Category: Development

It’s Time to Ditch Design Review

Years of controversy over the design of this Safeway-anchored building on Queen Anne galvanized opposition to Seattle’s design review process.

By Laura Loe, Wes Mills, and Mike Eliason

Seattle is preparing to update its Comprehensive Plan, which governs growth and development in the city. Between now and 2024, there will be a staggering number of public input and listening tours and community open houses, all aimed at shaping equitable development and coming to some kind of consensus about where new neighbors should be allowed to live. 

Simultaneously, the city convened an advisory stakeholder group to evaluate Seattle’s Design Review program, as required by a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) the City Council passed in spring of 2022. We question whether this advisory group, which has met three times so far, is effective or empowered to make necessary changes to this harmful program. We oppose Seattle’s Design Review program and would like it to be reduced to a routine checklist, if not eliminated altogether. We want changes to this program to be in place before the comprehensive plan update in 2024.

The intent of Seattle’s Design Review program is to “consider a broad set of design considerations and apply design guidelines that the architect must use to design the exterior of the building (and to) promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Unfortunately, the impact of design review goes far beyond aesthetics and neighborhood character. It leads to a less affordable city. According to a 2021 BERK report, Seattle needs at least 21,000 more homes for families and individuals making less than 80 percent of Area Median Income, about $95,000 for a family of four. Design reviewers are not allowed to consider the needs of lower- income people in their decision making, to say nothing of evaluating the needs of an estimated 5.8 million residents our city and region will need to house by 2050. 

Right now, Seattle planning staff coordinate community energy toward evaluating a building’s appearance—a classist and subjective process that prioritizes subjective aesthetics over equity.. Our city is not more beautiful because of Seattle’s design review process. It adds cost and limits needed homes during dual climate and housing emergencies. There is an abject futility in witnessing multiple rounds of hours-long meetings debating minuscule architectural points that would make Frank Lloyd Wright stomp out in frustration.

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power

In contrast, there’s no process to examine whether our city’s stated values around equity, affordability and sustainability are being met. Design Review has hobbled Seattle’s ability to provide essential housing, while undermining the needs of both current and future neighbors. This process prioritizes things like the color of brick, the modulation of the back side of a building, and whether a trash pickup should be done by a 30-foot truck or a 25-foot one. It leads to complex studies of the impact of shadows on vegetable gardens. It does not support equitable development. 

In September 2021, Seattle For Everyone released a statement that made clear that Seattle’s Design Review program was failing. We agree. We have found Design Review to be one of the most anti-renter, gate-kept, exclusionary and jargon-laden of all Seattle Processes. Infuriatingly, the all-volunteer Design Review Board has been loaded with industry insider architects and process “experts.” This shuts out many people whose communities need representation, including people who are experiencing housing instability, like us. 

Coupled with bad zoning and other broken systems, our land use patterns shove new housing into tightly-constrained corridors, often in locations populated by people with little political power. These locations tend to have much higher levels of air and noise pollution than the neighborhoods whose “residential character” design review aims to protect, and are considerably less safe due to traffic volumes, than residential neighborhoods. It is a public health crisis exacerbated by our bifurcated development regime. Renters deserve quiet, leafy neighborhoods where our kids can feel safe playing on the sidewalk.

The most famous example of design review’s costly and anti-renter outcomes is at the top of Queen Anne. Because of the great reporting from The Urbanist (West Design Review Board Withholds Approval for 323 Homes Atop Queen Anne Safeway), and the fantastic live-tweets by QAGreenways, dozens of people were inspired to give public comment in favor of housing on top of a grocery store. The momentum and movement to end design review has even caught the attention of Real Change advocates who specifically called out eliminating design review in their recent comprehensive plan vision

We ask the City of Seattle to remove Design Review from the building and permitting process, before we complete the Comprehensive Plan updates in Spring of 2024.   Because of the concerns raised by Seattle For Everyone, we are worried that any reforms recommended through the stakeholder group process will be worth little more than the cost of the ink used to print the very nice bound version that will be placed in the stacks of our beautiful Central Library (that probably couldn’t pass Design Review today).

