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Housing


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Development


As Silver Spring urbanizes, neighbors disagree on who "belongs" there

Some members of a Silver Spring civic association recently tried to keep their new neighbors from joining. While residents rejected the measure, the fact that the issue got consideration at all illustrates how people disagree on who "belongs" in urbanizing communities.


The new townhouses rise behind single-family homes in Seven Oaks-Evanswood. All photos by the author.

The Seven Oaks-Evanswood Civic Association (SOECA) sits in the shadow of downtown Silver Spring, just a few blocks from the Metro station. Nearly all of its 220 households live in single-family homes, though the association recently lost a years-long battle to stop Chelsea Heights, a development of 63 townhomes on the site of a former private school on Ellsworth Drive.

Last week, the SOECA board proposed an amendment to the civic association's bylaws that would limit membership to "residents of the R-60 zoned areas," or people living in single-family homes. The amendment would effectively bar the new townhouse residents from joining. The association already keeps out people living in a handful of small apartment buildings within the neighborhood's borders, which are drawn to exclude nearby high-rise apartment buildings.

The proposal unleashed a fiery conversation in the normally sleepy neighborhood, both online and at a community meeting last night that 50 people attended. But after a vote, neighbors voted 32-17 against the change.

Neighbors worried townhouse residents would "out-vote" them

Why propose barring the future residents of Chelsea Heights from the neighborhood association? On the community listserv, some residents worried that the Chelsea Heights residents could join the civic association and "out-vote" existing residents on neighborhood issues, such as whether to restrict cut-through traffic.

"Will their interests as members of a higher-density tract development coincide with, complement or be in conflict with those of a neighborhood association composed of residents in single-family homes?" asked one resident.


A new street in the Chelsea Heights development.

SOECA president Jean Cavanaugh noted that Chelsea Heights will have its own homeowners' association, and says that her organization would be willing to cooperate with it. "There are other civic associations that work side-by-side with large townhouse developments that have their own association," she told me.

She added that this had nothing to do with the fight to stop the development. "We have no issue with the people buying property in Chelsea Heights. Our issue's with the Planning Board, the county, and [Chelsea Heights developer] EYA," she told me. "We can distinguish between who we had our battle with and the innocents who are gonna move in to Chelsea Heights."

Other area neighborhoods welcome all comers

It's not unusual for neighborhood groups anywhere to fight development. But in Silver Spring, a community that's generally progressive and tolerant and where many neighborhoods have a mix of housing types, it's unusual for associations to deliberately exclude people based on what kind of home they live in.


Homes in SOECA are literally next to the high-rises and businesses of downtown Silver Spring.

Next door to SOECA, the Woodside Park Civic Association has a long history of opposing townhouses from being built there, but remains totally open to anyone who wants to join. And the East Silver Spring Civic Association is open not only to townhouse dwellers, but apartment and condominium residents as well.

"The fact that I live in an apartment does not mean I am any less impacted by a nearby development or the loss of a local park, than say a homeowner would be," says ESSCA president Megan Moriarty. "Furthermore, I think we can come up with better solutions if all voices are considered in the debate."

Liz Brent, a real estate agent and Seven Oaks-Evanswood resident for 20 years, says that the disagreement reflects a disconnect between how long-time residents and newer residents see the neighborhood.

"There are people who come [to Silver Spring] for the transportation, come here for the walkability, come here for the diversity," she says. "I'm not saying the people who came here 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 50 years ago don't want the diversity. But people who are coming here now...that's critical. It's a sea change for people who have been here for 30 and 40 and 50 years."

Keeping people out weakens community

Civic associations have a lot of sway in Montgomery County politics, largely because they're so organized. They provide a voice to thousands of residents, and they have done a lot of good in the county, from organizing community events to fighting highway extensions that would have cut across Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

But civic groups also disenfranchise many people, whether by restricting membership to certain residents or by becoming adversarial towards people who disagree. That's one reason why participation in civic associations across Montgomery County is in decline.

Just 20% of eligible households in Seven Oaks-Evanswood are members of SOECA. I've spoken to SOECA residents who supported Chelsea Heights and say they stopped participating because of the group's eagerness to vilify anyone who supported the development. "I couldn't think of a decision that had been made that I agree with," Brent said as to why she left.

While neighbors who fight new development say they're doing it to "preserve" or "strengthen" their neighborhood, they ultimately weaken community organizations when they push out people who might otherwise want to get involved too. Change is a fact of life, but so is difference and disagreement. Community organizations do themselves a disservice by trying to squelch both.

Besides, I bet that people buying houses in Chelsea Heights, or the renters who are already excluded from participating in SOECA, probably moved there because they like and enjoy the neighborhood. I bet they have a lot more in common with their single-family dwelling neighbors than some would like to admit. And now, we'll get to find out.

