s Kent architecture, that’s not “Victorian” and it’s not “human scale”. It’s a monstrosity that forces people to use transportation to go anywhere. The strip malls look like drive-in restaurants because they essentially are. I haven’t read McLuhan’s book, but “massive structures” doubtlessly means the mid-century urban renewal projects. “Homogenization”, when he was writing in 1972, would mean what was being built in 1972: sprawl. Like East Hill and Timberlane sprawl, with their large surface parking lots in front and quarter-acre house lots, which were all built in the 1960s and 70s. We may need to preserve token pieces of it to avoid obliterating history like that generation did with Victorian brick buildings, but that doesn’t mean every single building is sacred.

      But there’s more to homogenization than that. Homogenization wasn’t just about Le Corbiseur large scale. It was also the transition from local markets to national markets. In the early 1900s, most staple products were produced locally and weren’t branded. Buildings were built as one-offs, were financed by cash or traditional mortgages, and the owners intended to keep them for generations. Regulations were also local or state-based. All this changed with the ability to transport goods across the country cheaply, large chain stores and large store chains, air travel and taking jobs across the country, and the rise of national regulations. Every new restroom and stairwell looks the same now. Well, maybe that’s fine for restrooms and stairwells, but the same thing is happening across society with buildings and styles and brands. Except where a backlash is pushing back, focusing on local foods and local companies and individual styles and human scale.

      Although there is more to homogenization than that.

  8. Did my Santa Clara trip last week. I originally booked an Amtrak trip to San Jose, but due to track work it was later changed to arrive in Oakland, wait a bit over an hour for an Amtrak bus, then spend 1 1/2 hours on the bus to San Jose. Others were put on the bus as far as Santa Barbara, while those to LA were put on a different train (the San Joaquin?). Rather than wait for the bus, I toured downtown Oakland and took BART to Fremont. There I saw the Fremont-Milpitas-San Jose express has been split into two, one to Milpitas and the other to San Jose, each half-hourly. The fare has also risen. It used to be one BART transfer, now it’s the transfer plus I think $4. I paid the transfer plus $6 for a day pass, which would have been $8 without the transfer. (The non-express VTA fare is $2 and day pass $6. Light rail costs the same as buses.) Day passes are these carboard cards that you “tap” on a special reader on the farebox, separate from the Clipper reader.

    I arrived in downtown SJ and stopped at the VTA storefront to ask a couple questions, and saw displays of construction projects. The next BART phase is to Bayerissa in east SJ, also a light rail station. (I have elsewhere seen discussion of a downtown SJ subway, but that seems to be a later phase.) There may have also been plans for another BRT line or two, I don’t quite remember.

    Since I had the afternoon free, I took BRT #522 to Palo Alto. It’s limited-stop like Swift, and 15-minute frequent, but doesn’t have off-board payment. VTA has separate “limited” and “BRT” routes, although I don’t know the difference between them. (Actually, this is the only BRT route so far, but I think one or two others are planned.) Its local shadow #22 is also frequent, and 24 hours. I was looking for supermarkets or restaurants I might go to during my stay. But everything was so small and isolated, one thing every half mile or so, it hardly seemed worth it. This bus segment took just over an hour. In Palo Alto, I took a leisurely local bus back to the Mountain View transit center. The BRT didn’t stop directly there, and I was afraid it would be a long walk carrying my two heavy backpacks. From there I took the light rail to the Santa Clara convention center, checked into my conference, and took bus #60 south to my hotel.

    My hotel was two miles away, on the Montague Expressway & Mission College Blvd, next to a furniture warehouse and cement plant, with a Starbucks, Subway, and gas-station convenience store. The bus is half-hourly, or hourly Sundays. (I would not have taken the hotel if it weren’t for that bus.) The expressway looks like an 8-lane freeway but has intersections every mile or so. It has sidewalks, sometimes only on one side, and at one place closed for construction so you have to walk in the right-turn lane. Fortunately it was light traffic then.

    I decided to walk east from the hotel to the Orchard light rail station, which I estimated to be 40 minutes away. (No bus goes that direction.) After 15 minutes I came to a Safeway plaza with a small lifestyle center (Montague & Agnew). It had several nice restaurants so that became where I did my shopping and dinner.

    The next day I took the bus to the conference and back. The third day I decided to walk, which I estimated at 40 minutes. In between is all office parks, Intel and Cisco and Yahoo and the like. I was only 1/3 the way when I discovered a creekside trail going north. I took it and it came up next to the convention center. My time estimate was right, 40 minutes. The creek looks like it has levees on both sides, and the trail is along the top of a levee. It’s wide, wider than the Burke-Gilman.

