State Proposal Would Ban Design Review—Except for Historic Buildings and Districts

Wallingford Historic District map
Under one amendment, proposals for new housing in the “Wallingford-Meridian Historic Streetcar District” would still be subject to strict aesthetic review.

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.

4 thoughts on “State Proposal Would Ban Design Review—Except for Historic Buildings and Districts”

  1. This is instructive for Oregon. I’m amazed that WA state are considering banning design review statewide. While there are sometimes useful tweaks done by design review, the entire process is so abused that it should be eliminated. I hope the legislators will see that the National Register Historic District loophole is a huge one. N.R. Districts can be initiated by a few people, and “proposed”. After that, they are usually signed off on by a state committee, and can only be stopped if 50%+1 of the owners object, which is a high bar.

  2. Why does the state think cities and neighbors should have no say? Many of the comments were good ones – like making a garage entrance big enough for the turning radius of a delivery van or truck. Also making sure the building allows some light to reach the ground on neighboring lots. This legislation is only being written so these legislators can get big contributions from builders associations and real estate companies for their reelection. They are supposed to represent the people but this takes away our voices.

    1. Neighbors rarely have something to say re: “Historic buildings” that is not in fact fighting for their own best interests, not the interest of the city at large, which these days means getting more housing built, in places where people can live and get to jobs and services without driving everywhere. This sounds like a great change, and I hope the Leavitt amendment about Historic buildings doesn’t get adopted.

  3. “cities could skirt the restrictions by landmarking every single building in a neighborhood.”

    Perhaps, but it would be a new process. The problem with making a loophole that applies to so called historic districts is that the districts were not designed with this legislation in mind. In contrast, if the amendment passes, then fans of design review have to start the whole process again, essentially naming building after building as “historic” (which oddly enough means that it can be torn down, but that if it is, the new building has to go through design review). A lot of people (myself included) didn’t worry about “historic districts” like Wallingford, because the term had no meaning in terms of development. It was simply a marketing move (like “All American City”). We should keep it that way.

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