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Sunday, July 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary

New Mukilteo Village creates a true sense of neighborhood

Special to The Seattle Times

The notion that our homes and workplaces should be located in separate corners of our cities is a relatively modern one, resulting from the best of intentions.

During the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 19th century, homes were often just a stone's throw from nasty industry such as steel mills and animal-rendering plants. Smokestacks belched pollutants and toxic runoff poisoned ground water.

That grim reality motivated politicians and planners to pass laws and make policy that grew into what we now call zoning regulations. In short, it was a good idea at the time, but it grew into something much less desirable in many of our communities.

In the past five decades, laws have banned even fairly benign functions like the small grocery, barbershop or drugstore from mixing in with homes. This has been a major cause of the traffic congestion that plagues us around Seattle and other cities. No wonder we have packed roads — everyone must drive a mile or more to do absolutely anything. Even worse, we have often relegated denser forms of housing to the least desirable parts of our communities — often along busy arterial streets and far from local services and parks. Ironically, this puts the greatest number of people in the least livable locations.

However, if we look to neighborhoods that were developed and came to maturity prior to the advent of strict, single-purpose zoning, we see a much different pattern.

In these places, which can be found in both larger cities and small towns, there are often clusters of local shops and services at certain intersections. Some homes contain a small business operated by the owner such as a hair salon, tax accountant, counseling service, or law practice. Many of these mixed-use neighborhoods are revered as historic districts, possessing both the charm and convenience of a place with many choices close at hand.

But outside of those neighborhoods, we have simply thrown the baby out with the bath water in our misguided attempts to avoid mixing housing with commerce. And by separating housing into pockets of high, medium and low density, we have reinforced a class society, offering little in the way of diversity and sociability. Many of the resulting so-called neighborhoods are not true neighborhoods at all, but rather isolated enclaves of dwellings with residents cut off from any options but to get in a car and drive to any other destination.

Thankfully, however, we are beginning to see this condition change. Some savvy developers are recognizing that the previous pattern of exclusionary subdivisions was not meeting everyone's needs.

A recent example is found in a development called Mukilteo Village Center. Located west of Highway 99, off Harbor Pointe Boulevard, the place is a remarkable departure from the standard template of could-be-anywhere subdivisions, apartment compounds and strip malls surrounded by parking found throughout our region.

In fact, the city of Mukilteo had to craft a "development agreement" that allowed a departure from the typical pattern of single-use developments found in most suburban communities. The comfort level of the City Council was assured by their ability to see and approve the design before permits were issued.

The development is a small village, with different types of homes, shops and services, cafes, and green spaces within close proximity to each other. The streets have generously wide sidewalks and closely-spaced trees. A main street is framed with multistory buildings containing retail at the street level and offices above.

Part of the village consists of modest, but well-designed homes on small lots, arranged around a loose grid of narrow streets. A number of builders have erected their own home designs, thereby preventing the repetitive pattern often seen in an area built by the same company. Many of the homes have garages located off narrow rear alleys — slender corridors that have their own charm, with gardens and small pockets of planting that flank the lanes.

But the core of the village contains the most interesting aspects of this new community. Apartments are designed much like townhouses, with common side walls. Facades address the street or shared interior greens. Although the color scheme could have been considerably more varied and rich, the buildings are still far more interesting and well-detailed than the standard suburban complex.

Obviously, plenty of thought was given to providing qualities and characteristics that convey the sense of a village. Two developers collaborated on this project: the Chinook Pacific Corp. and Legacy Partners; Lozier Homes and Buchan Homes built the smaller houses nearby.

Mukilteo Village reflects the talents of a number of design firms, including GGLO Architects, Mithun Architects, RMA, Huntley Architecture and Fred Baxter Architects. Landscape architects Hough, Beck & Baird were responsible for the site design. The variety resulting from this affiliation is evident, and it already feels like a place that has emerged over a longer period of time. Future additions will likely add to the diversity.

The best part of this development is the live-work units found in the sector of the village called "Bellaterra" — homes that have a street-facing commercial storefront on the ground floor. Even though the place has just recently opened, street-level spaces are already being occupied by residents running services and shops.

In this sort of dwelling, a resident can operate a small business and have a presence on the street, thus adding needed liveliness to the community. I predict this type of housing will be increasingly popular in coming years, as more people choose to work at home or raise families in these more vibrant settings.

All is not perfect in this place, however much it departs from the conventional pattern of suburban growth. A bit of variety and contrast would be welcome in place of the largely monochromatic color schemes. And the size of the central village green is simply too small, its design not very interesting, and it is too closely associated with the adjacent recreation building to feel like a true neighborhood commons. Perhaps this space could be re-worked in the future, using the talents of a creative landscape architect.

Even with these shortcomings, Mukilteo Village offers a promising direction for the future, and gives us a glimpse of what can happen if we re-think outdated rules.

Mark Hinshaw is director of urban design for LMN Architects. He can be reached at homes@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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