The stakeholder group plans to perform “[a]n analysis of whether the program increases housing costs”. We don’t need that analysis. We already know it does—through increased processes, permitting delays, and more complex buildings. We don’t need more analysis to tell us Design Review is broken. Additionally, the council’s directive does nothing to own up to Seattle’s massive role in exporting our housing crisis to the rest of Puget Sound and the Pacific Northwest. 

While we advocate for ending design review, we don’t yet have a framework for fixing our neighborhood design guidelines. One acceptable option would be to make adherence to design guidelines a low-stakes checklist-style administrative step. A few of Seattle’s design guidelines are functional and fairly useful, but others are purely aesthetic and highly questionable.  

Upcoming Meetings: September 28, October 26, November 16, December 14

Comment on these meetings here.

Watch upcoming meetings here.

Stakeholders

The stakeholder group includes affordable housing developers, market rate developers, design professionals, neighborhood organizations, and previous Design Review Board members. Stakeholders representing specific organizations are indicated here.

Additionally, the Design Review process works differently in the Department of Neighborhoods for Special Review Districts. The International Special Review District (ISRD) has taken some steps to increase participation and influence by those who have been actively marginalized and underrepresented in Seattle. For example, the ISRD Board recently expanded their language access with translation and interpretation for meetings. We need to evaluate if community members have felt that these reforms in Department of Neighborhoods have worked, to inform the SLI driven stakeholder advisory meetings  in the Department of Construction and Inspection.  

We do not support more process, more reports, or more rounds of public debate and discussion. After viewing the first few meetings of the stakeholder group reform process, it is clear that the members are disempowered to make reforms. Design review eradication should be under consideration, too. The city must study the impacts of eliminating design review and this stakeholder group is meaningless without studying that option. 

Laura is a renter, musician and gardener in Queen Anne who founded Share The Cities. Wes is a local housing and transit advocacy volunteer who rents with his family in Northgate, where they can live without a car. Mike is the founder of Larch Lab, an architecture studio and think tank – as well as renter and livable cities activist living with his family in Fremont.

Ruling: No Need to Review New Tree Regulations’ Impact on New Housing

Trees! Better than housing?

By Erica C. Barnett

On Thursday, the Seattle Hearing Examiner ruled against the Master Builders of Seattle/King County in a case involving a proposed new citywide tree ordinance, concluding that the city does not have to undertake any additional review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to move forward with the new law.

The proposed new law, supported by TreePAC and City Councilmembers Dan Strauss and Alex Pedersen, would lower the size threshold for “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

MBAKS, which represents small-scale multifamily developers, argued that the new rules will discourage density in Seattle, “protecting” single-family neighborhoods in leafy parts of Seattle where people of color were historically barred from living, while doing nothing to improve tree coverage in sparsely canopied, more diverse parts of the city. They argued that the city needs to do more environmental analysis to consider the potential negative effects the ordinance would have on housing development and density.

In response to the ruling, MBAKS Seattle Government Affairs Manager Aliesha Ruiz said, “Although MBAKS is disappointed in the decision of the hearing examiner, we look forward to working with our housing partners and City Council to create legislation that supports both trees and housing.”

In his ruling, Hearing Examiner Ryan Vancil said the developers didn’t clear the very high bar for requiring additional environmental review, essentially by failing to prove a negative: “Appellants’ arguments that the Proposal will increase the costs of development, and will have negative impacts on the City housing supply were based on speculation, not any actual quantitative analysis that was introduced into evidence, Vancil wrote.

“Appellants’ expressed concern that development will be more expensive, uncertain, and problematic on some unidentified number of lots is not enough to demonstrate that the Proposal will likely have significant adverse impacts to future housing in the City.”

Vancil also ruled that the tree ordinance, which defines an “exceptional” tree (the most protected category) as any tree more than two feet in diameter, is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which guides development policy in the city and will be overhauled in 2024. (That process is just getting underway). In their appeal, the developers argued that in addition to doing more environmental analysis, the city should consider requiring developers to add street trees whenever they build new detached single-family houses, which do nothing to achieve the comprehensive plan’s density goals.

In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Strauss, who represents Northwest Seattle, said, “Seattle is called ‘the Emerald City’ for a reason, and we need to do better at preserving our cherished urban forestry. We know trees add value to existing homes and development and many parts of our city need more tree canopy. I am excited to finally be able to create stronger tree protections here in the Emerald City.”

