Needed Return of the Rowhouse

Very few terms in architecture and city planning are met with as much impashioned opinions as the Rowhouse. It has been associated with an image of poverty and bland living. However, attach the name Brownstone to a street of similar shaped houses with shared walls, many have a more positive view. The Rowhouse exists all over the world and in many different iterations. Consequently, the way you feel about them could have more to do with were you grew up and the media you watch.

Row houses offer affordable ownership without a HOA fee and offer more expressive freedom to residents than a condo. It is attractive to first time home buyers and people who could never afford the prices of a detached home. These positives have been countered by negative economic changes for the areas where these houses were built. Clusters of lower cost properties, over time, will turn neighborhoods into a blight on the city. This can happen to any centralized location of affordability. When a neighborhood only has one class of housing, residents must move away as soon as they can afford a better home. When a flow of financially stable people move out of an area, that drives down the property value for the people who remain. A few cycles of that migration will devastate the value of an area.

The biggest failing of the classic Rowhouse in america, has been its location in a sea of identical buildings. As a solution for density they can be a great solution, as long as architecturally and socially they meet a high standard. Dim, skinny houses, made from inferior material is bad building regardless of if it’s in a row or detached. If a substantial width is preserved, greater that 18 feet, a house will feel comfortable.

The properties pictured above are not row houses, but instead are classified as Townhouse condos. 603 NE 92nd Ave is owned by ADS Properties LLC. All five residences share the same lot, although they have different street numbers. Many people think of Townhouse as a nice term for a Rowhouse and there is endless debate on if that is true. The one thing stopping anyone from calling these row houses or Townhouses, is the lack of distinct parcels of land with independent ownership.

Despite its distinction from being a Rowhouse development, the scale of this project is perhaps the ideal length for row houses. Although this is a large block of housing, it occupies less than a quarter block. Most other residences around it are detached single family homes, making it more acceptable to the community standard. Row Houses can cost less but do not have to be cheap. With a mixed block approach to row houses, if the residents want to upgrade their homes, they can find options in the same area.

Infill houses are trying to squeeze into spaces that make them awkward and ugly. This is all in the name of maintaining a slim yard between houses. That land between two houses is often wasted and could have been used to add an additional five feet to the width of the house. Housing density is a good thing when balanced with other housing. We should be inspired by solutions in between an apartment and a detached house. Good city planning is based on selectively saying yes to different housing ideas, not maintaining uniformity in neighborhoods.

Additional Reading on Row Houses – American Planning Association offers a detailed look into the Rowhouse, past and present. The Urban Omnibus, a publications of The Architectural League of New York, also provides a social and historical look at the Rowhouse.