Development


After 3-year fight, work starts on Silver Spring townhouses

In 2010, local builder EYA made a deal with a private school to buy their Silver Spring campus and build townhouses there. After a three-year battle with the neighborhood association, construction has finally begun.


Bus ad for the new Chelsea Heights development in downtown Silver Spring. All photos by the author.

Workers are busy clearing the five-acre site on Pershing Drive, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro station. Eventually, there will be 63 townhomes, including 8 moderately-priced units for low-income households, and a restored, 150-year-old farmhouse, which will be sold as a single-family home.

Over the past week, ads for the new development, dubbed Chelsea Heights, appeared on bus stops around downtown Silver Spring. It's named for the Chelsea School, a special-needs institution that sold its home of 36 years and recently moved to Hyattsville. But getting here wasn't easy.

Long and contentious history

Chelsea first announced their plans to sell the school to EYA in 2010 and move closer to their students in Prince George's County. But a group of neighbors in the Seven Oaks-Evanswood Citizens Association (SOECA) were unhappy with EYA's proposal, then called Chelsea Court.

They claimed that townhomes didn't belong in a neighborhood zoned for single-family homes. The County Council allowed EYA to build townhouses if they reduced the number of units from 77 to 64.

Neighbors persisted, suing the county and later hiring a consultant who claimed that the project would violate state and county environmental laws. Both claims were dismissed, and the Planning Board approved the project in April with requirements that EYA provide more parking and restrict turns into the development to discourage through traffic.

It's about time this got built

It's not unusual for new development in existing communities to be controversial. Writing about the lost battle against a new apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney recently noted, people generally like their neighborhoods the way they are, and are often suspicious of plans to change it.


Construction at the Chelsea Heights site.

But there are so many reasons why infill development in Silver Spring is good for those neighborhoods and for the region as a whole. Chelsea Heights will place 64 new households within a short walk of transit, local shops and restaurants, and other amenities, reducing their need to drive and bolstering the local economy.

It reduces the pressure to build on the region's fringe, while providing housing where it's most wanted. These $700,000 townhouses aren't affordable to most people, myself included, but they'll help make the area more affordable by growing the housing supply.

This project has been a long time coming, and I'm glad to see it finally come to fruition.

Public Spaces


Top of the Park neighborhood shows density done right

Some people may consider "density" a dirty word, but if designed well, a dense community can feel both spacious and private. Take Top of the Park, a 1940's-era condominium in Silver Spring. While none of the townhouses have their own yards, they share a backyard that anyone would envy.


Typical townhouses in Top of the Park. Photo by the author.

Top of the Park was built in 1942 as apartments and converted to condominiums in the 1970's. It's a pro­duct of the Garden City movement, which tried at the turn of the 20th century to synthe­size the best features of the city and country, giving residents access to urban amenities in a more natural setting.

Garden City ideas were very popular in the design of European neighborhoods, but they appeared in American communities as well, like Radburn, New Jersey and nearby Greenbelt.

Though it was built on what was once the suburban edge, Top of the Park can arguably be called an urban neighborhood now, surrounded by taller buildings and within a short walk of the Long Branch shopping district. One day, it will be a few blocks from two Purple Line stations.

Parking Area
Parking is organized along a few dead-end streets.

Nonetheless, the community still retains a country feel. In keeping with the Garden City ideal of separating car and pedestrian traffic, Top of the Park is organized around a few dead-end streets where residents park their cars, then walk through shared courtyards to their homes, which face common footpaths.

Benches
A built-in bench along a walkway.

The walk from the car to the house can be a little long, but it might be worth it. The paths are lined with beautiful flowers and bushes, and everywhere you look are views of mature trees. Little touches like these built-in benches make the walkways a place for spending time in, not just passing through.

The original designers also took advantage of the site's hilly terrain. The two rows of houses pictured above can't be more than 50 feet apart, but placing one of them at a higher elevation ensures that they don't look directly into each other, giving residents more privacy.

Rowhouse With Porch
Townhouse with a porch.

Since it's a condominium, Top of the Park residents own their homes, but not the land they sit on. However, they are allowed to make some alterations to the front and back of their units, like this porch. This policy gives residents the ability to individualize their homes, but at a lower cost than if they bought a conventional townhouse or detached house with a private yard.

Shared Courtyard
One of the courtyards.

Besides, residents get to enjoy these shared courtyards, filled with trees, flowers and some outdoor furniture. When I visited a few months ago, I heard birds singing as neighbors tended their gardens and kids ran around. I imagine it would be very difficult, or at least very expensive, to find a private yard this nice this close to downtown Silver Spring.