    The last day, I took the light rail from the convention center to downtown SJ, and discovered a pedestrianized street, Paseo de San Antonio. This is apparently where all the urbanists in SJ go, since it’s the only thing like it I could find.

    I ended at Diridon station for the train back home. The conductor scanned my ticket (on his smartphone) and said it had been canceled because I missed one of the segments (that shuttle bus). He said to talk to the ticket agent to get it reinstated, but quickly because train is leaving in ten minutes. So I ran to the ticket booth but it was already closed, so I ran back to the train and he said to call the 800 number. The hold line said “12 minutes”. He had me get on the train while I was on hold. Finally, as the hold went on, he said to hang up and he called somebody to reinstate the reservation. A few minutes later they messaged him back on his smartphone, and finally I was able to get a seat card. A car attendant took me back across three cars to the very last car, where all the people to Seattle were.

    This train (Sunday) was emptier than the southbound one (Wednesday) had been. Southbound I’d had a seatmate from Portland to Oakland. But northbound 2/3 of the double seats were empty. And the other cars were also similarly empty. No wonder my ticket had been only $85 round trip.

    I got into Seattle and took Link to Westlake. The ORCA reader barked, “One card at a time, please”. So the VTA day passes use the same technology as ORCA and Clipper.

    1. I knew I’d forget something. Diridon station has several displays of old artefacts from the original streetcars, BART planning, light rail opening, and airport opening. It says the light rail follows earlier streetcar routes. I find that hard to believe because when I first rode it in 1998 and it went up to Tasman Drive but no further, Tasman Drive looked like a brand-new street with nothing on it yet.

      The artefacts also say BART was designed in the 1950s, and a plan shows it twice as long as it is now (minus the Pittsburgh and Dubin tails), going all around the bay and far into Marin County or further. It’s depressing to think how much less freeway-oriented and easier-to-get-around Silicon Valley would have been if they’d built the original plan in the 50s.

      But the artefacts also give a hint why they didn’t, and San Jose’s massive unexpected growth, and why light rail looked attractive in the 1970s. In 1960 San Jose’s population was only 200,000-something, or less than half of Seattle’s. By 1980 it had more than doubled, and is now almost a million. (The county numbers are only a big higher.) So it went from smaller than Seattle to almost twice as big in thirty years. As a small city, they rejected BART in favor of expressways. As a large city, they introduced light rail to “bring back the streetcars” as it says.

      Another thing, I’ve mentioned the surprisingly little traffic on Tasman Drive, the Montague Expwy, and Great America Blvd. Even during rush hour there are surprisingly few cars and the streets are only a quarter full. So why do they need 6-8 lanes each? I guess they’re planning for triple the population. Although somebody told me they do fill up in summer when Great America is open.

      And there’s also a 49ers stadium being built on Tasman Drive near the convention center. Maybe that will fill up the street. The stadium is in a completely unwalkable area, but it is near a light rail station, Amtrak Capitols/ACE commuter rail station, and the creek trail.

      1. Were you at PyCon too? Dang, we should have grabbed a beer to commemorate our extremely specific intersection of interests!

      2. Yes, it was PyCon. We can still have the beer at home. But I don’t know who you are. :( You’ll have to show me at the next Seattle Python meeting.

    2. Mike,
      What was the total travel time each way? I’ve been thinking about making this trip, but usually end up flying because of time constraints.

      1. Did you mean just the train part? There’s a timetable here: http://www.amtrak.com/ccurl/608/261/Coast-Starlight-Schedule-011413.pdf

        It’s about 24 hours between San Jose and Seattle, but keep in mind that the train is nicknamed the “Coast Starlate”. When I took it northbound about a year and a half ago, we kept to the schedule pretty well until southern Oregon. Then one of the engines had some troubles and we limped into Portland. After some delay, we picked up a BNSF helper engine and finally got into Seattle 2 or 3 hours late.

      2. The Coast Starlate was 8 or 10 hours behind schedule when I rode it once. That actually ended up being a treat, as we went through the American River Canyon, one of the most scenic spots on the whole route, during daylight hours. If the train’s on schedule, you’re on that segment in the middle of the night.

