Friday, August 3, 2012

Pocket Neighborhoods in Seattle

In this space, I recently reviewed the book “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”.  I had moved the book to the top of my reading stack because I would soon be traveling to the Pacific Northwest, location of many of the projects cited by author Ross Chapin.

I’ve now returned.  Having read the book, I was familiar with three of the four pocket neighborhoods I viewed.  But it was still a thrill to see the communities in real life, with real people living their lives in homes that were previously only book knowledge to me.  It was also good to see neighborhood context.

Seeing the pocket neighborhoods confirmed my expectation that the concept has applicability in many communities.  However, implementation has proven difficult.  Due to a largely unfounded fear of density, the success of pocket neighborhoods hasn’t translated into needed zoning changes.

I’ll share a few thoughts below, after a note about Seattle.

I lived in the Emerald City from 1982 to 1987.  I learned to love it.  Yes, it rains a lot, at least if precipitation is measured in days and not inches.  Many places in the North Bay get more rain than Seattle, but it drips all the time up there.  Including during my recent mid-summer visit there.

But once one acquires the correct clothing and attitude, there is much to enjoy about Seattle, starting with the dense greenery.  (My wife remains in awe at the size of the rhododendrons we saw on another trip.)  Also, one must learn never to spend a sunny weekend day doing indoor chores.  The pleasant days are too infrequent to waste.

I hadn’t seen Seattle in nearly a decade before this trip, but quickly fell in love again with the residential areas.  Timing and other constraints didn’t allow a downtown visit, but Pike Place Market and the waterfront remain fond memories.

One change I noted in Seattle was an abundance of prosperous neighborhood retail.  It was a fine change to see.  I enjoyed living in Seattle 25 years ago.  I’d enjoy it even more today.

Back to the subject at hand, pocket neighborhoods.  I visited two projects in Seattle proper.  The first was Pine Street Cottages.  Chapin wasn’t involved, but describes the project as a career inspiration.

The Pine Street Cottages were originally built in the years around World War I.  There are ten small cottages of 420 square-feet each that encircle a shared common area.

By 1990, the neighborhood was crime-ridden, the cottages were in disrepair, and demolition was a real possibility.  The developer who acquired them decided on preservation, but with a fence to protect the residents from the neighborhood.

Before starting construction, the developer allowed the buildings to be used as the setting for a crime reenactment to be shown on America’s Most Wanted.  To his surprise, the reenactment, done with police support, induced nearby crack houses to move away.  The resulting neighborhood seemed more inviting to the cottages.

With this new perspective, the developer instead chose to renovate the cottages to a high standard, hoping to provide a catalyst for further neighborhood regeneration.   And the fence was deleted from the plan.

Twenty years later, it seems clear that the developer’s hopes were fulfilled.  The rehabilitated cottages that sold for $90,000 in the early 1990s have fetched prices of over $300,000.  New homes have been built on the block and the nearby older homes are being well maintained.

I have no specific recollections of this neighborhood from my years in Seattle, except for the memory that it was a part of town I’d have been hesitant to visit.  Today, it’s a comfortable neighborhood that I’d be happy to call home.

Chapin had no role in my next stop, but Ravenna Cottages are very much in the mold of the projects he espouses.  Indeed, he was building similar projects elsewhere in the Puget Sound region when Ravenna Cottages were under construction.

Ravenna Cottages were built under an experimental effort by the City of Seattle to bring the cottage concept into single-family neighborhoods.  It has nine units on a lot that formerly held a single home.   All the cottages are less than 1,000 square feet, but the site plan and architecture is done so well that that the units appear larger.

Ravenna Cottages was favorably received and fits well into its neighborhood.  The common areas were fully landscaped, which in Seattle quickly became lush.  It doesn’t provide a good play area for young children, but offers a serene, quiet environment for older residents.

A typical neighborhood concern about projects like Ravenna Cottages is on-street parking.  But that issue didn’t seem to be a concern for this neighborhood.   Project parking is accessed from an alley behind the project.  At least on a Tuesday morning, the street had plenty of parking available.  I was easily able to park only a few feet away.

Ravenna Cottage also provides non-auto transportation options.  There are several bus stops within walking distance, with total travel times to downtown of 30 to 40 minutes.  Also, Green Lake, with park amenities and shopping options, is less than a ten-minute walk away.

Unfortunately, there are few other cottage projects in Seattle.  Despite the success of the two projects I visited, crucial zoning changes haven’t been made to allow similar projects.  Instead the pocket neighborhood concept remains controversial.

It’s a frequent issue with increased density.  Despite examples of projects that have successfully delivered more residential units without harming an existing neighborhood, indeed often improving the neighborhood, the initial reaction of many homeowners is to oppose density.  There is no easy answer except to continue making commonsense arguments and hoping that they will eventually prevail.

Next time, I’ll hop across Lake Washington to look at a pair of projects that Chapin designed.

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


  1. I have been spending many hours walking in Marietta this year and the some of the neighbourhoods of my youth have remained viable and others have fallen into disarray. It is great to see an effort being made to revitalize these areas in the North-West.

    1. Curt, next time I'm in Marietta, we'll need to walk around. It'd be interesting to hear your stories and to look at the town through your eyes.

      What's with that picture? You look way too serious.

  2. Hello, Dave. I am the person who was involved in both Pine Street and Ravenna. I did the design, landscape, interiors etc. for PS and I was part of the non-profit developer for Ravenna and helped guide the design and the landscape concept and implementation. The courtyard was so expensive we called it "the 10th cottage". I appreciated your recounting and its accuracy. regards, Marcia Hadley

    1. Marcia, thanks for the comment. Rereading my post of nearly five years ago, I find my style rather wooden (I hope I've improved since then), but am pleased that you found me accurate. I still recall a feeling of comfort and "rightness" at both sites.

      Will you be at CNU 26 in Seattle in a couple of weeks? I'd be interested in your take on the evolution of Seattle pocket neighborhoods in the five years since my visit.

  3. Hello Dave,

    I have a question, what is lot size for the entire 10 cottages. Thank you

    1. Mazo, I don't have a precise number, but estimate the area from aerial mapping as a little less than an acre. The resulting density of perhaps 11 units per acre isn't particularly dense, with much multifamily housing starting at 20 units per acre and going far up from there, but it's still a good walkable density.