The Future of Single-Family Neighborhoods is in Their Past

Definition of VINTAGE
1 of wine: of, relating to, or produced in a particular vintage
2 of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality: classic

What is the future of single-family neighborhoods in Seattle? What should single-family neighborhoods look like in 20 or 30 years? This Wednesday, November 14th, the Department of Planning and Development will host a forum to discuss this broad issue along with the more specific problem of how to implement its “emergency” legislation to stop big houses on little lots. I won’t be able to go, but I think it’s worth a visit by anyone concerned about the future of land use in the city. Where is the future of single-family neighborhoods? The answer is easy: the past.

If you visit any of the most idyllic single-family zones in Seattle, with the exception of probably Laurelhurst, you’ll find remnants of what I would call vintage zoning, single-family houses adjacent to various multi-family and commercial uses. I’m planning to head out to find more examples of traces of vintage zoning, like corner stores, multifamily units clustered or embedded within old single-family zones, or other vestiges of a time when people might have been less picky about pushing uses and forms together.

One interesting resource out on the web now is the 1912 Baist Real Estate Map. It is more provocative than conclusive when it comes to figuring out whether I am right about what land use looked like 100 years ago. The map isn’t very clear about uses; it mainly maps the footprint of buildings and their construction, brick, wood frame, or stone. It also includes whether the building is a stable, since back then most transportation choices were animal based or on a trolley line, which the Baist map also maps.

Two maps snips I think most interesting are first, the map of the area that is now dominated by Seattle Center. Most of the hand-painted reddish shapes apartment buildings with glitzy names like The Avalon, The Hollywood, or The Wilmot. There is also a corner bakery in this map, and each of these buildings are mixed in with what looks like various sizes and shapes of single-family or other kinds of housing.

The second one I find worth noting in the context of what single-family might look like in the future is a section of the map that is now Fremont. Notice the varying size and placement of buildings on the lots, and the number of buildings. Many of these houses and buildings are likely still in place.

All this is guess work on my part. I’ve hardly done deep analysis of historical photos of these areas along with the maps themselves. But I think it’s worth looking back before we look forward. It’s very easy to believe that our neighborhoods always looked just like they do today. That’s simply not true. And when we look back, my guess is that we’d find more variety in single-family neighborhoods of housing type, size, lot placement, materials, and densities. We’d also likely find that in the old days, there was more commercial uses in the midst of single-family and residential neighborhoods, an idea that was set upon by some Capitol Hill residents as the end of their world as they know it.

Planning the future of Seattle’s land use may very well be an exercise is dusting off these old maps and photos rather than inventing fancy, complex new code. To plan for the years ahead, we should use these records of a time when the horse and trolley dominated the right of way rather than the car. Many of our existing single-family neighborhoods already have classic patterns of use. Variety and diversity are already here, we just need to find ways to welcome more people (density is people!) into those classic Seattle neighborhoods.

Photo: Dedication of Chief Seattle Statue at 5th and Denny 1912, from Seattle Municipal Archives

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One Response to The Future of Single-Family Neighborhoods is in Their Past

  1. Morgan says:

    I’ve always noticed how old neighborhoods are speckled with small corner properties that weren’t houses, though most now seem converted to housing. The ones that are still around seem to be on arterials.
    50 & 100 years ago, walking was obviously a more necessary tranpo mode and grocery stores (a larger part of consumer activity at the time) were much smaller. So, I’m guessing there wasn’t nearly as much motivation to chase lower prices and greater choice.

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