The C Is for Crank

At Crosscut yesterday, two local architects, David Neiman and Jim Burton, argued that instead of allowing small houses on small lots (the houses, which tend to be tall and skinny, have enraged some neighborhood activists who argue that they destroy neighborhood "character" and "loom" over existing houses), the city should simply allow subdivision of corner lots—like they used to do back in the '50s—while banning small-lot development altogether. 

Calling their proposal "density done right," the architects write, "Instead of arguing about the least awful way to shoehorn more houses on ever-smaller slivers in the middle of the block, let’s stop doing it altogether. Instead, let’s allow all full-sized corner lots to become eligible for subdivision."

Waxing nostalgic about the era before Seattle adopted its first zoning code, in 1957, they continue, "Two houses on the corner amplifies those qualities we love about single-family neighborhoods. It takes the beneficial street front activities — porch sitting, gardening, social engagement with neighbors — and extends them around the corner onto the side street." 

I couldn't agree more that allowing two houses on corner lots is a step in the right direction. But it's an extremely modest step that wouldn't satisfy the current demand for new single-family housing. 

Past vs. Future: A Craftsman gets a modern neighbor.


Adding second houses on a few corner lots while banning new single-family infill on small lots won't create the kind of housing that's needed to meet the demand for single-family homes. It just isn't intellectually honest for density opponents to simultaneously complain that density advocates want to "force everyone to live in shoeboxes" and "drive families out of the city" while opposing new single-family housing in single-family neighborhoods. 

And ultimately, neighborhood opposition to new tall, skinny houses often boils down to aesthetics. All the examples Neiman and Burton cite, for example, are large Craftsman houses built in the middle of the last century. But like it or not, we aren't building those kind of houses anymore; and "I think it's ugly" is a matter of personal opinion, not a zoning argument.