It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

Years of controversy over the design of this Safeway-anchored building on Queen Anne galvanized opposition to Seattle’s design review process.

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.  

Upcoming Meetings: September 28, October 26, November 16, December 14

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The stakeholder group includes affordable housing developers, market rate developers, design professionals, neighborhood organizations, and previous Design Review Board members. Stakeholders representing specific organizations are indicated here.

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.

41 thoughts on “It’s Time to Ditch Design Review”

  1. What I find especially galling is that houses don’t need to have a review. That is ridiculously inconsistent. I’ve seen plenty of really ugly houses. Of course I’ve seen plenty of good looking ones too, which shows how pointless the review process is.

  2. Design Review boards are all volunteers and typically they don’t serve for long swaths of time, as its a pretty time intensive endeavor. The DRB does not create design guidelines – those are typically created by the community alongside the City.

  3. In large East Coast cities lower income “projects” were highly stigmatized historically when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. They were built cheaply. Design Review can be a tool for equity. Why shouldn’t low income housing be built and integrated well? Perhaps advocating against a burdensome process, but not the process of design review?

    1. the authors suggest a checklist. maybe that would be a good idea, perhaps accompanied by a bunch of pre-approved designs, that could fulfill the purpose of design review without expensive delays. I think we should “ditch design review” in the meantime to speed up production of homes and see what sort of problems emerge from removal of the process, so as to have a better idea of what we don’t want and what we want from a replacement for the current process.

  4. Design review should only apply to apartments with parking. This would be a disincentive to build parking, while dealing with the ugliest new construction (parking).

  5. As a community planning graduate, I’ve spent years reading up on various steps of the design review process and on hundreds of projects. With some regret, I agree that it should be taken behind the barn and shot. It’s contribution to creation of great architecture is suspect at best and it’s main effect in practical terms currently is to create delay and increase costs. As a compromise, projects might get exactly one review and projects designated as affordable get zero. It may have been great in the beginning but now it does jacks___.

  6. Doing away with design review may do away with an inconvenience for developers, but will it result in housing that’s affordable for the workers who change bedpans at your mom’s assisted living facility?

    1. It’s one of the MANY obstacles that must be overcome to build housing units in a city with a severe lack of housing. All these obstacles (starting with SFH zoning) add up to high costs and limited lots to build on. That leads to mostly high end units that can recoup the per sq ft cost to build as a result of all these obstacles.

  7. Fantastic overview of the anti-renter effects of our design review process. It should be abolished.

    Seattle housing and rent prices are so much higher than so many cities in Europe and Asia that are more dense, more livable, and more green. That’s a policy choice, and one we can reverse before it causes even more societal damage to our city. This really shows one piece of what we need to do to make the city more affordable.

  8. I’ve kicked around Seattle since the early 1980s…. I’ve watched as Big Tech bought up most everything good, changed the City, and flat out colonized it for the most part. In full disclosure, as a land owner I made bank. There’s no turning back the clock here, Seattle morphed into a City for the rich (like San Francisco).

    What young progressives don’t realize is changing the review board or zoning laws won’t change anything. Rent even control wouldn’t change anything. In real estate, the free market rules everything. Doesn’t matter how many apartments you build in Seattle, with global warming and prices being what they are in California, the new money rolling in is going to rent or buy that housing. If you can’t afford to live in Seattle, the market isn’t going to build you place to live. The construction industry is working on more higher end projects for somebody with more money than you. No law can ever change that because it’s a free Country.

    Don’t waste your life fighting for political change that isn’t going to happen in Seattle, just admit you’re getting your ass kicked and move someplace else. Go help colonize the Midwest, there’s still somewhat affordable housing there. Get a remote job and move to some little sweet town in Ohio, invite your friends and make your own little upwardly mobile socialist enclave. Of course you’ll have more money than the poor bastards who already live there and they’ll get pushed out, but that’s how American Colonization works… ask an Indian. #AmericanHistory101

    1. Well, we can vote on it. Let’s see if your libertarian dystopia platform wins. There is a reason French have 3 years maternity leave, free healthcare, 2 months vacation and wide social support net. They protest and if it doesn’t work, they chop the heads off the upper class here and there.

      1. Do you believe voting honestly means anything to the price of housing? In a free market, the highest bidder wins and for the last 20 years the Seattle real estate market has been in hyperdrive from outside money buying their way in. What do you want, a law stopping more high tech jobs from moving to area? A law stopping out of State folks from moving in? Currently I’d guess Seattle is a nicer place to live than much of So Cal. Just looking at the possible growth of Seattle with more density and the population and jobs spun off from Cali, housing is never going to be cheaper in the next 20 years. Loe, Mills and Eilason are all up and coming young capitalists who are promoting more growth in Seattle because they can profit from it. So yes!! to growth. I doubt other than Microsoft employees and like are going to really benefit from it however.

