For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further

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This four-story building, the Phinney Flats on busy Greenwood Avenue North, was delayed for years by design review meetings in which critics called it “Soviet-style” architecture and said renters would disrupt their peace and quiet with loud rooftop parties.

By Laura Loe

Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.

I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.

The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.

On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.

Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.

But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.

There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.

A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.

The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.

ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.

The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.

While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.

Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.

One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.

Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.

According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.

Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.

The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.

Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.

7 thoughts on “For a Welcoming City, Design Review Reforms Must Go Further”

  1. Mandatory housing affordability program hasn’t lived up to it’s promises. The fees are too low and the tax- exemption too long. It doesn’t incentive builders to create affordable housing in city partly due to the generous to developers fee structure. If the fee were higher and tax exemption shorter more units would be built in in city apartments

  2. Design review is needed to keep developers in check. They are willing to break any rule to get more square footage. From what I’ve seen the DRB is way more accommodating to builders than they are to individual homeowners. Just try extending your front porch or going slightly over 35% lot coverage and you’ll see – you most likely won’t be allowed to do it.

  3. The Phinney Flats looks awful, but it definitely isn’t Soviet style Brutalism. If anything its soulless quality is the result of the opposite issue, “aesthetic” facades and pieces of art mandated by city code. Like that giant blue tumor on the side of it.

    While I have no love for NIMBYism, I am skeptical of your NPO’s motives. There are many easier ways to improve the amount of housing in a development, yet you seem silent on them. What about abolishing floor level retail? Where do you stand on that?

    1. Yes, and got to wonder about the typo in the OP’s article:

      “But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable?”

      I think they were going for making all housing, more affordable, which doesn’t sound like a pro-developer motive. They do sound like pro-developer (and I’m no anti-capitalist, but I’ve lived in east coast cities with modest year on year rent caps unless major rehab is done.) I do agree in full transparency and worked at the City for years. It is easy and very believable that SDCI reviewers will carry-out personal preferences dictated to them. My office got constant micromanagement from the Directors Office and the Mayors Office for our department, and it was in capital construction but I won’t say which Dept.

      We are in a rehabbed building and large skinny condo developments were being completed when we moved in and new and ongoing construction since. One developer got chatting with us about how the City paid (so an offset I assume) to change the exterior design the City wanted, which the City then did the same kickback for the developer to use on their other properties throughout the City…..and they do not look good. I assume the facades will age as well as the cheapo looking short buildings lining Aurora that have been rehabbed extensively since about 2014 or so.

      The infill heights of Ballard around 2013-2015 were steep and I wasn’t into it. However, now, to see all these short buildings (many condos that look and feel like apartments) go in at about four, sometimes five floors, this seems like a glaring error where dense building with parking is needed.

  4. I can’t say that removing design review would improve projects and neither can the author of this piece. Nor can I say that removing design review will make market rate projects less expensive to build and decrease rental rates and neither can the author of this piece – I can say that having DRB in the Central Area has been a win for our neighborhood long relegated to being some sort appendage of Capitol Hill. Perhaps if the DRB wasn’t so limited in its purview and that our code didn’t make it so tough for good design we would get better results from this all volunteer board.

    1. “Our neighborhood” ? What? You actually “own” the Central Area?, Maybe a small chunk of it and house? Who owns a Neighborhood? I will tell you people who claim ownership in a neighborhood tend to like it….just the way it is, thank you. No need for growth here in my neighborhood, just rising home prices so can cash out when I want to.

      There is soooo much money that wants to live on Capitol Hill that all the adjoining areas could be, (and will be over time) bulldozed into upscale condos for the rich Capital Hill party crowd. There’s no fighting money in the long run.

      Zoning and land use fights in Seattle end up pitting homeowners (rich) vs. developers (richer) building housing for the well heeled. Affordability? Nope, that’s not going to happen until the Seattle economy takes a nose dive.

  5. It’s sad to hear that Design Review is being exploited by NIMBYS in certain neighborhoods. In my neighborhood our activist group the Othello Station Community Action Team approaches new developments by making constructive comments. Developers appreciate this because we all want well-designed and affordable housing. So the city needs to find a way to support well-intentioned and constructive design review. Development around the Othello light rail station could be a model for other areas as it includes a good mixture of fully subsidized and majority market-rate housing that is building an attractive new town center. We even have a tiny house village close by.

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