Condo Picchu

Photograph: Jim Richardson

A protected shoreline of mossy balds and maroon madronas stood before me. Sailboats waggled at anchor in the foreground, while white-capped buffleheads bobbed in the bow wake of an incoming ferry. The scene from the dock of the San Juan Island ferry terminal reminded me of a poster I’d spotted days earlier. “There is only so much waterfront,” it had said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone!” The colorful panorama of unspoiled shoreline had suggested a pitch for a conservation group — maybe the wonderfully successful San Juan Preservation Trust, which recently helped save Turtleback Mountain on nearby Orcas Island. But the poster hadn’t been celebrating such things after all. It was just one more ad for one more damn waterfront condominium: There’s only so much, folks. Grab yours now!

I’d been traveling to towns and villages all around the vesiculated shore of Puget Sound, well beyond the bloating extremities of Seattle, and one trait dominated my impression: the extraordinary proliferation of condominium developments, especially near the water. From Port Orchard to Port Townsend, Bellevue to Bellingham, and in many whistle-stops in between, condos are rising like false fronts on a movie set — only these are here to stay, often blocking off the waterfront for everyone else.

Not only up and down the coast, but along the rivers and bays as well, the condos are coming — everywhere, practically, that offers more amenity than a landfill (some indeed are built over old landfills). In my own neighborhood, the small city of Astoria, Oregon, known as the West Coast’s oldest town, is yet early in this wave — but the tsunami is coming, with five big new projects already permitted and under way along the hitherto accessible shore. On the Washington bank of the Columbia, little burgs from Ilwaco through Skamokawa to our bucolic county seat of Cathlamet are all getting their first acquaintance with condos. Cathlamet’s ’40s-’50s riverfront served as the backdrop for important maritime scenes in the film Snow Falling on Cedars because the filmmakers could not find a suitably period site anywhere along the coast from Kodiak to Arcata. The condos currently proposed for Cathlamet would erase the town’s treasured character overnight. To my astonishment, some people think this would be a good thing.

Now, I am not opposed to condominiums in general. Such multi-unit housing can make for efficient use of space rather than consuming endless acres of the hinterlands. And I’ve seen some marvelous condo conversions that have creatively recycled historic buildings from silos to schoolhouses, canneries to churches. Architects have brought their best to bear upon some townhouse projects, using green materials and biophilic design to bring green spaces, water, and wildlife into the ken and contact of residents, neighbors, and the by-passing public. I think for example of an array of low-to-mid-rise units set back from the Seattle waterfront but close to a sculpture park, beach, and waterside trail, all occupying a former industrial footprint beside the harbor. Or of certain adobe developments in the Southwest, set modestly into their arid environs, taking a leaf from their Pueblo antecedents rather than ostentatiously upstaging the landscape. No question: with taste and restraint, condos can be done well, respecting their site, their denizens, and the communities of which they will be an undeniable part for decades. I also recognize that condo-dwelling simply suits the way many people prefer to live — compactly, near their work, in the city, or in a pleasant and convenient place during retirement. For many, many more people of far lesser means, a rented apartment or high-rise housing is all they can hope to afford beyond the squat, the barrio, or the street.

Condos (and co-ops, lofts, apartments, and other kinds of clustered housing) are a kind of human hive, and the people occupying them are social animals, as are ants, meerkats, and naked mole rats. Whether geometrically precise waxworks like beehives or elaborately interlinked burrows such as anthills and rabbit warrens, social animal colonies achieve relative stability and economy through closely shared housing and intense cooperation. The cooperative abilities of the human animal are not as well developed as are those of social insects or rodents, with many high-rise residents struggling to stay as solitary as possible; and our tendency toward individualism keeps us teetering ever on the edge of chaos despite our best efforts at division of labor. Still, we sometimes achieve temporary social cohesion: communes, collectives, cohousing, and by extension, even cities, can be thought of as evolutionary parallels to the adobe pueblos of mud dauber wasps or cliff swallows. From this standpoint, the proliferation of condos might be seen as an evolutionary adaptation, a move away from space-taking, habitat-fragmenting sprawl, hewing to the elegant examples of more evolved social species. And even though in-filling, that darling of the New Urbanism, co-opts vital vacant lots and open spaces even as it combats sprawl, shouldn’t denser dwelling in general trump the old paradigm of spreading out? So bravo for condos, when they really work to the advantage of the people and communities they are intended to serve. But too often the only obvious good accrues to the pocketbooks of owners and investors, not to the neighbors, or to the place itself.

Many condos are built as second homes and for pure speculation. They are thrown up to capitalize on the overabundance of cash at the top of the economic heap and the dwindling amount of exploitable open space — especially on the water. After all, there is only so much waterfront. . . . And because they can be much more profitable than apartments, condominiums replace affordable working- and middle-class housing — an alarming trend in Seattle and many other cities — while raising taxes for everyone around. Nor are these high-end second homes at all like the little mountain or lakeside cabins that Americans have always aspired to own. They monopolize space and impose upon a town’s infrastructure while the owners seldom appear, contributing no children to the schools and little to the local economy. Few of the new investor-owners will shop on the main street, until it becomes so gentrified that it serves poorly as a hometown heartbeat. These condo picchus not only savage the nature of particular places, they parasitize the very economies that the city fathers and mothers intended to stimulate through serving up permits on a silver platter.

It’s easy to see why people want to get “theirs” when it comes to waterfront. The late poet Robert Sund, who wrote in a shack on stilts over a back channel of the Skagit estuary, expressed water’s undeniable draw: “We go to the banks of running streams,” he wrote, “though we wash our hands in water every day.” But this universal urge can be satisfied by visiting a shoreline owned by a park or a land trust, rather than barricading the shore with yet more privately owned Lego blocks. Another poet, Korean writer Ko Un, has said that we will never ameliorate the political and economic strains between cultures until we adopt a posture of “minimum ownership.” Nothing could be more opposed to this saving concept than the epidemic mania for getting, and getting more. And nothing exemplifies such maladaptive behavior better than absentee ownership and speculative, extravagant, wastefully sited lodging that no one really needs.

Few other animals indulge in building “second homes” that sit largely unused. Among the exceptions are several kinds of wrens that construct incomplete, satellite nests beyond the ones where they actually rear their young. According to various ornithologists, these nests function to attract females more effectively, to intimidate competing males, or to confuse predators in search of eggs and nestlings. Perhaps it is not unapt that these supernumerary houses are commonly known as dummy nests.

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat, the setting of his novel Magdalena Mountain. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, and worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, England. His twenty-five books include Chasing Monarchs, Wintergreen (which received a John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks, Sky Time in Gray’s River and The Tangled Bank, a collection of his columns from Orion. A Yale-trained ecologist and a Guggenheim Fellow, he still studies butterflies, is a full-time writer living in southwest Washington, and is one of Orion’s most frequent contributors.