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.