  9. Thank you to the authors for putting together this fantastic piece and publicola for publishing it.

    I want to reply to some of the people saying that design review should be reformed not removed because other programs depend on design review catching bad things. Design review already does not catch a bunch of “bad things”. Design review doesn’t prevent people from tearing down older affordable homes and building mansions in their place; one-plexes are categorically exempt from design review). Design review doesn’t prevent your neighbor from painting their existing home a color you hate; changes to an existing home do not go through design review. Design review doesn’t discourage developers from building inaccessible townhomes; townhomes go through a different process.

    I also want to point out that when it comes to public benefits, it’s far easier to create explicit codes rather than depending on design review. Design review doesn’t make developers create wider sidewalks or usable public spaces; sidewalk widths and public spaces are determined by zoning and explicit code, not subjective design review. Design review doesn’t guarantee that spaces are accessible to people with mobility disabilities; the ADA and our building codes are (though they frequently don’t go far enough). Design review also can’t meaningfully change the height of a building; design review can’t give a public housing developer more height to build more homes, but it also can’t take away height from a market rate developer because building heights are determined by zoning, not the subjective design review criteria.

    As the authors ask, given that design review doesn’t prevent bad projects and does restrict good projects, who is design review really for?

  10. Hear, hear. Design review has always been nonsense. We need more housing and we need it to be built ten years ago. The least we can do is abolish it.

  11. I’ve been going to my neighborhood DRB meetings for many years. I live in the Central Area, which only recently established its own DRB and design guidelines. My experience is that the DRB in the CA is much more positive/robust in its impact on projects, perhaps its because we have a board and neighborhood groups that are more progressive than say, Queen Anne or Wallingford, which seem to skew wealthier, white and anti-development. I’ve seen many projects improve dramatically through the process of community meetings – DRB and otherwise. The DRB does have power that the community alone does not possess as they can attach directives to the project itself. I think we need better/more holistic urban planning in Seattle. Zoning here is insensitive and definately protects wealthier (read more White) neighborhoods. In the Central Area we need softening between Neighborhood Commercial zones (often 5+ stories) and Single Family. Obviously, DRB has no agency beyond Code as written but Design Review in many neighborhoods is the only venue for communities of color to have a voice – I say, make Design Review better: change the criteria for board members, update the way outreach for the board happens, perhaps offer a stipend for service, change the City personnel who are responsible for the board.

  12. Seattle’s Missing Middle is missing most of the housing types we’ve been promised by upzoning every Urban Village. Where, exactly, are any new duplexes triplexes, quads, stacked apartments and courtyard buildings? Builders are maximizing profits in low-rise zones by building only townhouses for sale and apodments for rent, because these are the most profitable. Unfortunately, they aren’t appropriate for seniors with needs, families with babies or large, extended immigrant families, for example.

    Instead of having Permitting allow exceptional trees to be cut in order to maximize the project’s square footage (FAR), which i have read on permits, Seattle would do better to return to form-based zoning? I think most of us would agree to adding duplexes and triplexes to neighborhood zoning is their massing and appearance fit the neighborhood. Larger six- flats might fit better on xcorners or arterials. What if Design Review were tasked not with sidings and finishes, but with Tudor peaked roofs or Arts & Crafts porches or flat roofs fit better in a neighborhood with or without views? Increasing density is a political process. It’s better done with a wedge and chisel than hammer.r.

    1. Ah, the often talked about missing middle. So if I was going to build say, a triplex in a Seattle neighborhood, where would I build it? There’s darn few empty lots left in the City. Tear down an existing single family home (that runs well over a million dollars to buy and remove the house… before starting construction in one of the highest priced cities to build in). Regardless of zoning, new housing in Seattle costs $$$$ and it’s impossible to build affordable free market housing.

      1. That is what you’d do and exactly what builders are doing. Only the put 4 to 6 houses on that single fam lot and the sell for upwards of $700K

      2. There are plenty of very big lots with one house on them. The lots gets subdivided and they build a handful of McMansions instead of townhouses (or low rise apartments). Happens all the time in the north and south end, and it is all because of zoning.

    2. if you want to design tudor roofs then go to architecture school, get a degree, get licensed, open a firm, lure clients, and then design tudor pitched roofs. until then, leave your critiques about our profession out of your business. nobody comes to your house and bosses you around with whatever it is you do.

    3. There’s a bunch of new large apts going in near 85th and greenwood – they have parking spots too.

    4. The Missing Middle is a myth that is not going to help anything. If it was so desirable it would be profitable and we’d have seen much more of it already. What Seattle needs is more high rise housing, not missing middle or medium rise housing. It’s the only way we are going to be able to house everybody we have right now, and we’ll need even more for those still to come.

      Zoning reform is a key piece of this, of course. But let’s not kid ourselves. The thought that duplexes, triplexes, or even row houses is the answer is patently absurd.

