Monday, November 7, 2011

nothing says single-family homes and townhomes can't play together

Clarendon Park Townhomes
Townhomes proposed by local developer EYA on the site of the former Chelsea School could look like ones they built a few years ago in Arlington.

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?

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.

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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.

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Townhomes in Chelsea Court will look at Colesville Towers, a 1960's-era apartment tower.

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.


toberead2 said...

One factor that isn't addressed here (or in most assessments of housing) is noise. More people in a smaller space = more noise, unless it's addressed in some way (and it usually isn't). If you have two parents, three screaming kids and a dog in the backyard of a single family home, the noise is probably only going to travel to the houses next door. But if you have a townhouse with lots of backyards all close to each other, that noise is going to transmit much further. You'll also hear noise more frequently because there are just more people making noise at different times. This could be addressed in different ways when the homes and townhouses are built, but generally it isn't. Sound transmission is often forgotten when considering neighborhood development.

jag2923 said...

That neighborhood was pretty gunked up with the recent cheap, oversized SFHs crammed together along Woodside Pkwy. How could anyone seriously want more of those horrendous looking things instead of high-quality EYA townhomes that are, you know, properly scaled and not made of junk? It's as clear as day that the later are in keeping with the original neighborhood much more so than the former.

Robert said...

Dan asked in the article: "Why can't different housing types coexist?"

They can.

Although the SOECA position was to oppose townhouses on the Chelsea School site, the Woodside Park Civic Association's position was different. [Woodside Park is across Colesville Road from SOECA's area; Woodside Park has three townhouse developments within its area]. WPCA did not oppose townhouses; WPCA's objection was to townhouses at the maximum possible townhouse density under Montgomery County zoning. WPCA said lower density townhouses, like those in Woodside Park, would be more in keeping with the density of the surrounding neighborhood. That is essentially the position that was adopted, along with concerns about the adequacy of the site to be preserved with the historic structure, etc.

And concerning the comment by "jag2923," I haven't seen inside those new large single family homes to know if they are "junk," but from the outside they look like a lot better neighbors to the existing single family home neighborhood than the super dense townhouses proposed by EYA.

jag2923 said...

Robert, those vinyl-clad McMansions, 30+feet tall and 10 feet apart from each other fit the neighborhood character better than the proposed EYA townhomes? I think we probably aren't talking about the same thing. If we are, I guess agree to disagree.

Dan Reed said...

I'm not bothered by the (no longer new) single-family homes on Woodside Parkway, but I don't think a neighborly development puts a wall and tall hedges between the houses and the street.

And what's super-dense about the EYA proposal? 76 homes/5 acres = about 15 homes/acre. One of the new apartment buildings in DTSS is easily ten times as dense.

Woody Brosnan said...

Dan, Apparently you are unaware that the neighborhood told the Council that it accepts the hearing examiner's decision to change the zoning from single-family to townhouse zoning. But what she also found was that 76 were too many for that site. So it is now up to EYA to come up with a lower number.
There are now 5,000 new apartment or condo units in the planning or construction phase within the CBD. This is a good thing. I don't know why so many activists insist on further encroachment of the single-family neighborhoods around the CBD with higher-density zoning. But I think the world will not come to an end if there are 45 or 50 townhouses built on the Chelsea property instead of 76.

Dan Reed said...


What is "encroaching" on this neighborhood? It's not a smelting plant. It's not a shopping mall. It's HOUSES that happen to share a common wall. In fact, you could argue it's a more similar use than the SCHOOL that's there now.

Sure, we could build 50 townhouses, or 25 single-family houses as some neighbors want. But they'd end up being a lot more expensive to cover the cost of the land - and with 76 houses we're already talking about prices over $500k (except for the 9 or so subsidized homes required by County law). And those 26 families don't just disappear. They still have to live somewhere.

Even with the amount of housing approved in and around DTSS, there's still a huge regional housing shortage. MWCOG estimates say we need 640,000 additional homes in the DC area within the next 20 years, but less than a fourth of them will be built in close-in, Metro-accessible locations like Silver Spring. And that's exactly where we need development to happen, as opposed to at the fringe.

