By Andrew Engelson
In a city facing an extreme lack of affordable housing, Seattle’s process for permitting apartment buildings has become a bit of a circus. For months, an unelected board debated the color and style of brick on a grocery store and apartment complex in Queen Anne. Wealthy residents of an apartment tower in Belltown bogged down the construction of an apartment tower next door by insisting the design include more curves to match its architectural context. And a new multi-family building on Capitol Hill had to be redesigned because it looked “too historic.”
The process is clearly broken. In response, last November, the Seattle City Council directed the Seattle of Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to assemble a stakeholder group to examine its design review program—a complicated permitting process that many architects and housing advocates say is deeply flawed, contributes to excessive delays, and adds significant costs to new multi-family housing projects. The group, which will present its report later this year, is supposed to come up with ways to make the review process faster and more efficient, and to look at the racial and economic equity impacts of the program.
City councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the legislation, told PubliCola, “Long permit review times often slow or prevent the building of urgently needed housing in Seattle. I am working to address permitting delays and streamline housing production, and as part of that process design review has often come up as an area that needs fixing.”
Design review has nothing to do with whether a building conforms to safety and construction codes. Instead, it critiques the overall appearance of a building, how it relates to the terrain and adjacent properties, how pedestrians and vehicles access the site, and the quality of the building’s materials and landscaping. The all-volunteer boards serve four-year terms and include a mix of architects, landscape designers, developers, and local residents. The decisions they make are final, and there’s no formal appeals process. When the city’s eight regional design review boards dictate aesthetic changes, it can lead to delays of months or even years and add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of apartment projects. Single-family houses, no matter the size, are not subject to design review.
Architects and developers have been reluctant to criticize the program in the past for fear of retaliation by the volunteers on the boards, which wield a surprising amount of power and have held up projects over minor concerns such as the color of brick facades and the placement and style of public benches.
But several architects agreed to speak to PubliCola on the record about their frustration with a process that many urbanist advocates say is inconsistent, capricious, and so cumbersome that many developers are now hesitant to build new multifamily housing in Seattle.
“I think it is broken, and it can be fixed,” said Brian Runberg, founder of Runberg Architecture Group, who has seen many of his firm’s projects bog down in long delays during design review. “Currently it is not efficient or predictable. And it’s not fair nor inclusive.”
Runberg was the lead architect on a 7-story apartment building, anchored by a Safeway grocery store, on Queen Anne Avenue—a project that has become notorious for its delays and finicky debates over aesthetic concerns. Originally proposed in 2016, the project went through two architects and two developers and then was held up for six months while the west region design review board and the architect haggled over the precise color and pattern of the store’s brick facade. In addition, the board requested that the facade of the Safeway approximate the look of small individual retailers – even though the one ground floor tenant is a single grocery chain.
Responding to the board’s concerns, Runberg’s staff prepared dozens of studies of brick colors and patterns for the Safeway, with negligible difference in the end product. The project was permitted late last year; after groundbreaking, construction should take about 18 months. As PubliCola reported, design review added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the project. All of the changes were purely aesthetic.
“That’s a total of seven years to build a Safeway with apartments on top,” said Mark Ostrow, a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways board member who live-tweets about design review hearings at Queen Anne Greenways. “For the Olympic Games, the host city gets seven years to totally transform an entire city. They build massive sports venues and transportation systems. And the city of Seattle can’t even build a Safeway.”
Though the boards are formally tasked with enforcing the city’s design guidelines (which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood) sometimes the critiques veer into abstract aesthetic concerns.
Often, the issues that review boards raise feel random and frivolous, Bradley Khouri, the founder of B9 Architects, said. Khouri remembers presenting to the east region review board for a project on Capitol Hill. The board had deliberated, and was voting to wrap things up when one board member suddenly expressed concerns, Khouri recalled, that the building was not “refined enough.” Another board member agreed to change their vote and call for another review meeting. “I’m on a video call,” Khouri remembers, “I’m in my house. And think: I can’t stop this train. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Fortunately, everybody else said no,” and the project went forward.
Khouri said he’s seen the minimum time to permit a multi-family housing project in Seattle go from about a year in 2008 to nearly two years today. When projects are held up, it’s often over minor details, Khouri said. “You could spend six months with a planner on these corrections back and forth,” he said. “And for what? At the end of the day, they may have added a little nicer material or adjusted the height of the canopy. But it’s preventing housing from getting produced in a city that’s desperate for it.”