 

Ruling on Tree Regulations Coming Soon, City Attorney Filed Charges in Just Over Half of Cases This Year

1. The Seattle Hearing Examiner is expected to rule as soon as next week on a case in which the Master Builders Association of King County and Seattle—a business group that represents housing developers—is seeking a more thorough review of a new tree ordinance that would make it harder to remove trees on private property. The goal of the new restrictions, MBAKS argues, isn’t to protect Seattle’s tree canopy (which includes many trees on public property that wouldn’t be subject to the new restrictions); it’s to prevent new housing in historically exclusive single-family neighborhoods.

“There are people and groups in our City that care deeply about trees and about the health of Seattle’s urban forest,” MBAKS wrote in a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell last week. “Those are the people and groups we’d like to work with. However, the loudest voices are anti-development groups that have weaponized tree protection to support their singular goal of stopping development in their beloved single-family neighborhoods.”

The new tree ordinance would lower the size threshold for regulated “significant” and “exceptional” trees and make them harder or illegal for private property owners to remove; removing a tree larger than 12 inches in diameter, for example, would require a developer to either replant the tree on site or pay a fee based on the value of the tree.

Technically, the appeal questions the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s “determination of non-significance” under the State Environmental Policy Act—essentially a conclusion that imposing new restrictions on tree removal (and thus development) will have no significant impact on the city’s environmental policies or its Comprehensive Plan, which guides future development and land use decisions in the city. SDCI and TreePAC are the two groups opposing the Master Builders’ appeal.

The comprehensive plan encourages density inside neighborhoods as a bulwark against suburban sprawl and social inequity, since Seattle’s tree canopy is heavily concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods that were historically redlined to keep people of color out. In addition to more analysis that looks at density, not just privately owned trees, MBAKS has asked the city to consider requiring street trees when developers build new detached houses in single-family zones.

Chart showing Seattle City Attorney's Office Case Filing decisions (filed or declined), January-June 2022

2. City attorney Ann Davison, who announced in February that she would decide whether to file charges in her office receives from the police department within five days, decided to file charges in just over 56 percent of cases between the day she announced the new policy and late June of this year, records PubliCola obtained through a disclosure request show.

This represents a significant uptick in the percentage of cases Davison’s office filed compared to her predecessor, Pete Holmes’, filing rate during the pandemic, but is similar to Holmes’ pre-COVID filing rates when compared to data provided (in chart form) in a report from Davison’s office earlier this year. The overall number of cases coming in from SPD is lower than before 2020 because of a number of factors, including SPD’s decision to stop pulling people over for some minor traffic violations; Davison’s report suggests the cause is “the loss of a significant number of SPD officers.”

The charges Davison declined to file most frequently after announcing the close-in-time filing policy on February 7 included assault, assault with sexual motivation, theft, and property destruction; the charges she has filed most frequently also included assault and theft along with trespassing, harassment, and charges that involve driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Case filings declined during the pandemic, in part, because the court shut down during COVID, creating a massive backlog that the municipal court is still struggling to work through. King County’s jails, meanwhile, remain understaffed even as jail populations rise, leading to conditions that both jail staffers and defense attorneys have described to PubliCola as inhumane. The more misdemeanor cases Seattle sends into this system, the greater the downstream backlog becomes.

Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?

1. Last week, Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told PubliCola that the city has to make sure police are present at every encampment removal because Parks Department workers, who are in charge of removing tents and disposing of unsheltered people’s belongings, were being “assaulted” by “protesters” who show up at sweeps. The parks workers’ union raised the issue, Washington said, because the workers didn’t feel safe without police in the area.

Although we’ve been present at many encampment removals, PubliCola couldn’t remember seeing or hearing about any physical assaults by mutual aid workers who show up at sweeps—including from local TV news reporters, who are generally eager to jump on any drama related to homelessness.  Asked for clarification, a Parks Department spokeswoman said Parks employees had been both threatened and physically assaulted.

For example, the spokeswoman said, “a staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

The Seattle Police Department has lost about 400 officers since the beginning of 2020, and continues to lose more officers than it hires.

The Parks Department did not directly respond to a question about whether the Parks union requested and received a contract modification or other written agreement to ensure police would be present at all encampment removals. “When our labor partners came to us with employee safety concerns, we worked together to address them and act,” the spokeswoman said.