You've been here long enough to know how suburban flight killed downtown Silver Spring. So when there's a demand to live here, and available land to do it, why are we turning people away?

Woody Brosnan said...

Nobody is turning anybody away but residents have a right to expect the county to abide by the master plan process.
I don't anyone can buy these wild forecasts of the need for additional housing when you see the for sale signs all over the county. If you open up the fringe neighborhoods to townhouse develop then you reduce the incentives for more housing within the CBD. That's just the way the market works.
We also need institutions other than retail stores, offices and residences in Silver Spring, like schools, churches, hospitals and nursing homes.
I was very afraid that the EYA case would send a message to all those institutional properties that it was OK for them to sell out to developers and move up county.
The extremes are taking over this debate. Some folks want no tall buildings and no more density at all. Others insist that every property has to be as dense as possible no matter what the impact on nearby residents. Smart Growth does not mean that the developer is always right.

Dan Reed said...

This is the only metropolitan area in the nation that's not in a recession. People are coming here because you can actually find a job here. Not to mention, of course, that the largest generation in American history is finishing college and will need homes soon. Just because you see 'for sale' signs doesn't mean people aren't buying.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert said...

Dan said "You've been here long enough to know how suburban flight killed downtown Silver Spring. So when there's a demand to live here, and available land to do it, why are we turning people away?"

It wasn't flight of residents that "killed" downtown Spring. The residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown stayed stable. The problem was the rise of shopping centers, especially Wheaton Plaza, with acres of free parking and newer and often larger stores.

If the surrounding residential neighborhoods hadn't stayed desirable places to live, we wouldn't have had the revitalization of downtown.

David Adams said...

If you open up the fringe neighborhoods to townhouse develop then you reduce the incentives for more housing within the CBD. That's just the way the market works.

That would be true if you were comparing apples-to-apples, however, your assertion is as valid as saying "If we allow BMW to offer more cars for sale in Montgomery County then you will reduce the incentive for car dealers to try to sell more Toyotas".

The EYA type townhomes are single family. The types of housing that will be developed in the CBD will be much higher ensity MULTI family (i.e. apartments or condos). This is both from the land/development costs and because the product demand.

Dan Reed said...

@David Adams

Absolutely. Neighbors say we'll meet all our housing needs with high-rise apartments in downtown (which there's definitely a demand for), but there will still be people who want townhouses, or to live just outside of downtown. Even as MoCo concentrates the most number of houses in downtown areas like Silver Spring, White Flint, etc., there's still gonna be new housing in other neighborhoods. It'll just be townhouses, or in some cases denser single-family homes.

Robert said...

Dan said: "But there will still be people who want townhouses, or to live just outside of downtown." Right! ... but there is no shortage of houses already surrounding downtown Silver Spring, many at prices comparable to or below the townhouses ERA was proposing.

I understand EYA is coming back with a new proposal that presumably will meet the density requirements adopted by the hearing examiner and the Council.

I've also heard that the original EYA proposal included MDPUs that were only 14 feet wide and had their only bathroom 2 floors above a bedroom which was behind the garage at ground level. Even advocates for moderately priced housing were reportedly complaining about the design. Apparently density wasn't the only problem with the original proposal.

Dan Reed said...

Then put a half-bath downstairs for your guests. 14' actually isn't that bad for a rowhouse. It's exactly one room wide. EYA was selling 14' homes at market rate in their Arts District Hyattsville development.

Like I said before: you can build 50 homes instead of 76, but they're a) more expensive and b) mean fewer people get to live there, which means c) more houses somewhere else, likely on the suburban fringe. And those people will probably end up driving through Silver Spring anyway. Just because they're not in *your* backyard doesn't mean the problem goes away.

Not to mention, of course, that fewer houses means fewer affordable units as well. So advocates for affordable housing should be pushing for 76 homes, including 14' foot affordable units, each with a powder room.

Thomas Hardman said...

Hey man, 14' townhomes is only 2 feet less than living in a double-wide trailer.