Picnic Table
Picnic table and benches in a courtyard.

These terraces seem to lend themselves well to neighborly gatherings, like a picnic or cookout. I noticed that in addition to providing shade, the trees screen views of the surrounding houses, giving them privacy.

Walkway With Tall Trees
A walkway lined with tall trees and landscaping.

With 166 homes on 15 acres, Top of the Park wouldn't be mistaken for Manhattan, but it's part of one of Montgomery County's densest neighborhoods. It's also about as dense as some recently-built or proposed townhouse developments around Silver Spring. Unlike those neighborhoods, however, Top of the Park has had decades to let its trees grow to the point where you can barely see the houses between them in an aerial photo. Hopefully, the same thing will happen in newer projects.

Top of the Park may be 70 years old, but it shows that we can still offer privacy, ample open space and opportunities for personal expression to families who may not want or can't afford a large, detached house. It's a useful example for Montgomery County as it tries to accommodate a growing population in an increasingly limited space.

Development


Different housing types can mix if designed propertly

Neighbors of Chelsea Court, a proposed townhouse development at the site of the former Chelsea School outside downtown Silver Spring complain it's too dense for a neighborhood of single-family homes, and last month, the County Council agreed. But why can't different housing types coexist?


Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

Local developer EYA bought the Chelsea School's campus in May 2010 after the private academy announced they were closing. EYA, which has built dozens of townhome and condominium projects around Greater Washington over the past twenty years, wants to build 76 townhomes on the site, located in the Seven Oaks neighborhood less than a block from downtown Silver Spring.

To do so, they need the County Council to change the property's zoning, which right now only allows single-family homes.

There's a group of neighbors who say they'd prefer detached houses, while county planners and blogger Silver Spring, Singular, who also lives in the neighborhood, point out that there's already high-rise buildings in the area.

Neighbors will always complain that a development is "too dense" on the basis of overcrowded schools or congested roads, though that isn't really an issue with two-bedroom townhouses within walking distance of a large urban center. So let's talk about the other issue: is it a foregone conclusion that you can't have single-family homes, townhomes and apartments in the same neighborhood? Not at all, especially if they're designed to get along with each other.


Image from Google Street View.

This is the corner of 47th Street and Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, about three blocks from my house here. The specific neighborhood is called Garden Court, and it was built in the 1920's as a "streetcar suburb" for middle- and upper-middle-class families. Even as much of West Philadelphia fell into disinvestment and poverty, this neighborhood has been relatively stable. Today, it's home to many students and faculty at Penn, Drexel and other universities in the area. Even a rowhouse here will easily run above $500,000, a bargain by D.C.-area standards but expensive for here.

Take a look at this intersection. On three corners are large, single-family homes. Next to them are duplexes, maybe a little smaller but still more than enough room for a family. Go west on Osage about a hundred feet, or east one block, and you'll find rowhouses. See that big building poking through the trees? That's a high-rise condominium, just a block north.

Garden Court, Philadelphia
Different types of houses mix well in my West Philadelphia
neighborhood, so why can't they in Silver Spring?

This neighborhood's not a bad comparison to, say, Woodside Park or Seven Oaks, neighborhoods adjacent to downtown Silver Spring. Woodside Park and Seven Oaks were built around the same time. Though those neighborhoods have bigger lots and lack sidewalks, they were intended for the same, well-heeled clientele. And both have a mix of different house types, sizes and heights.

Nonetheless, Garden Court has the benefit of being built all at once, so the high-rise building has similar details and materials as the single-family houses. In the neighborhoods around downtown Silver Spring, you might have single-family homes built before World War II, apartment buildings built in the 1960's, and townhouses built more recently.

Certainly, living next to a genteel 1920's apartment house might be nicer than living next to a 1960's Modernist apartment tower. It's not surprising that some people living in neighborhoods like Seven Oaks are uncomfortable with new development when they have to contend with buildings that aren't so sensitive to their context.


Townhomes in Chelsea Court will look at Colesville Towers,
a 1960's-era apartment tower. Image from Google Street View.

Yet my example shows that single-family houses and townhouses and apartments can play together if done right. Like the different housing types in my West Philadelphia neighborhood, the proposed Chelsea Court houses use similar materials and detailing as existing homes nearby, while providing a opportunity for families who can't afford or don't want a detached house to live there. What makes Silver Spring a great place to live is that it attracts a mix of people, and that comes from having a mix of housing styles, types and prices. And like I wrote last week, those qualities are threatened when we try to push out anyone or anything that seems "different" than what's already there.

Like any development in an existing neighborhood, Chelsea Court needs to fit in with its context. But that doesn't have anything to do with how dense it is. In fact, an urban center like Silver Spring needs new residents within walking distance of its shops, restaurants, and extensive public transit. What we can do is ensure that these new townhouses are designed to complement their single-family neighbors. It's been done before, and we can do it again.