“A staff person was pushed during a removal, protestors have thrown rocks and pinecones at staff, a protestor grabbed the arm of staff while they were posting removal notices, protestors have screamed in staff members’ faces, and protesters have written veiled threats toward specific staff including naming their family members.”

2. As the West Seattle Blog reported last week, the Seattle Department of Transportation decided to “spare” a large, multi-trunked horse chestnut tree in West Seattle whose roots have caused the sidewalk to buckle, making it unsafe for pedestrians. SDOT said it had not decided what to do about the tree, which is at least several decades old, but was glad to have found a solution that doesn’t require cutting down the tree. 

The solution, which the Seattle Times summarized as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” comes at a cost to the city: About $45,000, according to a spokesman for SDOT, to build a new “parallel/corner curb ramp with minimal tree root trimming that should not harm the tree” and move a fire hydrant across the street.

It’s unclear what impact the success of this tree protest will have on future attempts to remove trees that are damaging public infrastructure or are in the path of development. Historically, “Save the Trees” has been a rallying cry in Seattle (and elsewhere) for laws that prevent the construction of new housing—particularly in North Seattle’s tree-lined, largely white single-family neighborhoods, where people of color were historically barred from living.

Horse chestnut trees are a rapidly growing invasive species that, along with mountain ash, “make up the majority of the non-native deciduous species” in the city, according to the city of Seattle. That quote comes from a report recommending the removal of these trees from a natural area in Southeast Seattle that is “infested” with them, hindering the growth of native species.

3. The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents fewer than 100 police captains and lieutenants, have negotiated changes in their contract that, if implemented (the full contract is on the city council’s agenda next week), would cost the city about $3.39 million this year for retroactive and current wage increases. This extra cost would come out of SPD’s salary savings for 2022—$4.5 million the city saved because SPD was unable to hire all the officers the council funded in SPD’s budget last year. (The council could also decide to fund the contract costs from some other source, but that would require new legislation; paying for salaries out of the salary savings does not require legislation.)

Back in May, the city council and Mayor Bruce Harrell agreed to a “compromise” proposal that released $1.15 million in unspent salary savings to boost recruitment at SPD, after Councilmember Sara Nelson spent several weeks arguing that the city should just hand the entire $4.5 million to SPD for hiring bonuses. Conveniently enough, that $1.15 million, plus the money it will cost the city to fund SPMA’s contract in 2022, adds up to right around $4.5 million—money that would not have been available if Nelson had gotten her way and released the full $4.5 million.

Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said “it was purely coincidental that those two figures lined up.”

We’ll have a more detailed report on the SPMA contract later this week.

4. Last week, the King County Council agreed to delay a vote on a proposal by Councilmember Claudia Balducci to give voters the chance to decide whether to move county elections, including the races for county executive, county council, and county elections director, to even years. Balducci, echoing many progressive groups, has argued that even-year elections would boost turnout over the current system, in which many local races (including Seattle elections) are conducted in “off” years, meaning those without statewide or national elections. Continue reading “Saving Invasive Tree Cost City $45,000; Hiring Bonuses Would Have Blown Up SPD Budget; Assaults at Sweeps Involved Pine Cones, “Veiled Threats”; Get Ready for Even-Year Elections?”

Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents

City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)
City Councilmembers Alex Pedersen (l) and Sara Nelson (r)

By Erica C. Barnett

When City Councilmember Alex Pedersen proposed legislation that would require landlords to report basic information about their rental units, such as the size of each unit they own and how much it rents for, twice a year, his intent wasn’t to make it harder for small landlords to stay in business.

In fact, one of the goals of the proposal was to provide data to demonstrate the value of protecting so-called “naturally occurring affordable housing”—private, nonsubsidized apartments that rent below market rate—against development, through limits on density in areas that might otherwise be redeveloped into high-rise apartments.

So it was somewhat surprising when, earlier this month, Pedersen’s frequent ally Sara Nelson accused him of trying to impose onerous regulations that would “burden small landlords” who are “really struggling to deal with the impacts of the pandemic on their businesses.” Comparing housing to consumer goods, Nelson said the legislation would force landlords to divulge “proprietary” information that other types of businesses don’t have to disclose.