      3. A delay of 30-60 minutes is common. My Starlate was around 45 minutes late southbound and an hour northbound. Part of the northbound delay was when we stopped for a freight train in the snowy Oregon Cascades where there was a passing track, but then the switch broke and they were trying to fix it and couldn’t, so we had to back up and onto that track to go any further. But when it’s “on time” it arrives significantly early, sometimes an hour early, because there’s so much padding in the schedule.

      4. I did have an 8-hour delay on the Starlate in 1987. This is now my third train trip to California.

  9. I’ll never understand the knee-jerk reaction against pocket parks from so many around this site.

    1. Many pocket parks end up as little better than weed filled lots. Depending on location they can end up as locations where various undesirable elements (homeless, drug dealers, drug users, gang wannabes) congregate. In denser areas they take up space that could be better used for something else (retail on a busy corner).

      Even the pocket parks that don’t have problems often aren’t well used and would have been better off turned into a p-patch.

      Programming public space is hard and our parks department typically doesn’t do a very good job of it. A pocket park in the right location, with the right design/programming can be a wonderful asset, but few pocket parks in the area meet this standard.

      1. Agree with much of what you say (although I think they can be especially valuable in denser areas and haven’t seen many problem-free pocket parks that are also poorly used).

        I’d just emphasize “knee-jerk” from my initial comment. Let’s ensure they’re done right so they can be “wonderful assets” instead of writing them off as a concept because they’ve sometimes been done poorly in the past.

    2. Just to be clear, I like pocket parks. But they come with trade-offs.

      I see natural preserves and p-patches as full utilization of a green space. Nor do I agree with the assessment that the Parks Department is bad at programming the space for human uses. They do a great job setting up full and predictable use of sport spaces, including running public sporting leagues (co-rec soccer comes to mind).

      Pocket parks tend to get less utilization, but that is not the department’s fault, as they don’t tend to be the ones deciding where to add pocket parks. That’s a political process.

    3. Name one (1) pocket park in Seattle that is not dedicated to a specific use (dogs, sports) and actually works, in the sense that it is well used at all times by people other than drug sellers and buyers. I won’t hold my breath, because I don’t think there is one.

      Big parks are wonderful for all sorts of recreational uses. Every single one of our big parks is popular and heavily used. By contrast, pocket parks either end up completely unused or used for the drug trade, mostly dependent on how easy they are to access.

      1. C’mon, David. How about the Pinehurst Pocket Park, for starters? I’ve never been, but I’ve also heard good things about the Ballard Corners Park. Marshall Park in Queen Anne is absolutely a pocket park. Parsons Garden across the street probably qualifies, if barely, because of the size of the lots on Highland there. Likewise, Fremont Peak Park is maybe a little big to qualify as a pocket park, but is an example of a very successful and very small park. Those are just off the top of my head in about 30 seconds, and I make no claim to an encyclopedic knowledge of Seattle’s small parks.

        I don’t know that Seattle does a ton of true pocket parks, which are generally no larger than a single lot, maybe two. I’m also not sure that people around here understand that, since I’m always hearing about pocket parks dedicated to sports, and a pocket park is generally too small for sports beyond maybe a tiny skate park or half-court basketball court.

        Just as importantly, in what way does dedicating a park to a specific purpose make it not a park? Hint: it doesn’t.

        Just like any kind of park, pocket parks can be done poorly or well, and there’s no need for a knee-jerk reaction against them. Here’s one from my old ‘hood in Chicago that was always full of young families and a great place to stop for a fresh sip of water on a hot day: http://goo.gl/maps/TA2Zf. There is absolutely no basis for arguing it would be underutilized or overrun by drug dealers by virtue of being located in Seattle.

      2. Jason, you’re right; I oversimplified. Dedicating pocket parks to specific uses (such as dog parks or playgrounds, or sports, if big enough) can make them work.

        But there is a very good reason that Chicago pocket park you showed me would be overrun by drug dealers if it were built in a similarly dense part of Seattle. That is that we are allergic to playgrounds here, so it would not have a playground that would be well-used by parents of young children. The neighbors would complain about noise and unsightly play equipment. Instead, we have a fetish for “open space” whether or not that open space makes any sense. Such “open space” usually has marginal attempts at landscaping, is not a pleasant place for normal people to be, and serves as a refuge for drug activity. We have lots of examples around here.