Roads


North Capitol: Competing visions for handling traffic

reported that developers have been chosen for Northwest One, which will replace the Sursum Corda and Temple Court projects near New York Avenue and North Capitol with mixed-use redevelopment that has the potential to become a walkable neighborhood. But it also reveals some very different views on how to handle traffic around New York Avenue and I-395.

The master plan from 2005 has a lot to recommend it. In addition to building mixed-income townhouses on the side streets and larger apartment buildings with retail facing the larger thoroughfare of K Street, it will reconnect many of the smaller streets like L Street. Right now, that area is a hodgepodge of dead-ends and superblocks; the more connected the street grid the more walkable a neighborhood.

But I noticed one very bad idea briefly mentioned on page 24 of the plan, the section on traffic. The neighborhood is very close to the intersection where the I-395 freeway comes out of the tunnel under the Capitol and dead-ends at New York Avenue. This is one of the last pieces to be built of the original DC interstate plan. The Northwest One master plan (from 2005, remember) says, "There is significant congestion along New York Avenue between the I-395 tunnel and North Capitol Street... This study recommends... the extension of the I-395 tunnel from its current terminus to Florida Avenue."

DC planners may have good ideas on smart growth, but at least in 2005 they still were stuck in the past on traffic. Adding more traffic lanes does not reduce congestion; at most it pushes it elsewhere. Extending the tunnel might allow New York Avenue to become a pedestrian-friendly road, but will also make I-395 even more appealing for drivers, increasing traffic volume there. If there are bottlenecks in the tunnel, more drivers may divert to the same city streets the plan aims to protect. And what about New York Avenue east of Florida Avenue? Enabling more traffic will make that area even more difficult to turn into walkable urban neighborhoods one day.

Continuing to surprise me, however, is the federal government: the National Capital Planning Commission conducted a charrette with Federal agencies and six consultants, which resulted in a report recommending the opposite of DC Planning's tunnel extension. Noting that many drivers use New York Avenue and 395 to cut through the District between Maryland and Virginia instead of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Beltway, the report advocates designing New York Avenue to serve DC residents instead of suburbanites. It recommends planners "encourage more smart, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development" and "create a corridor with a better balance of transportation modes (e.g. transit, walking, bicycling)."

For the New York/Florida Avenue intersection, the group suggests policies to "discourage drive-through, auto-oriented uses at the intersection" and "employ traffic-calming measures to slow traffic to a level compatible with the urban neighborhood." Most remarkably, the report recomments DC evaluate congestion pricing in the area, and even cutting I-395 back to end at Massachusetts Avenue (a road which leads to DC neighborhoods on both ends, rather than connecting directly to a Maryland freeway).

This is remarkably progressive thinking from a federal board. This is a major intersection that carries large amounts of traffic, but is also ugly and overly designed for cars. Most Departments of Transportation would only be able to think about increasing its traffic capacity, but NCPC is instead recommending restoring the area to a vibrant urban fabric. And it can be done while still enabling people to drive in and out of the city, just as people successfully do along the avenues to the north, which work relatively well as neighborhood main streets and commuter boulevards at the same time.

Development


Maybe they can build 'em like they used to

During the dark ages of urban planning (the 1960s and 70s), many old residential buildings were replaced with discredited the idea. Block after block of attractive row houses are gone forever, even though brownstones in places like Brooklyn, Boston, San Francisco, and DC sell for a million dollars or two, or more.

Can we ever go back? Most of today's urban developments are glassy high-rises, the better to capture the maximum possible revenue for the developer. They're better than 1970s concrete boxes, but is anyone building brightly colored townhouses with bay windows in front?

They are building them in one place, DC's "Capitol Quarter" development in Southeast DC near the new baseball stadium.

Via JD Land, the Capper/Carrollsburg public housing complex is being redeveloped into townhomes, replacing the 700 public housing units with an equal number, while adding another 700 units divided equally between market-rate and "workforce-rate" (aka middle-class affordable housing).

These aren't Dupont's ornate Victorian row houses or Brooklyn's brick brownstones, but they look quite nice nonetheless. And with many people interested in living in the city but not craving the high rise apartment life, we need more townhouses in mixed-use areas. This district is near stores, offices, and the Metro.

Hopefully, mixing mixing low- and middle-income housing with market-rate, all next to one another in buildings of similar appearance, will avoid mistakes of the "housing projects" where concentrations of poverty create high-crime zones. And hopefully this project will look as good as it does in the drawing, encouraging more construction of new townhouses and creating new Park Slopes or Capitol Hills for future generations.

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