“We don’t ask other small business owners for this kind of detailed information,” Nelson said during a May 20 meeting of the council’s renter’s rights committee. “For example, we don’t ask all produce vendors to submit the kinds of vegetables they sell and the prices they charge.” (Actually, we do, and on a much larger scale.)

Pedersen, seeming a bit startled by the analogy, pointed out that “the current prices of products are publicly available, whereas we don’t know what the current contract rents are for an apartment project.”

“The problem here is that the price of housing is not known,” added committee chair Kshama Sawant, who supports Pedersen’s legislation. “I don’t understand how it is a burden to disclose the amount of rent you charge—it seems to be the most basic form of information that landlords should be required to share.”

In response, Nelson said people can find out what rents landlords are charging, “kind of, when you’re looking for units,” and that if the city wants to know more about rents they should hire a contractor to do a study. Then she said supporters of the legislation should be honest and acknowledge that “this information is going to be used for other political purposes, such as rent control.”

Sawant, a socialist, supports rent control; Pedersen, a former aide to onetime City Council member Tim Burgess, does not. Continue reading “Nelson, Breaking from Frequent Ally Pedersen, Says Landlords Shouldn’t Have to Divulge Rents”

Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?

The Safeway building that led to seven years of aesthetic debate

By Andrew Engelson

In a city facing an extreme lack of affordable housing, Seattle’s process for permitting apartment buildings has become a bit of a circus. For months, an unelected board debated the color and style of brick on a grocery store and apartment complex in Queen Anne. Wealthy residents of an apartment tower in Belltown bogged down the construction of an apartment tower next door by insisting the design include more curves to match its architectural context. And a new multi-family building on Capitol Hill had to be redesigned because it looked “too historic.”

The process is clearly broken. In response, last November, the Seattle City Council directed the Seattle of Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to assemble a stakeholder group to examine its design review program—a complicated permitting process that many architects and housing advocates say is deeply flawed, contributes to excessive delays, and adds significant costs to new multi-family housing projects. The group, which will present its report later this year, is supposed to come up with ways to make the review process faster and more efficient, and to look at the racial and economic equity impacts of the program.  

City councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the legislation, told PubliCola, “Long permit review times often slow or prevent the building of urgently needed housing in Seattle. I am working to address permitting delays and streamline housing production, and as part of that process design review has often come up as an area that needs fixing.” 

Design review has nothing to do with whether a building conforms to safety and construction codes. Instead, it critiques the overall appearance of a building, how it relates to the terrain and adjacent properties, how pedestrians and vehicles access the site, and the quality of the building’s materials and landscaping. The all-volunteer boards serve four-year terms and include a mix of architects, landscape designers, developers, and local residents. The decisions they make are final, and there’s no formal appeals process. When the city’s eight regional design review boards dictate aesthetic changes, it can lead to delays of months or even years and add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of apartment projects. Single-family houses, no matter the size, are not subject to design review. 

Architects and developers have been reluctant to criticize the program in the past for fear of retaliation by the volunteers on the boards, which wield a surprising amount of power and have held up projects over minor concerns such as the color of brick facades and the placement and style of public benches.

But several architects agreed to speak to PubliCola on the record about their frustration with a process that many urbanist advocates say is inconsistent, capricious, and so cumbersome that many developers are now hesitant to build new multifamily housing in Seattle.

“I think it is broken, and it can be fixed,” said Brian Runberg, founder of Runberg Architecture Group, who has seen many of his firm’s projects bog down in long delays during design review. “Currently it is not efficient or predictable. And it’s not fair nor inclusive.”

Seattle’s west design review board agonized over which array of taupes and browns to require on the front of a Safeway supermarket that’s supposed to look like a bunch of little storefronts.

Runberg was the lead architect on a 7-story apartment building, anchored by a Safeway grocery store, on Queen Anne Avenue—a project that has become notorious for its delays and finicky debates over aesthetic concerns. Originally proposed in 2016, the project went through two architects and two developers and then was held up for six months while the west region design review board and the architect haggled over the precise color and pattern of the store’s brick facade. In addition, the board requested that the facade of the Safeway approximate the look of small individual retailers – even though the one ground floor tenant is a single grocery chain.