  13. “This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, LIKE US (emphasis added).” What a load of BS. Laura Loe is a millionnaire. Mike Eliason is an architect. And Wes Mills is a tech worker at Microsoft. All are white. There is no “like us” at all represented in this piece.

    1. Design Review was established by and for homeowners. As a homeowner I believe this is a flaw and think the program should go away since it makes housing for those communities you specifically point out are not being represented more unobtainable. One of the stakeholders is an immigrant woman of color who agrees with these authors. She doesn’t work for Microsoft or Amazon, nor is she white, and nor is she a millionaire.

      There you have it. People who meet your qualifications have spoken. Let’s hope you now listen to them.

      1. So one person who doesn’t meet the OP’s stated attributes should convince us that design review should be ended? I don’t think so.

        No one except the homeowners gave up anything to buy their homes, and now we are expected to give up the character of our neighborhoods, allow our trees and green spaces to be destroyed, endure suffocating crowding just so that people who want to live where we live can afford to? Essentially transferring our values in our property that we’ve paid for, and continue to pay for, to them at no cost just because those folks want it?

        We homeowners bought what we could afford to buy where we could afford to buy it. That’s how private property works in the US. I would love to live on Alki on the waterfront, but I can’t afford it. Poor me. Yet I don’t see that as in any way entitling me to demand that the zoning there be changed and something I can afford be built.

        The whole design review complaint comes down to the same thing: get rid of design review, and zoning is already being attacked, so that more housing can be built anywhere someone wants to live but can’t currently afford what’s available. If that results in losses in value and quality of life for current residents, too bad. they’re just entitled NIMBYs anyway, right?

        It’s time for the folks supporting upzoning everything and getting rid of design review start looking for what they can afford, wherever that happens to be located.

  14. I seem to recall other ordinances and programs were enacted with officials saying, that’s OK, it’ll be caught in Design Review. Isn’t Isn’t this a risk? Isn’t elimination exactly what Vulcan and the Downtown Developers wrote in Sec 4 of their HALA report (2015)? Just about everything else they requested has been accomplished, so development must be streamlined by now? If not, is it because the whole process flow needs to be timed for delays. I’ve been told that the major delays are staff reviews of permits, meaning a staff shortage is preventing timely review. Do we even know if the developers are pointing the fickle finger of delay in the right direction?

  15. Publicola’s bias is showing. What are the reasons and where are the groups in favor of design review? You mention some concerns in the last paragraph, after hundreds of words. Has DR done any good? You cite picky changes, but what about significant changes, such as when the developer provided no access for fire trucks, no space besides the sidewalk for trash containers, no tree-saving alternatives, fails to enforce ordinances? What about when the developer outright lies about the size of trees on the property? Or the developer lies about the size of the DADU by over 10%? Frankly, the Permitting Dept is bought and paid for by the developers, so where in the process is anyone watching them?

    1. the city already reviews all of those items you’re concerned about. you cannot get a land use permit or a construction permit without detailed construction drawings which are bound as legal documents with a licensed professional stamp on them, liable to any flaw you or the city may find. nobody is lying. you can’t!

    2. And developers do and will lie. I see them buy a lot and let someone live in it for a year while they slowly clear all vegetation. Then they build a new home withe mother in law and backyard cottage and sell all as condos. It’s a loophole they wrote into the backyard cottage law for themselves.

  16. “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.”

    I DO NOT support ending design review. The entitlement in this article is truly breathtaking! These folks are entitled to live anywhere they can afford. If they can’t afford the neighborhoods they like, perhaps a more affordable city would be a good answer for them. Design review as it stands is already allowing ugly garbage to deface so much of our once-beautiful city. Now we should dispense with that so even uglier cheap junk can be built to satisfy some warped idea of equity? No thank you.

    1. ” Design review as it stands is already allowing ugly garbage to deface so much of our once-beautiful city. ”

      Thank you for proving the point of this op-ed!

    2. Design review delays construction of new housing, delays giving people the opportunity to move into their new homes. This much is a fact that cannot be disputed.

      Is the delay worth it? That’s the crux of the issue. As you point out there are plenty of buildings that make it through this process and are aesthetically underwhelming. What then is this process buying us? You claim that new buildings would be uglier if we scrapped design review. We can do a direct comparison between new apartment buildings (which are required to have design review) and new single-family homes (which are not). Are the former significantly more beautiful than the latter? I sure don’t think so.

  17. I appreciate the reporting on the dysfunctional Stakeholders group. Contrary to this article, no neighborhood councils or groups are listed as represented. This is a major oversight if these are the folks most often accused of causing delays.

    1. those councils have had so much say already as they’re the reason the program exists, many served on the boards over time and all those councils wrote the design guidelines. maybe its best to keep the arsonists out of the fire department

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