Community Post

Time to Slim Down Mega Houses and Mega Garages?

You can find one on just about every other block:  a huge, three story, four to five thousand square foot house plopped down next to much smaller, older, reasonably sized homes.   And as you may have seen in the PI yesterday, City Councilmember Richard Conlin is working with Sally Clark’s Land Use & Planning Committee to draft new regulations to control them.   The main focus is to restrict the size of houses based on the size of the lot, effectively giving a few more feet of open space on each side and in the backyard of the house.

I’ll be honest:  the size of the houses doesn’t bother me.  In fact, I think increased setbacks between property lines and houses is going in the direction of more suburbanization, which is the opposite of what we need in a growing city.  There’s no public benefit to an extra foot or two on either side of the property line or few hundred extra square feet of space in the backyard.  That’s not space that anyone can enjoy or do anything with.  The only benefit is a private one to the existing neighbors, letting in a bit more light, etc, but it’s not a game changing difference.

The main problem with these new houses is the way they relate to the street, and I don’t think that is usually a factor of their size.  If you take a new house and compare it to the older ones next to it, the biggest problem is the huge, street-facing, two-car garages that take up the entire first floor of the structure.  It creates an unfriendly environment for pedestrians and sets the livable portion of the house way up and apart from everyone at street level or standing at the front doors of neighboring houses.

The good news is that parking requirements are also under review with the city.  I spoke to Councilmember Sally Clark today, and she said that she is concerned about the way garages overwhelm the design of houses on small lots, saying that it often “looks like the house is designed around the car instead of the people”.   Here’s a couple of changes they’re looking at in her committee:

  • Limit the amount of space that a garage can take up as a percent of the front face of a house
  • Restrict builders from putting garages closer to the street than the livable parts of the structure
  • Possibly relax off-street parking requirements for smaller and narrower lots that don’t have alley access or that are adjacent to good transit options

Councilmember Clark seemed least sure about that last requirement, saying she’s open to it but wants to listen to neighbors first.  I’m sure she’s anticipating the “but what about my street parking” argument that I’ve heard many of my friends make here in the CD.  But I would really question why we’re still requiring single family houses to be built around cars in an age where the cost of gas is skyrocketing and people are starting to drive less.   Not to mention the fact that most existing garages are used for storage, not parking.   Why not at least relax the requirement and let the market decide whether people want to pay for a garage (both in cost and unattractiveness) instead of forcing it on both the homeowner and their neighbors?

After all, most older houses in our neighborhoods don’t have garages, and we’ve always gotten along fine without them.  Why hold new houses in those same neighborhoods to a different standard?

0 thoughts on “Time to Slim Down Mega Houses and Mega Garages?

  1. I just blogged this piece as well at Sweet Digs Seattle. Amen re: the garage requirement; homeowners should have a say in whether they need a space to store a vehicle. Most of these homes, however, are built not by homeowners, but by developers, whose eyes are on resale. While gas prices are skyrocketing and folks aren’t getting behind the wheel as much, most households still own at least one car, if not more. From a developer’s standpoint, building a house sans garage will, without question, negatively impact the sale of a home.

    And, to your point about home size and encroachment: It is all well and good to throw up our hands at home size, because an extra square foot or two doesn’t serve the public any less effectively than does a smaller space, as you point out. But most of these lots aren’t zoned for subdivision, so the potential for “public good” in terms of density isn’t a realistic prospect anyhow. Therefore, isn’t it better to limit the size in deference to neighbors? Doesn’t that somehow serve the public?

  2. I run by that house in the photo pretty regularly, so I’ve been watching them work on it for some time. What is up with that deck roof? So ugly!

    I also wonder, when I see new homes like this, how useful putting the home up that high really will be. Do they have elevators/dumbwaiters? We have an aging population, and it seems like getting groceries from your car to your kitchen would be a pain in this kind of house even for a young person.

  3. The other ideas are interesting and may be tangential enough to ruin all prospect of actually fixing the bug — kind of like you fix the bug in the code to get it fixed…then Conlin and neighborhood people got involved, then DPD is directed to be involved, then….shall we say scope creep?

    The Seattle Municipal Code Chapter 23.44 RESIDENTIAL, SINGLE-FAMILY
    Holds that minimum lot area for SF5000 (the smallest of the ‘normal’ SF zones covered in this chapter) is 5000 SqFt EXCEPT for a lot of reasons like the lot was originally created by building a subdivision, etc. etc. So the truth is that many of these lots are less than 5000 SqFt. Remember — zoning is a going forward type thing..

    Anyway, here is the meat:
    C. Maximum Lot Coverage. The maximum lot coverage permitted for principal and accessory structures shall not exceed thirty-five (35) percent of the lot area or one thousand seven hundred fifty (1,750) square feet, whichever is greater.

    1,750 of a 2500 sqft lot….

    Then there are a bunch of exceptions and fiddling around that can be done per Section D…

    The SMC, and the Land Use Code part of it is really interesting reading (smile) I’ve been looking the code from a number of cities and I think ours can be kind of bizzare, but not terrible..

  4. I live in one of those tall, skinny homes where I climb two flights of steps to reach the kitchen. No elevator, and I’m the dumbwaiter who hauls the groceries. I’m up and down those steps many times each day, and don’t even think about it. It’s like having my own built-in stair stepper machine. I know that someday I’ll need to move (I’m in my mid 50s), but for now it’s great.

  5. Increasing the square footage also generally increases the impervious surface – unless we’re going to start requiring cisterns or green roofs, that means that much more water getting dumped into the storm sewer system, and we’ve all seen that it isn’t always as robust as we might like.

    Additionally, if we are going to talk about parking requirements, let’s remember that for those of us who *do* build our own home, we’re getting forced to comply with a requirement that really doesn’t make any sense and also hobbles creative design. Sure there are bad developers who will continue to build ugly houses like the one pictured here, but if we relax the requirement it at least allows the *hope* that some will opt to go garageless. The reality is street parking is going to be more and more difficult as the CD grows, and that’s not a bad thing! We just need to provide better alternatives for folks to get around.