Responding to the board’s concerns, Runberg’s staff prepared dozens of studies of brick colors and patterns for the Safeway, with negligible difference in the end product. The project was permitted late last year; after groundbreaking, construction should take about 18 months. As PubliCola reported, design review added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the project. All of the changes were purely aesthetic. 

“That’s a total of seven years to build a Safeway with apartments on top,” said Mark Ostrow, a Seattle Neighborhood Greenways board member who live-tweets about design review hearings at Queen Anne Greenways. “For the Olympic Games, the host city gets seven years to totally transform an entire city. They build massive sports venues and transportation systems. And the city of Seattle can’t even build a Safeway.”

Though the boards are formally tasked with enforcing the city’s design guidelines (which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood) sometimes the critiques veer into abstract aesthetic concerns. 

Often, the issues that review boards raise feel random and frivolous, Bradley Khouri, the founder of B9 Architects, said. Khouri remembers presenting to the east region review board for a project on Capitol Hill. The board had deliberated, and was voting to wrap things up when one board member suddenly expressed concerns, Khouri recalled, that the building was not “refined enough.” Another board member agreed to change their vote and call for another review meeting. “I’m on a video call,” Khouri remembers, “I’m in my house. And think: I can’t stop this train. I don’t know where it’s going to go. Fortunately, everybody else said no,” and the project went forward.

Khouri said he’s seen the minimum time to permit a multi-family housing project in Seattle go from about a year in 2008 to nearly two years today. When projects are held up, it’s often over minor details, Khouri said. “You could spend six months with a planner on these corrections back and forth,” he said. “And for what? At the end of the day, they may have added a little nicer material or adjusted the height of the canopy. But it’s preventing housing from getting produced in a city that’s desperate for it.” 

He pointed to an apartment project his firm designed on Capitol Hill seven years ago. “The client committed to spending over $300,000 on additional siding— today that would be half a million dollars,” Khouri said. “And the building’s more attractive as a result. Did that really need to happen? I don’t know. I like our building as it’s built, but I think we could have done just as nice a building without having to spend all that. But our client knew if he didn’t do it, he wasn’t going to be able to build this building.”

In March, the pro-density coalition Seattle for Everyone published a report with data from the consultant ECONorthwest that found the total time to get a master use permit from SDCI increased 84 percent between 2010 and 2018. By  2020, the amount of time required for a project to complete full design review had increased to 805 days, or 2.2 years, on average.

“Seattle is not known for its beautiful midrise apartment buildings. It’s actually known for its ugly ones. And this is under a system where we are legislating aesthetics. So clearly, that’s not working.”—Mark Ostrow, @QAGreenways

Runberg said that as a result, most of his developer clients now shy away from building new housing in Seattle. Five years ago, he said, about 5 percent of his firm’s multifamily residential work was on the Eastside and most of the remainder was in Seattle. “Presently, 90 percent of our work is on the Eastside,” Runberg said. “These are all the same developers we’ve had for 20 years. And it all comes back to the fact that the process is unfair and unpredictable. It’s too risky for them.”

A 2016 study of Seattle’s design review process published by University of Washington urban planning grad student Scott Cutler found that design review boards’ recommendations about the aesthetics of buildings and site plans are often applied in an arbitrary manner. “It is clear from the case study findings that Seattle’s Design Review Program suffers from inconsistently-applied scrutiny and an unpredictable bureaucratic timeline, which both need to be fixed to ensure fairness and accessibility to the process,” Cutler concluded.

In 2018, SDCI did make minor reforms to design review, but Khouri argues that the changes, though necessary, were “so minimal” compared to the kind of changes that are needed. The reforms increased the threshold for a project to be subject to full design review, created a streamlined review process and moved smaller projects and townhouses into what’s known as administrative design review—a internal, non-public process in which SDCI staff review plans.

This Belltown tower went through six months of delay because design review board members (and neighbors in a nearby luxury high-rise) didn’t think its original “rectilinear” shape worked with round buildings nearby, including the Westin hotel towers.

According to figures provided by SDCI, the number of multi-family and commercial building permits issued has declined dramatically in the past four years. Although the pandemic was certainly a driver in 2020, the overall trend since 2018 has been downward. In the last six months of 2018 after the reforms were implemented, 104 projects went through streamlined design review, 143 through administrative, and 221 projects went through full design review. By 2021, those numbers had plummeted to 66, 103, and 99, respectively. 

