By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason
Seattle is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, which governs growth and development in the city. Between now and 2024, there will be a staggering number of public input and listening tours and community open houses, all aimed at shaping equitable development and coming to some kind of consensus about where new neighbors should be allowed to live.
Simultaneously, the city convened an advisory stakeholder group to evaluate Seattle’s Design Review program, as required by a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) the City Council passed in spring of 2022. We question whether this advisory group, which has met three times so far, is effective or empowered to make necessary changes to this harmful program. We oppose Seattle’s Design Review program and would like it to be reduced to a routine checklist, if not eliminated altogether. We want changes to this program to be in place before the comprehensive plan update in 2024.
The intent of Seattle’s Design Review program is to “consider a broad set of design considerations and apply design guidelines that the architect must use to design the exterior of the building (and to) promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Unfortunately, the impact of design review goes far beyond aesthetics and neighborhood character. It leads to a less affordable city. According to a 2021 BERK report, Seattle needs at least 21,000 more homes for families and individuals making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income, about $95,000 for a family of four. Design reviewers are not allowed to consider the needs of lower- income people in their decision making, to say nothing of evaluating the needs of an estimated 5.8 million residents our city and region will need to house by 2050.
Right now, Seattle planning staff coordinate community energy toward evaluating a building’s appearance—a classist and subjective process that prioritizes subjective aesthetics over equity.. Our city is not more beautiful because of Seattle’s design review process. It adds cost and limits needed homes during dual climate and housing emergencies. There is an abject futility in witnessing multiple rounds of hours-long meetings debating minuscule architectural points that would make Frank Lloyd Wright stomp out in frustration.
Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power
In contrast, there’s no process to examine whether our city’s stated values around equity, affordability and sustainability are being met. Design Review has hobbled Seattle’s ability to provide essential housing, while undermining the needs of both current and future neighbors. This process prioritizes things like the color of brick, the modulation of the back side of a building, and whether a trash pickup should be done by a 30-foot truck or a 25-foot one. It leads to complex studies of the impact of shadows on vegetable gardens. It does not support equitable development.
In September 2021, Seattle For Everyone released a statement that made clear that Seattle’s Design Review program was failing. We agree. We have found Design Review to be one of the most anti-renter, gate-kept, exclusionary and jargon-laden of all Seattle Processes. Infuriatingly, the all-volunteer Design Review Board has been loaded with industry insider architects and process “experts.” This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, like us.
Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power. These locations tend to have much higher levels of air and noise pollution than the neighborhoods whose “residential character” design review aims to protect, and are considerably less safe due to traffic volumes, than residential neighborhoods. It is a public health crisis exacerbated by our bifurcated development regime. Renters deserve quiet, leafy neighborhoods where our kids can feel safe playing on the sidewalk.
The most famous example of design review’s costly and anti-renter outcomes is at the top of Queen Anne. Because of the great reporting from The Urbanist (West Design Review Board Withholds Approval for 323 Homes Atop Queen Anne Safeway), and the fantastic live-tweets by QAGreenways, dozens of people were inspired to give public comment in favor of housing on top of a grocery store. The momentum and movement to end design review has even caught the attention of Real Change advocates who specifically called out eliminating design review in their recent comprehensive plan vision.
We ask the City of Seattle to remove Design Review from the building and permitting process, before we complete the Comprehensive Plan updates in Spring of 2024. Because of the concerns raised by Seattle For Everyone, we are worried that any reforms recommended through the stakeholder group process will be worth little more than the cost of the ink used to print the very nice bound version that will be placed in the stacks of our beautiful Central Library (that probably couldn’t pass Design Review today).
The stakeholder group plans to perform “[a]n analysis of whether the program increases housing costs”. We don’t need that analysis. We already know it does—through increased processes, permitting delays, and more complex buildings. We don’t need more analysis to tell us Design Review is broken. Additionally, the council’s directive does nothing to own up to Seattle’s massive role in exporting our housing crisis to the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest.
While we advocate for ending design review, we don’t yet have a framework for fixing our neighborhood design guidelines. One acceptable option would be to make adherence to design guidelines a low-stakes checklist-style administrative step. A few of Seattle’s design guidelines are functional and fairly useful, but others are purely aesthetic and highly questionable.
Additionally, the Design Review process works differently in the Department of Neighborhoods for Special Review Districts. The International Special Review District (ISRD) has taken some steps to increase participation and influence by those who have been actively marginalized and underrepresented in Seattle. For example, the ISRD Board recently expanded their language access with translation and interpretation for meetings. We need to evaluate if community members have felt that these reforms in Department of Neighborhoods have worked, to inform the SLI driven stakeholder advisory meetings in the Department of Construction and Inspection.
We do not support more process, more reports, or more rounds of public debate and discussion. After viewing the first few meetings of the stakeholder group reform process, it is clear that the members are disempowered to make reforms. Design review eradication should be under consideration, too. The city must study the impacts of eliminating design review and this stakeholder group is meaningless without studying that option.
Laura is a renter, musician and gardener in Queen Anne who founded Share The Cities. Wes is a local housing and transit advocacy volunteer who rents with his family in Northgate, where they can live without a car. Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture studio and think tank – as well as renter and livable cities activist living with his family in Fremont.