Saturday, December 1, 2012

An Ode to Townhomes

A row of three townhomes.
Rockefeller Lane, Redondo Beach, CA
Google Maps Street View

Townhomes (a.k.a. "townhouses", "rowhomes", "rowhouses" & sometimes "condos") are a strange obsession of mine. Ever since I first saw the City of Philadelphia, I've been fascinated by these two- or three-story, narrow homes that usually share walls with their neighbors. In America we usually think of housing in terms of "single family" versus "apartments". Each of these camps is replete with cultural associations. Detached, single-family houses represent for many the middle-class suburban dream, American rugged individualism made flesh. Apartments on the other hand are presumably the depressing cubbyholes where the unwashed underachieving masses huddle together in despair. I kid, of course (I live in an apartment, quite happily in fact).

But what are townhomes supposed to mean in our culture? In my neck of the woods they are exceedingly rare. Los Angeles County's housing units are only 6.6% townhomes ("1-unit, attached") according to the 2011 1-year American Community Survey. In fact, until very recently, to the best of my recollection, I had never even been inside of one.

Happily, I checked that goal off my life's to-do list. I scoured the internet for listings of open houses (thanks!) and after a couple of efforts that failed to get me inside of a townhome, I found success, in Redondo Beach. At over $550,000 The house's asking price was well out of my price range (and well above the LA County median of about $411,000). I hate giving false hope to realtors but I felt my mission too important to turn back.

An aerial view of the three townhomes, with a similar building to the right and a park to the left.
Source and measurements: ArcGIS Exporer Online

I found a house in the middle of a row of three. These were set into a lot that measures about 730 square meters (about 7,800 square feet). This gives a density of about 41 housing units per hectare (about 17 units per acre) measured to the parcel lines. The lot is about three times as deep (into the block) as it is wide and the houses are turned "to the side". That is to say, their entrances don't face the sidewalk. There is a driveway to one side from which cars and people enter. 

From a New Urbanist perspective, the density of townhomes is appealing. They are a middle-ground between detached houses and apartments. Dense enough to support transit and to prevent the inefficient consumption of land, but not so dense, and not so tall as to arouse an excessive amount of ire in the public (at least, one would hope). From the perspective of someone who aspires to someday own his own home in LA County, townhomes are a ray of hope. Although the example I actually got a chance to see was pricey, the small amount of land that these houses sit on bodes well for their relative affordability in places where land is very expensive.

So what was that townhome actually like on the inside? Quite a sight actually. Most of the action was on the upper story, including the master bedroom, kitchen, living room and a balcony. The ground floor was dominated by the garage and a bedroom or two. By the way, consider that although this house has a two-car garage, it parks half as many cars as a typical detached house with the same garage because there is no room to park in the driveway (reducing the emphasis on cars, another New Urbanist goal). I've seen townhouse floor plans where the garage is in the rear of the house off an alley, even cases where  the plan goes alley - garage - small yard - house (brilliant!). These plans seem to allow for a less-cluttered first floor that includes more of the living space, with bedrooms above, but I wouldn't know for sure because I've never been inside one of those (damn!).

I give thanks to the realtor and the owners of that townhome. I wish them well and much luck and happiness to the new owner. I also hope for more townhomes in LA County. The demand for this too-rare and fascinating type of housing is probably there, if only the zoning will allow it to be built. What do townhomes mean in our culture? I hope the answer is, or could be, affordable, urban family housing.


  1. Townhomes are usually the first stop for densification in a suburb. The book First Suburban Chinatown by Timothy Fong describes what happened when single family home tracts with large, deep lots (a holdover of the old backyard groves from the streetcar days) were turned over into these "bowling alley" townhome developments. They have sunken driveways and first floor units from a walkway which are at a slightly higher grade from the surrounding street, but the driveway goes all the way to the end and generally the residents never see the walkway part of the building, since they come from their car in the garage. Come out to the San Gabriel Valley, especially the western end, and you can see more townhomes than you can shake a fist at. The townhome is also used for these overly dense exurbian developments like the "Preserve" in Chino (across the street from a dairy). There you have homes that look like mansions which are actually split into three or four pieces and are townhomes.

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