He pointed to an apartment project his firm designed on Capitol Hill seven years ago. “The client committed to spending over $300,000 on additional siding— today that would be half a million dollars,” Khouri said. “And the building’s more attractive as a result. Did that really need to happen? I don’t know. I like our building as it’s built, but I think we could have done just as nice a building without having to spend all that. But our client knew if he didn’t do it, he wasn’t going to be able to build this building.”
In March, the pro-density coalition Seattle for Everyone published a report with data from the consultant ECONorthwest that found the total time to get a master use permit from SDCI increased 84 percent between 2010 and 2018. By 2020, the amount of time required for a project to complete full design review had increased to 805 days, or 2.2 years, on average.
“Seattle is not known for its beautiful midrise apartment buildings. It’s actually known for its ugly ones. And this is under a system where we are legislating aesthetics. So clearly, that’s not working.”—Mark Ostrow, @QAGreenways
Runberg said that as a result, most of his developer clients now shy away from building new housing in Seattle. Five years ago, he said, about 5 percent of his firm’s multifamily residential work was on the Eastside and most of the remainder was in Seattle. “Presently, 90 percent of our work is on the Eastside,” Runberg said. “These are all the same developers we’ve had for 20 years. And it all comes back to the fact that the process is unfair and unpredictable. It’s too risky for them.”
A 2016 study of Seattle’s design review process published by University of Washington urban planning grad student Scott Cutler found that design review boards’ recommendations about the aesthetics of buildings and site plans are often applied in an arbitrary manner. “It is clear from the case study findings that Seattle’s Design Review Program suffers from inconsistently-applied scrutiny and an unpredictable bureaucratic timeline, which both need to be fixed to ensure fairness and accessibility to the process,” Cutler concluded.
In 2018, SDCI did make minor reforms to design review, but Khouri argues that the changes, though necessary, were “so minimal” compared to the kind of changes that are needed. The reforms increased the threshold for a project to be subject to full design review, created a streamlined review process and moved smaller projects and townhouses into what’s known as administrative design review—a internal, non-public process in which SDCI staff review plans.
According to figures provided by SDCI, the number of multi-family and commercial building permits issued has declined dramatically in the past four years. Although the pandemic was certainly a driver in 2020, the overall trend since 2018 has been downward. In the last six months of 2018 after the reforms were implemented, 104 projects went through streamlined design review, 143 through administrative, and 221 projects went through full design review. By 2021, those numbers had plummeted to 66, 103, and 99, respectively.
Not all of the decline is the result of design review, of course—high labor costs, supply chain issues, and high property values are also factors. But Brady Nordstrom, a coordinator with Seattle for Everyone, notes that design review is part of this decline in construction of multifamily housing. “We can’t control labor prices and we can’t control demand for housing,” Nordstrom said. “But we can control how we permit and move housing through permitting.”
Khouri contends that requiring aesthetic architectural review during a climate crisis and a massive surge in housing prices is unnecessary and harmful. “If we’re doing a project three blocks from light rail,” Khouri said, “should there really be a conversation about height, bulk, and scale?”
SDCI director Nathan Torgelson defended design review, which the city created in 1991 in reaction to the construction of a host of new skyscrapers downtown. “Most buildings are going to last anywhere from 50 to 70 years,” Torgelson said, “so the aesthetics of the building is absolutely important to the fabric of the city and how it fits in a neighborhood context. But we can definitely improve the process.”
Because that process is built around public input, it’s relatively easy for residents who oppose new multi-family housing to use design review as a platform for an array of complaints—some that are within the scope of design review and others, such as parking, that are not—and to delay permits for so long developers sometimes back out.
Examples of neighborhood groups using design review to stall projects are abundant. In addition to the Queen Anne Safeway, PubliCola previously reported on a 57-unit apartment building on Greenwood Avenue that went through four design review meetings where residents expressed horror that the units wouldn’t include washers and dryers or air conditioning.
In Magnolia, a proposed Safeway and a 7-story 146-unit, apartment building that meets the city’s rigorous Living Building Challenge guidelines went through three design review meetings and a ten-month delay. In addition to complaints about height, building materials, and potential for increasing car traffic and shade, one commenter asserted memorably that “it is not equitable to those who bought property with the expectation that the zoning in place at the time of their purchase would be maintained during their 30 year mortgage.”
