Cottage revival: Builder takes new approach with old ideas near Green Lake
Seattle Times staff reporter
The project is in its raw infancy now. But imagine Ravenna Cottages two years hence on a sunny day. Vines will be creeping up the trellises. Beyond the entry gate, the arbor will cast inviting shade on the private, recessed sitting area adjacent to the fountain. Shrubs will be leafed out, flowers blooming, neighbors talking across their common courtyard.
Some passersby in this Green Lake neighborhood may not realize what they're seeing isn't just charming or romantic. It's entirely radical in Seattle: the first detached cottage community built within the city since the 1920s.
Freshly finished this month, the cottages are six detached two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath houses. There are also three one-bedroom, one-bath (plus loft) carriage houses atop the development's nine-car garage. These nine new homes sit on the equivalent of two city lots.
Before the paint was even dry, two had been sold, at prices ranging from $257,000 to $307,000, which raises two questions:
If cottage communities (or "bungalow courts," as they were called in early Seattle) are such a welcome commodity, why have none been built for nearly 80 years? And how has a nonprofit developer, Threshold Housing, been able to build these now?
Leaping legal hurdles
Simply said, cottage construction within Seattle has been illegal - and is still illegal. Ditto building carriage houses atop garages, even though vintage ones in neighborhoods like Capitol Hill have always been considered desirable rentals.
But recently this illegality has collided with the reality that if Seattle is to solve its housing-supply crisis, it must be flexible and open to new ideas - or even old ones.
In community discussions, beginning with a housing summit called by Mayor Paul Schell, ideas started percolating. "We thought, 'If we didn't have to be restricted by zoning, what kind of housing could we have that people would buy?' " recounts Diane Sugimura, deputy director of Seattle's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU), which controls building and zoning codes.
Thus was born a special demonstration-program ordinance. Its purpose is to test what DCLU terms "innovative residential design solutions" not currently allowed under city codes - and do so in a way that doesn't alienate the neighbors.
Developers, homeowners and others were invited to submit proposals, particularly for cottages and detached accessory dwelling units - often called mother-in-law apartments - of which carriage houses are one type.
Whidbey Island has a new cottage community; Shoreline has one in the works.
And now, after more than two years of planning, Ravenna Cottages is Seattle's first cottage program out of the ground.
While grateful for the opportunity, it wasn't the easiest birth, says John Kucher, Threshold Housing's executive director. Threshold "does demonstration projects that a regular market-rate builder would not do," he says, adding, "no regular builder in his right mind would have done Ravenna Cottages. It took us two years to get all the way permitted."
But Threshold's history and mission ensure it isn't a regular builder.
In the past decade or so, the nonprofit has completed two other rule-bending projects: Malden Court, composed of 10 Capitol Hill condos that look like two older homes, and Benson Glen. That's a 42-home Renton development that tested the role government regulation plays in development costs.
Threshold also refurbished Seattle's historic Pine Street Cottages (at 22nd Avenue and East Pine Street) and owns 90 units of low-income housing.
Market-rate projects such as Ravenna Cottages generate the funds to build more, Kucher explains.
What would neighbors accept?
Because the city required that any developer participating in its demonstration program have neighborhood support, Threshold began the cottage project by asking what the neighbors wanted.
Answers came from two focus groups composed of Green Lake-area voters who had nothing to do with neighborhood or city politics, construction or real estate.
They initially balked at news that a dense cottage project was being considered in an area of older single-family homes, recalls Bill Kreager, who heads Mithun Architecture and sits on Threshold's board of directors.
"Some neighbors thought their neighborhood had been rezoned, while others feared that increased traffic and other impacts would be detrimental to the area," Kreager recounts. "Threshold's staff spent many months meeting with neighbors and community-council groups."
And thus Kucher learned that community education was necessary to the project's success.
While focus groups recognized that cost and availability of housing are major civic issues, none understood the relevance of the state's Growth Management Act.
So Kucher explained that growth management means "saving the green fields and farms and putting growth in areas that already have existing population." The effect is to limit sprawl by forcing greater density into neighborhoods.
Comfortable with that concept, they then were asked if they'd accept 100 new housing units in their neighborhood.
Yes, was the consensus, but not if it meant big-box apartment buildings whose tenants were swallowed up by garages, never to be seen again.
However, cottages - seen as "street friendly" and therefore promoting social interaction - were acceptable, and the project was on.
Down came a 790-square-foot house, built in 1902, and on the same double lot up went the nine housing units. The two-story cottages are 838 square feet, the carriage houses about 970 square feet.
Price is a problem
If there is one sour note, it's the cost, which "virtually doubled" in the two years it took to bring the project in, Kucher says. "They're a lot more expensive than we initially wanted to charge."
Because they all share the same property, the units are in fact condominiums, but Kucher never had any doubts that small-scale cluster housing was the ticket.
"People like having their separate building and separate space," he says. "If you arrange them the way we've arranged them (around a central courtyard), then you have a sense of community, a manageable community that bonds together well."
The carriage houses were something of an afterthought when it was realized that the garage off the alley could house three more units.
Marcia Gamble Hadley and Paul Pierce, both trained architects, were committed to designing buildings that looked at home in the neighborhood, both stylistically and in terms of height and proximity to the street.
Because of the density, that was a challenge, Pierce says.
Another was making the spaces seem larger than they are. The keys are well-proportioned rooms, with high ceilings to give a sense of volume and lots of windows to let in light.
The result, he says, "aren't skinny houses. They're small houses."
Kreager thinks the architects met their mission.
Describing the style as "turn-of-the-century Craftsmany," he says, "if they'd gone in there and built some great stucco and stainless-steel carriage houses, architects would have loved it, but the neighborhood would have gone ballistic."
Targeted toward single professionals, the cottages have fireplaces, wood floors, kitchens with pantries and deep drawers for pots. Some have French doors. Each has private outdoor space besides the courtyard, which will have a community barbecue.
The carriage houses have a main-floor living room and bedroom plus a loft reached by a spiral staircase.
And tying everything together is the landscape design, including several types of privacy-adding vines. Says Gamble Hadley: "The idea is to make it interesting and rich with visual privacy so neighbors don't feel they're looking at each other."
The day Ravenna Cottages came on the market, 27-year-old software sales manager Tim Elliott bought a carriage house. A loft downtown had been his first choice, but finding them too expensive, he says the carriage house is a fine substitute.
"You don't have a lot of square feet, but what you do have is well-thought-out," Elliott observes. "And they did a great job of putting the units close enough together so they feel like part of a little community, but far enough apart so they feel like they have some space."
DCLU's Sugimura says she's pleased with the finished product. "I think what they've shown is you can do a small structure that's still a very livable structure, and it can work in a neighborhood."
If the city agrees, it's possible future changes in the building code will allow more cottages to pop up in other parts of Seattle.
If you visit
Ravenna Cottages are at 6318 Fifth Ave. N.E. in Seattle's Green Lake neighborhood. They are open Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. and by appointment. Call 206-295-8284. The nearest available parking is a Park and Ride lot at Northeast 65th Street and Interstate 5.