State Legislature Deals a Blow to Seattle’s Dysfunctional Design Review Process

This proposed apartment building, anchored by a Safeway, spent three years in design review.

By Ryan Packer

In addition to requiring modest upzones across the state and streamlining environmental review, the state legislature took aim this year at a process that has become infamous for slowing down new housing in Seattle: Design review

Under Seattle’s current system,  eight volunteer boards, each focused on a different geographic area, review new developments and have the power to dictate design changes if they don’t like the way a proposed building looks. Design review has been used to reduce the scale of developments, mandate specific colors and materials, and even dictate the location and size of private outdoor space for apartment residents. The process can add months or years to a project’s timeline.

House Bill 1293, sponsored by Rep. Mark Klicker (R-16, Walla Walla), and signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee Monday, requires cities and counties that engage in design review to evaluate only “clear and objective development regulations”, as opposed to aesthetic opinions, and limits design review to one public meeting. Before the bill passed in February, Rep. Andy Barkis (R-1, Olympia) called the new standards “clear and objective,” without all the “redundancies” produced by holding hearing after hearing on a development.

David Neiman, a partner at Neiman Taber Architects, is very familiar with how design review works in Seattle, having watched the program transform from a well-intentioned opportunity for citizens to influence projects in their neighborhoods to the bureaucratic behemoth it is today. “It’s become this thing that takes an enormous amount of effort and time for every project that has to go through it. It’s a significant distortion of how we spend our time and energies in getting a project permitted,” Neiman said. 

“I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive,” architect David Neiman said, but “one of the things design review gives us is flexibility.”

In 2021, the design review board for Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood approved a design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment complex that will replace the existing grocery store—a one-story Safeway with a large surface parking lot. The process stalled for three years while the review board debated minute details of the project—everything from how many storefront entrances the store must have to the precise color of brick used in the project. The Safeway saga epitomized the elements of Seattle’s design review process that HB 1293 is supposed to correct.

“We probably spend about $100,000 [worth] of time on the design review and [Master Use Permit] process … and it [typically] adds about a year to the process,” Neiman said. “I think it’s fair to say the things you have to do to respond to design review also make the building more expensive.”

But Neiman doesn’t want to discard design review entirely. For one thing, he said, design review boards have the power to approve variances from city codes that can be rigid. “One of the things design review gives us is flexibility. It’s very, very rare that we can design a building according to all of the code requirements,” Neiman said. “Nine times out of ten, boards will agree, and give us that flexibility, and we’re able to design better buildings.”

If the design review process becomes too inflexible, Neiman worries, architects won’t be able to take a broader view of what city codes are trying to achieve. “In a world where you take away design review, the only tool that you’ll have to try and control the design environment is to just start writing rules.”

In 2017, Seattle expanded its administrative design review program, in which city planners review and sign off on projects without input from the volunteer boards. Affordable-housing projects can now skip the full design review process, as can some smaller market-rate projects. The new state law could lead the city to expand that program even more.

Matt Hutchins, a principal with CAST Architecture and a former design review board member himself, is skeptical that putting design review in the hands of city staffers will definitely result in quicker project approvals. “Objective is only in the eyes of the beholder, and setting up a bureaucratic regimen that produces objective judgements is quite difficult,” he said.

“The benefit with the current design review process is that there’s maybe a little bit more visibility and flexibility, and we really can’t hold the planners’ feet to the fire … the same way” when the process isn’t public, Hutchins said.

City Councilmember Dan Strauss, chair of the city council’s land use committee and sponsor of a 2021 resolution creating a task force to look at how to improve design review (which is still deliberating), said it’s still too soon to know how the change in state law will impact the city.

“While the solutions to fixing design review are not necessarily clear right now, what is clear is that design review is broken,” Strauss said, adding that the process “is being weaponized to stop projects that are important to our community.”

Seattle will have to adhere to the new restrictions on design review by mid-2025. Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections spokesperson Bryan Stevens said it’s still too soon to say how the changes will impact the city’s design review process.

9 thoughts on “State Legislature Deals a Blow to Seattle’s Dysfunctional Design Review Process”

  1. Despite attempts to socially engineer, rezone & slice Seattle up into bite size pieces, market forces will always prevail.

  2. Developers don’t need any more concessions – they are intent on destroying all single family neighborhoods and basically bought themselves a green light to do so from the WA State legislature. They will always argue that any requirement is too much expense for them. Requirements for off street parking, electric vehicle charging, setbacks from property lines or the height of buildings all too much. Also requirements to pay impact fees for the added drag on our sewer plants, water supply infrastructure, roads, and electrical grid. They want it all for free and also want long term tax breaks for all buildings like MFTE tax exemption. A bunch of lying greedy b******s and they convinced all the progressive left with their lies. Housing prices have more to do with other things like the 20 % of homes that are bought by investors which artificially keeps prices high. Make some controls on those practices – don’t allow stock funds to invest in homes. This would bring down prices nationwide.

    1. “A bunch of lying greedy b******s and they convinced all the progressive left with their lies.” That’s quite a comical overgeneralization. If your only exposure to “progressives” is this site and/or the urbanist (and judging by your other comments here that’s probably true) then you have no idea. But then again, I see your main contribution is almost always loudly proclaiming how much you hate poor people, and mistaking your point as something very important which everyone needs to know before public issues are discussed. I’m actually surprised you didn’t mention it here too, though I guess the subtext is there: renters are generally poorer than homeowners, and you definitely don’t want renters near your single-family neighborhood.

      1. It seems on one level that the longer and more tortuous the path to final approval takes, the more likely that backdoor approaches will enter the mix, i.e. shady deals and payoffs… But the bigger reality is that Western Washington is transitioning into more than a bunch of cute neighborhoods around an urban center, and bigger concerns affecting bigger populations have to be dealt with before they become too difficult to cope with. Having too granular a design process for EVERY housing project is an old approach from a less populous time, and it needs to be reworked to manage the variety of housing an area needs right now, along with it’s accompanying small businesses. Zoning rules, for example, can be reworked to set minimum standards that don’t need to be restated in every project’s design review.

    2. Single family zoning is an abomination. The least vibrant, interesting neighborhoods are vast wastelands of ticky tacky houses with nothing of value located in them.
      No tourist comes here to check out the endless 70’s tract homes of the northend.

      1. I live in a cheap rental house that is owned free and clear in NE Seattle – and the thousands of similar old Seattle houses that remain on the rental market are still the best (and most appropriate for families) rental deals on the market. Who give a flying f*** what tourists want to see?

        BTW – I just read Barney Frank’s autobiography, and I was struck at his blue collar/lunchbox take on the whole “Little Boxes” trope – he thought decades ago that it was a perfect example of the insufferable elitism of a lot of college educated Democrats who were begrudging a whole generation of post WW2 GI Bill new homeowners their dream houses/slice of the pie. I happened to be in Daly City last week and those “ticky tacky” houses are worth at least a cool million or two now.

        He was right – and you are wrong.

    3. Re: “electrical grid”, City Light charges a fee that is intended to cover the incremental cost of interconnecting new developments to their system. This hasn’t always been done well, but they are getting better at it. I believe the same is true for SPU for water and sewer. TANSTAAFL.

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