In 2016, a proposed residential tower in Belltown went through three design review meetings and six months of delay after residents of a nearby residential tower mounted a noisy campaign to flood the design review board with comments. Among other issues, neighbors complained about the buildings’ rectilinear design, which one comment said conflicted with the circular appearance of a nearby apartment tower and the round Westin Hotel towers. One comment wondered about the impact of what they estimated would be more than 150 new dogs in the tower: “The current landscaping options do not appear to provide adequate space for the new dogs moving into the neighborhood.”
It can be hard to tell exactly how much these changes imposed during design review add to the cost of apartment construction; developers don’t have disclose those costs and are often reluctant to share those figures. Several developers who were involved in high-profile design review squabbles declined to comment publicly for this article.
But the city has tacitly acknowledged those costs, most notably when mayor Jenny Durkan proposed but eventually backed off suspending design review during the pandemic. In March 2021, the city council passed a bill backed by City Councilmember Andrew Lewis that exempted new permanent supportive housing (PSH) projects from full design review. An analysis from Lewis’ office estimated that the legislation “would reduce the per-unit cost of PSH from $331,953 to $284,200, a savings of $47,753.”
Another complaint often heard about design review boards is a lack of racial, ethnic, and professional diversity. According to Torgelson, SDCI’s stakeholder group will evaluate the racial and economic equity of the program.
And although the boards are required to have a mix of representation among local residents, architects, landscape designers, and developers, their membership is made up largely of architects. According to an analysis by Seattle For Everyone, 31 of the current 39 board members are architects, who occupy many of the local resident slots.
In addition, the process SDCI uses to choose board members is opaque. Seattle For Everyone sent a letter to SDCI in March after the department rejected the applications Similarly, during the process to fill design review board seats 2021, SDCI rejected applications from 15 pro-density candidates, the Urbanist reported.
When asked if he was aware that SDCI consistently rejected pro-density volunteers and whether that was acceptable, director Torgelson replied, “If that’s the case, I would definitely want to know more about that. As we go through this design review process, that’s definitely one of the things we’ll look at—how candidates are selected. And if there’s a certain type of candidate who’s being rejected, I would like to learn more about that.”
West region design review chair John Morefield—a Seattle architect with the Texas-based firm Z Modular, which designs prefabricated buildings such as this Holiday Inn—led the the western region design review board meetings focused on brick patterns and grout in the Queen Anne Safeway project. In an interview with PubliCola, Morefield, defended the design review process and his four-year tenure on the west regional board, which ended in April.
“You’re making a decision that the city will have to live with for 50 years after they build it,” he said. “And if you didn’t enforce the guidelines and something went through and it just doesn’t look good and someone made a big profit off of it, then the city’s going to look at it for 50 years. So you’re always kind of balancing that. The guidelines provide that scaffold for conversation and judgments.”
When asked if he thought residents opposing density had an outsized voice in the process, Morefield said, “When you receive a lot of public comments about the character of the street, versus people just saying: we need more housing now, get out of the way—rhyme and verse—we have to judge all those public voices.”
Some of the reforms Seattle for Everyone has proposed to design review include increasing the threshold for full design review to 250 or more housing units; making online design review meetings permanent; setting a cap on the number of design review meetings a project must go through; and adding racial and social justice and sustainability goals to design review.
The council’s deadline for completion of the stakeholder review process is June 30, but Torgelson said SDCI and Strauss’s office are working on extending the deadline to ensure the process is thorough and complete.
The west design review board will meet to discuss an 8-story apartment complex Runberg’s firm designed at 118 West Mercer at 7 p.m. on May 4. Back in August 2021, Moreland suggested that the firm extend a brick facade around the back of the building, which Runberg said is only visible from a parking lot.
Mark Ostrow will likely be live tweeting that meeting, and continuing to urge SDCI to overhaul its review process.
“If we’re going to reform design guidelines, I would probably lean towards trying to eliminate every aesthetic design guideline we possibly can,” Ostrow said. “Because if you look at the results, Seattle is not known for its beautiful midrise apartment buildings. It’s actually known for its ugly ones. And this is under a system where we are legislating aesthetics. So clearly, that’s not working.”