Pocket Neighborhood – NOT!

Architect Ross Chapin's Book, "Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World"
Architect Ross Chapin’s Book, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World”

The developer has been promoting Architect Ross Chapin’s book, Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.  Ross Chapin together with developer, Jim Soules are considered the “grandfathers” of  so-called “pocket” or “cottage” neighborhoods.  Their work in this style of architecture and development began back in the mid-90’s and many of their projects are truly world class.  It’s ironic that Christian Chernock suggests that we read this book, but then chooses to not abide by the architectural and planning guidelines set forth within and incorporated into many municipal zoning regulations. 

We actually contacted Ross Chapin and asked him to review the proposed site plan.  He didn’t have too many complimentary things to say about this proposed development.

Here are some of Ross Chapin’s comments during his review of the proposed development:

  • This is not a pocket neighborhood in its overall design
  • The marketing material is false and misleading
  •  Where are the picnic areas? BBQ? Sun shelters?
  • There are issues with scale, massing, density and lack of detail
  • Not following the cottage code – only paying lip service to the concept
  • This is a automobile dominated configuration
  • There should not be access via Hampton, especially since other access is available – this risks peoples lives
  • There is a plop, plop, plop mentality in this plan that will create a fishbowl effect that creates tension in the community and a resentment to the increased density
  • Needs to be better, safer, pedestrian friendly and visually toned down
  • The major focal point of this site plan is the waste management area
  • The developer needs to look at the design patterns in the book – the patterns that make for good neighbors


More on Pocket Neighborhoods

The driving factor behind the birth of this architectual movement was ultimately a housing shortage — more specifically an affordable housing shortage.  This style of development allows for greater density construction over what traditional single-family zoning would allow. The typical ratio for the smaller cottages is 2:1 and 1.5:1 for the larger designs.  For example, a typical 7,500 square feet single-family parcel could accommodate two 800 square feet cottages.  The advantage, obviously, is a reduction in land costs for the developer. Those dollars could in turn be diverted into a more thoughtful structural design with a higher quality finish.  And ultimately this creates a market product of affordable transitional housing that exists somewhere on the spectrum between cheap row houses on one end and high-end condominiums on the other end (neither of which have high desirability).

In the twenty years that has passed since the inception of this genre of housing, many municipalities have started to experiment with this type of zoning mechanism and many lessons have been learned along the way.  One thing that has become crystal clear is that without proper zoning regulations, this design genre is not sustainable.  To get nearby home owners to accept with open arms this higher density construction standard into their single-family neighborhoods, the development standards of these pocket neighborhoods must be meticulously outlined in stringent zoning code.  If not, any speculative high density  multi-family development could claim that it was a “cottage” or “pocket” neighborhood and try to cash-in on the cheap dirt of a single-family district.  And that is exactly what the developer of the proposed Kessler Commons is attempting.  Several cities that have allowed this type of development through specific zoning ordinances have found that developers, like Christian Chernock, all too frequently exploit and abuse the regulations by squeezing dwelling units into every square inch of land to maximize profits.  Consequently, some of those cities have repealed the ordinances because of the abuse by developers and the detrimental impact on established single-family districts.

Below you will find links to some of the actual zoning regulations from various municipalities that Chapin and Soules have listed in their book as successful examples of cottage neighborhoods.  There are key design aspects that define this genre and Kessler Commons falls way short of the design standards.  

Please feel free to read some of the Cottage Neighborhood zoning regulations below from some of the cities that are home to Chapin’s most successful Cottage Neighborhood developments.  In doing so, you will see just how disingenuous it is that the developer is claiming his proposed high density, multi-family development is a “cottage” or “pocket” neighborhood.

Shoreline Washington


King County Housing Alliance


City of Mukilteo

Port Townsend

King County


Federal Way