Not all of the decline is the result of design review, of course—high labor costs, supply chain issues, and high property values are also factors. But Brady Nordstrom, a coordinator with Seattle for Everyone, notes that design review is part of this decline in construction of multifamily housing. “We can’t control labor prices and we can’t control demand for housing,” Nordstrom said. “But we can control how we permit and move housing through permitting.”

Khouri contends that requiring aesthetic architectural review during a climate crisis and a massive surge in housing prices is unnecessary and harmful. “If we’re doing a project three blocks from light rail,” Khouri said, “should there really be a conversation about height, bulk, and scale?”

SDCI director Nathan Torgelson defended design review, which the city created in 1991 in reaction to the construction of a host of new skyscrapers downtown. “Most buildings are going to last anywhere from 50 to 70 years,” Torgelson said, “so the aesthetics of the building is absolutely important to the fabric of the city and how it fits in a neighborhood context. But we can definitely improve the process.” Continue reading “Is It Time for Seattle to Do Away With Design Review?”

Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase”

1. On Tuesday, the city council will impose new restrictions on construction or alterations at two historic landmarks: The Center for Wooden Boats in South Lake Union, and an early-20th-century houseboat known as the Wagner Floating Home.

One building that won’t be getting new protections—at least, not yet—is a one-story former bank building near downtown that, for more than a decade, has housed a drive-through Walgreen’s store. Fifteen years ago, the Seattle landmarks board granted landmark status to the building, which has a handsome facade on one side but is otherwise unremarkable. In its “statement of significance,” the landmarks board seemed to struggle to explain why, exactly, the building on Denny Way—one of multiple copies around Seattle of a building designed by a different architect—merited extraordinary protection. Among other points largely unrelated to the 1950 building itself, the board cited the defunct bank’s connection to the city’s logging history and the Denny Regrade, the history of drive-through banking in the US, and the “unprecedented freedom” of mid-century Modernist style.

It doesn’t take much for a building to win landmark status in Seattle; a building is only required to be at least 25 years old and meet one of a list of criteria that includes being “associated in a significant way with a significant aspect of the cultural, political, or economic heritage of the community, city, state or nation” or being characteristic of an area.

Landmarks status usually leads to limits on the demolition of, or changes to, buildings; the Walgreen’s building is unusual in that 15 years have passed since it first received landmark status. During a meeting of the council’s neighborhoods committee two weeks ago, an attorney with McCullough Hill, representing Walgreen’s, explained that protections would result in profits for the company, which could sell off the development rights for the site. This “transfer of development rights” would allow another developer add density elsewhere while preserving a one-story, car-oriented building in the middle of one of the city’s densest neighborhoods.

Committee chair Tammy Morales decided to delay imposing controls on the building, saying she was “just trying to understand what the benefit for the city is” of protecting the one-story Walgreen’s. We asked a similar question on Twitter. In our highly nonscientific poll, 89 percent opposed protecting the former bank. The committee will take up the landmarks question again at its next meeting on May 14.

2. Woodland Park, which Mayor Bruce Harrell used as the backdrop for his campaign vow to remove troublesome encampments, is still the site of a large encampment, several months after Harrell initially told neighboring residents it would be removed. The delay has allowed the city to use the same deliberate approach that was largely successful in relocating most of the people living at the Ballard Commons, which the city closed and fenced off last December. City Councilmember Dan Strauss and advocates for unsheltered people have been championing this approach, even as sweeps have ramped up dramatically since Harrell took office.

According to outreach workers and advocates who have been working with encampment residents over the past several months, the city has worked effectively to find shelter or temporary housing for several dozen people living at the encampment. As they did at the Commons, outreach workers with the nonprofit REACH and the Human Services Department’s HOPE Team created a list of 61 people living at the encampment in February and began working to move people on that list off site. At the same time, the city’s Parks Department set up portable toilets and started removing trash—two key factors that reduce the amount of visible garbage and human waste, which result when people don’t have places to throw stuff away and relieve themselves.

Data show that between September and March, just 196 of 534 people who received shelter referrals from the HOPE Team actually showed up at shelter within 48 hours and stayed for at least one night—an enrollment rate of less than 37 percent.

