By Ryan Packer
Last week, the state House housing committee approved a bill that would effectively prohibit cities, including Seattle, from subjecting housing developers to design review—a controversial process in which a group of volunteers make aesthetic judgments about, and require often minute changes to, proposed developments.
These boards can subject architectural firms to multiple rounds of tweaks, adding unpredictability to project timelines, with potential new homes frequently held up for months based on highly subjective aesthetic criteria.
The bill would upend that process. But a proposed amendment could leave a large loophole by preserving design review for projects in so-called historic districts.
House Bill 1026, introduced by Rep. Amy Walen (D-48, Kirkland), would restrict design review for proposed housing developments to “administrative” review, conducted by city staff who would would be limited to considering whether a project adheres to guidelines established by the city.
The amendment added last week by Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-28, University Place) would allow cities to keep design review boards for buildings, and entire neighborhoods, that are listed on a local, state, or national historic register.
Historic districts within the City of Seattle, like Pioneer Square, Columbia City, and the International District, have boards that review proposals to build or modify housing and other buildings in those areas. Leavitt’s amendment would not only allow this review process to continue while other design review boards elsewhere are being phased out, but expand this enhanced review process to all neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places. In Seattle, that would include neighborhoods like Montlake, Roanoke Park, and a broad swath of Wallingford, which was added to the federal register, despite significant opposition, last year. These districts include many non-historic buildings alongside arguably historic ones.
Immediately after the housing committee unanimously adopted the amendment, lawmakers started talking about walking it back. “I do have concerns. I think we can refine the language to make sure that entire neighborhoods…aren’t said to be historic for the purpose of limiting opportunities to increase housing and increase density,” Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), who chairs the housing committee, said.
Peterson is now proposing an amendment that would only require design review for individual structures, not entire historic districts. It’s not clear how this would impact historic districts like the International District, where every structure is not a city landmark, or whether cities could skirt the restrictions by landmarking every single building in a neighborhood. Legislators will vote on that amendment on the House floor before the bill proceeds to the Senate.