Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process

By Erica C. Barnett

In a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, Seattle’s West Design Review Board approved the design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment building in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, capping off several years of debate over virtually every element of the project, from the placement of flower pots to brick colors to the number of doorways that will open into the 50,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The process for approving the development has dragged on for more than three years, as Queen Anne Greenways’ Mark Ostrow has meticulously documented on Twitter. Barrientos Ryan is the third developer to take a crack at the site, after community groups rejected plans by two previous developers.

Delaying the project, which will replace an outdated one-story Safeway and a large surface parking lot, has added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the cost of the project so far, an amount that accounts only for the cost of redesigns, sketches, and studies of changes suggested by the DRB. Delay typically adds significant costs to projects themselves, as the cost of labor and materials tends to go up, not down. This makes housing more expensive, and contributes to the city’s ongoing lack of affordability, as Seattle’s ongoing population growth forces renters to compete for a limited number of apartments.

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The building, which will replace an existing Safeway with a large surface parking lot, will add more than 320 new apartments to the neighborhood, including 30 that will be affordable under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. (Barrientos Ryan will contribute another $6 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.) It will also include a 2,000-square-foot public plaza, outdoor seating, a mural, and four additional pedestrian entrances to mimic the appearance of many small sidewalk-facing storefronts.

At Wednesday’s public hearing and at previous meetings, neighborhood residents pleaded with the board to move forward with the project. “I have thoughts about the design elements that have just been discussed in the last 70 minutes, but I’m not going to offer them because the only thing I want is for the Design Review Board to move forward,” Queen Anne Community Council member Justin Allegro said. “Design review shouldn’t be about appeasing a few neighbors who show up but about the whole neighborhood,” another commenter, Joshua Whitney, added.

SO MUCH BRICK

Design review was not originally intended to give neighborhood residents effective veto power over every element of a project. Over the years, though, it has turned into a tortuous process, one where individual preferences for Juliet balconies or garage-style rolling windows can hold up an entire project for months or years. Design review is frequently used as a cudgel to prevent projects or impose personal preferences that aren’t really about design at all—such as mandatory parking and whether people living in apartments have air conditioning or washers and dryers in their units.

Seattle’s design review process, it’s important to know, isn’t inevitable or—as public commenter Whitney put it—”a natural law.” And we don’t have to abandon all community control over building design to prevent development from being hijacked by individual residents who oppose housing or just have strong personal opinions about design.

In Portland, design review is done by a single, seven-person commission, made up primarily of professionals with experience in design, engineering, construction, and development, along with one representative of the general public. In contrast, Seattle’s eight neighborhood design review boards have five members each, all from the neighborhoods surrounding the projects they review.

2 thoughts on “Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process”

  1. The absolute worst example of design review abuse is from the residents of Escala, the gawdy luxury tower downtown filled with millionaires in high rises who fight the construction of any new building in view. Their HOA legal fees must be impressive.

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