        The Pinehurst Pocket Park isn’t a drug haven because it’s too hard to get to, but it’s certainly not well used, and it’s debatable at best that it contributes more to the neighborhood than a couple more houses would. Spaces such as Marshall Park are really more viewpoints than parks; such places can work because people like spectacular views and will spend time where they exist. Ballard Corners Park is desperately crying out for a playground, but won’t get it, for the above reasons.

        Just taking a random vacant lot and making it into city-maintained “open space” will never, ever work.

      3. I think you’re getting caught up in narrowly defining “pocket park.” Of course Marshall Park is a viewpoint. A pocket park can be a dog park, a playground, a viewpoint, a community garden, undeveloped green space, or nothing more than benches and maybe a drinking fountain with some landscaped vegetation. It’s just a flexible way of solving the sometimes competing needs for density and greenspace by repurposing very small spaces for communal purposes.

        You’re certainly right that a playground is one way to deter undesired activity. But I disagree that we always have to employ such activity-specific programming to create a good space. You say Pinehurst isn’t overrun because it’s so remote, but then why isn’t Fremont Peak Park overrun, or Ballard Corners or Parsons Garden? Those are all examples—again, off the top of my head without any research—of pocket parks that aren’t specifically programmed to narrow uses, but that function successfully as public urban spaces.

        I’m also not sure I agree that Seattle is as playground-phobic as you suggest. Just here in upper Queen Anne I can think of five or six parks with play equipment, which doesn’t exactly strike me as playground-barren.

        “Just taking a random vacant lot and making it into city-maintained “open space” will never, ever work.”

        Completely agree and never argued otherwise, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to do open space, but rather that we should be diligent about doing it well—whether large or small.

  10. Am I the only one who thinks that what the development in the lead picture resembles most is a giant patch of tenements?

    Mark Dublin

  11. Although I could predict the responses from the STB crew (density density density) are there exceptions? I was a Polish Home yesterday and noticed a beautiful old home is going to be torn down to make way for a 30 unit apartment complex. Here’s the street view.


    I have serious issues with this since this is a gorgeous house in great shape. Sure the apartment complex will increase density but why not tear down the really ugly buildings or one in bad shape and build it there? At some point when there’s nothing interesting left in the city then housing will get really cheap because nobody will want to live here.

    1. By the “ugly buildings”, do you mean the two multi-story apartments in the 360 view on that picture?

      Yes, it would have been better to accommodate density with taller buildings on Broadway. That didn’t happen, so we’re stuck with brand new low-rise buildings right around Capitol Hill Station, and huge unmet demand to live on Capitol Hill that will have to be accommodated elsewhere.

      If zoning would have allowed this nice Victorian house to be converted to law offices or something along that line, it wouldn’t have forced the owner to sell it off to an apartment developer as the only viable economic use of the land. I bet the neighbors wouldn’t let the house be converted to commercial use.

      1. I would challenge the idea that the best way of adding density is making tall buildings in just one corridor. That produces a two-class housing market, where the wealthy get single-family homes and everyone else has only one choice: high-rise apartments.

    2. Almost every old house is interesting to someone, but we can’t preserve all of them. That leads to paralysis by preservation, such as you have in Georgetown (DC), and sky-high housing prices.

      That’s a pleasant enough house, but there’s nothing particularly unique about it. Saving it is not worth taking 30 units out of the housing supply in a neighborhood already suffering a ridiculous level of supply/demand imbalance. Historic preservation should be extremely limited, and include only things that are actually historic.

  12. This shocks me that this is even an issue. If you want a house and a pretty little green yard and not to see your neighbors house then move to the outer ring of suburbs, and have a miserable life community miles and miles to work everyday.

    1. It cracks me up how awful people think it is to commute to and from the suburbs.

      I guess as long as it keeps the yuppies away, that is fine with me.

      1. It is all a matter of personal preference. You might think it is awful to live right next to other people and to have a small (or no) yard. I think it is awful to spend 2 hours of every day of my life driving in traffic.

  13. I heard this on the radio this morning. People living in a ‘walkable’ neighborhood do not necessarily walk more.

    1. Perhaps. What evidence do they have? It’s true that a neighborhood that’s both walkable and with plenty of garages doesn’t necessarily fill up with people who walk more than the American average. Just like apartments near Link stations don’t necessarily fill up with train riders. But what they do do is give greater choice to those who do want to walk and possibly get rid of their car. Those people will preferentially choose those locations, while drivers will not. So over time the mix will shift toward walkers. Especially as a new generation grows up or new people move into town, people who don’t know about the neighborhood’s history as a less-walkable area, and think it was always the way it is.

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