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The virtues of the row house

Joe Nathan Big

The dominant house type of so many Baltimore neighborhoods is the familiar row house. Up in New York City, they are typically known as brownstones. While the British refer to them as “terraced houses,” in Dublin they are called “street houses.” As Charlie Duff writes, with his droll sense of humor: “People who are trying to sell them, on both sides of the (Atlantic) Ocean, routinely call them town houses, a phrase that apparently adds to the price. The Dutch, who invented them, simply call them houses.”

Charlie Duff, who is many things – architect, developer, historian, raconteur and keen observer of the urban scene –  has a recently released book, “The North Atlantic Cities,” that extolls the virtues of the row house. He traces the history of this compact development type, first appearing in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, then skipping over to the British Isles and finally planting itself in North America, along the Eastern Seaboard from Boston in the north all the way down to Richmond, Virginia.

Duff, in his book, cites two major reasons for championing row house cities. One is that they are still trying to deal effectively “with the challenges, posed by the automobile, the high-rise building, the low-density sprawl, de-industrialization, and racial and ethnic diversity.”

The second reason relates to climate change, which he calls “a real and terrifying threat.” The row house pattern adopted over the last three centuries by the North Atlantic cities provides a guide for the future. He goes on to say: “We need to find ways of living satisfying lives with a much lower carbon footprint. Since living closer together is the easiest way of consuming less energy, we are lucky to have some home-grown traditions of building and living at adequate density.”

Some would like to ensure this “adequate density” through legislation. One such lawmaker who has been in the news lately is Scott Weiner, a California state senator from San Francisco. He has been leading an effort to promote higher density, among other places, at transit stations. It’s been an uphill battle.

Weiner’s current bill, designated SB 50, would “upzone”, i.e., increase the density of, areas that previously had been reserved for single-family housing. It would also go beyond typical row house densities by promoting the development of multistory apartment buildings located along transit routes.

Sen. Weiner’s motivations echo those expressed by Charlie Duff. In a tweet, Weiner states:

We can’t view climate change as just a national/global fight.

It also starts at home, with our choice not to build much housing by jobs & transit & thus to make sprawl CA’s unofficial housing policy. We need a new approach. SB 50 is part of the solution.

But many critics don’t see it that way. For three years running, different versions of Weiner’s bill have met with defeat. There are many reasons. Earlier versions of the bill were seen as ceding local control of land use to the state government. The 2020 iteration of the legislation incorporated changes to address those concerns.

Others see the legislation as lacking in provisions for affordable housing, while fueling gentrification and higher rents for the poor and working class. It was these concerns that prompted lawmakers in Weiner’s home base of San Francisco to oppose the bill for the third time, citing its failure to increase the availability of low-income housing. The Los Angeles City Council has similarly voted to oppose previous versions of the bill.

While California Gov. Gavin Newsom has expressed a commitment to seeing an SB 50-like bill pass in some form, ultimately the legislation was shelved for 2020 by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

I present this California case as illustrative of the tensions involved in building our cities and regions in ways that are sensitive to environmental concerns – indeed, the existential threat posed by climate change — while also addressing the very real bread-and-butter worries of people trying to afford ever-rising rents.

We have here a significant challenge for those who are designing our future living arrangements. In part, it’s a design problem. At the same time, it’s an economic challenge. I’m many years removed from my days as a young architecture student, but I can envision an important and meaningful studio project. Most of the major schools of architecture are in universities with business schools as well. The studio assignment would bring together students from both parts of the institution to create designs meeting both urgent environmental and economic requirements.

I’ll have to talk to Charlie Duff about this idea the next time I see him.

Joe Nathanson is the not-quite-retired principal of Urban Information Associates, a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.

 

 

 

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