Monday, August 6, 2012

Pocket Neighborhoods East of Lake Washington

In a recent post, I described my visits to a pair of pocket neighborhoods in Seattle.  It was on-the ground observation of the concepts described by Ross Chapin in his book “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”.  To complete my pocket neighborhood day, I crossed Lake Washington to look at another pair of projects, both of which were designed by Chapin.

An advantage of the pocket neighborhood concept is site flexibility.  Small footprint homes, especially those that can be physically separated from their garages, can be sited in more creative ways than 3,000 square-foot homes with three-car garages.  This flexibility allows pocket neighborhoods to be accommodated on sites for which standard suburban fare would be difficult.

Conover Commons in Redmond is a case in point.  With an oddly-shaped nine-acre parcel, further restricted by steep topography and wetlands, it’s likely that no more than five or six standard suburban homes could have been squeezed onto the parcel.  But the Conover Commons design team was able to design an elegant and comfortable 25-unit project.

Chapin espouses a theory that approximately twelve homes make a right-sized neighborhood, one in which bonding between residents will occur.  Under the pocket neighborhood concept, each neighborhood will also usually have a common house, a separate building in which communal activities can be held, such as joint dinners.

The 25 units of Conover Commons therefore should have two neighborhoods.  The shape of the site allowed a layout in which the each neighborhood was logically coherent and also allowed the two neighborhoods to have different characters.

Toward the rear of the site, most of the homes are located in fairly close proximity to the garages.  The short walks from car to front door likely cause reduced interaction between neighbors and perhaps also reduced use of the common house.  But it’s the better configuration for seniors or others with limited mobility.

In the front, however, most of the garages are in a structure near the entry from the public street.  As a result, most residents walk down a luxuriant allee to a grassy courtyard surrounded by homes.  On a dreary and drizzly Puget Sound evening, the walk may seem like drudgery, but the residents in neighborhood are more likely to engage in daily interaction.  And the common house at one end of the courtyard is likely to receive greater use.

In a feature that Chapin often encourages, many of the similarly-scaled cottages have owner-selected names.  It’s a way of instilling a sense of pride and differentiation among the cottage owners. 

My visit was short and I didn’t have an opportunity to speak with any residents.  However, the general care of the common areas and of the transitional areas near the front of each home bespoke a healthy, engaged community.

My second visit was to Danielson Grove in Kirkland.  In contrast to Conover Commons, the Danielson Grove parcel was roughly rectangular in shape and didn’t have the other constraints of the Conover Commons.  However, the Danielson Grove site, although it could accommodate sixteen units, didn’t easily allow two distinct neighborhoods.

The design team solution was two dissimilar neighborhoods, one with ten homes around a grassy courtyard and a common house and the other with six homes around a landscaped garden and no common house.  It seems likely the two neighborhoods will have different personalities, but are in sufficiently close proximity that the differences shouldn’t be problematic.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of the grounds, being informed by a resident on my arrival that photos could be taken of the grounds or homes only upon approval by the board of directors.  She claimed the reason was that the cottages were private homes.

However, I was able to converse with the resident, who expressed broad satisfaction with Danielson Grove.  She specifically noted that her young granddaughter loved getting to know and visiting with the residents around the grassy courtyard.

The resident’s only compliant about Danielson Grove was the distance between her garage and her home.  Due to a disability, she was finding the walk increasing difficult.

Much like Conover Commons, the overall appearance of Danielson Grove seems to imply a healthy and functioning community.

A note about the no photos policy.  The homeowner had her facts slightly wrong, although she was still on firm ground.  As Google Streetview has established, there is no prohibition against taking pictures of private homes.  Indeed, it is hard to take an outdoor photo in a residential area without catching another home in the viewfinder.

However, there is certainly a prohibition against trespassing.  When the homeowner spoke to me, I was on Danielson Grove property, so I quickly acceded to her request.  (The two photos of Danielson Grove shown here were taken from the public sidewalk.)

But there is a bigger issue.  Presumably most of the residents of Danielson Grove live there either because they love the lifestyle or because they believe in the concept and are willing to support it.  In either case, wouldn’t it be reasonable to allow others to proselytize in support of pocket neighborhoods?

Perhaps others with cameras have abused the opportunity, but I just can’t believe that enough photographers come by Danielson Grove that a prohibition was required.

The situations aren’t strictly parallel, but I recently replaced a fence around my wife’s and my frontyard.  Our home sits quite close to the sidewalk.  The previous owner had installed a solid board fence, 48 inches high, to give some privacy to the home and yard.  But my wife and I found the fence to be awkward barrier between us and the street.

As a result, I replaced the board with welded wire.  In terms that Chapin would use, the new fence improved the layered transition between the public and private realms.

The neighbors seem to love the new fence.  I’ve not yet seen anyone taking photos, but many stop and linger at the fence, enjoying my wife’s landscaping efforts.  I’ve conversed with several about the fencing materials used and the construction approach.  Nor would I object if someone had a camera.

It’s not strictly the same as the Danielson Grove situation, but I think my attitude is a more healthy response to community building.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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