The result, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, has been “at least 30 referrals to shelter or housing,” including three housing referrals and 26 referrals to enhanced shelter or tiny house villages, in addition to 10 people who have “voluntarily relocated from the park” and are presumably living unsheltered elsewhere.

A spokesman for HSD said outreach “efforts will continue over the coming weeks in an attempt to resolve this encampment through outreach strategies alone.” However, advocates working at the encampment note that unsheltered people have continued to move to the area since February, when the city created its list; as a result, the encampment is scarcely smaller than it was when the city’s outreach efforts began. (The HSD spokesman notes that the city has referred at least five of the new people to shelters).

“We’re seeing people get into at least transitional shelter or tiny houses,” a neighbor who has been doing volunteer outreach at the encampment told PublICola. “We wish there were more staff to do [outreach and placements] and, really, more resources behind it.” Continue reading “Council Questions Landmark Protections for Walgreen’s, Woodland Park Encampment Efforts In “Final Phase””

Councilmembers Say Better Rent Data Could Help Preserve “Mom-and-Pop,” “Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing”

 

Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of "naturally occurring affordable housing"
Courtyard of the Pacific Apartments, an example City Councilmember Alex Pedersen cited of “naturally occurring affordable housing”

By Erica C. Barnett

Until 2017, elected officials (and reporters) hoping to get a handle on the availability and cost of rental housing in Seattle relied on reports from a private company called Dupre+Scott, whose forecasts used cheeky videos and graphics to illustrate market predictions and trends. Since Dupre+Scott shut down, the city has relied on Census tract-level data to assess housing trends, including residential displacement—a blunt, high-level instrument that does not account for differences between adjacent neighborhoods that may be in the same Census tract.

Earlier this week, City Councilmember Alex Pedersen rolled out legislation that would require landlords to submit detailed information about their rental units—including the size of each unit, the rent they charge, and whether a unit is occupied or vacant—to a research university, such as the University of Washington, twice a year and to certify under the city’s Rental Registration and Inspection Ordinance (RRIO) that they have done so. The university would analyze the information and submit reports to the city, which would use them to “identify displacement risk” and “inform [the city’s] housing policy,” according to a staff report on the bill.

“My interest,” City Councilmember Sara Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

The context for the proposal is the upcoming update of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which provides the framework for all city decisions on land use and zoning. The comp plan, for example, could prescribe the creation of more neighborhood business districts, encourage zoning changes to add density in single-family areas, or require future land-use policies that encourage the use of nonmotorized transportation. Or it could encourage policies that protect existing rental units at the expense of new housing, preserve trees by maintaining Seattle’s ban on development in single-family areas, or require full infrastructure buildout (roads, sewers, transit service) before an area can be developed—a ’90s neighborhood planning concept known as “concurrency.”

Pedersen, who has been a vocal opponent of allowing more density outside existing urban villages, said the city needed more accurate rental information to determine where “naturally occurring affordable housing” exists and might be at risk of demolition if the city allows denser housing in more areas. “If additional land-use changes were pursued without first putting into effect displacement prevention laws,” Pedersen said, the city might end up adopting policies that lead to the demolition of “affordable, below-market rental housing on the Ave [in the University District] and throughout our city.” (Pedersen cited the Pacific Apartments, pictured above, as an example of naturally occurring affordable housing. Although the website for the building didn’t have any current listings, a 450-square-foot studio was listed at $1,200 last year).

“Naturally occurring affordable housing” generally refers to older units that cost less than newer housing nearby. Advocates for laws to protect this type of housing often refer to the “mom-and-pop landlords” who tend to own such older buildings, without regard for the specific challenges faced by renters who live in this kind of housing, which may be less well-maintained than professionally managed buildings.

Thanks to the rental registration ordinance, the city does have some general information about how many rental units are available each year. In 2020, according to the most recent RRIO report, the number of registered units in the city declined by about 14.4 percent, “but the total number of units stayed relatively stable with only a 0.65% decrease.”

“Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”—City Councilmember Kshama Sawant

Although the report notes that registrations may have declined for any number of reasons, including landlords not bothering to update their renewals during the pandemic, Councilmember Sara Nelson said the decline in registrations, combined with the relatively small decline in apartments on the market, “indicates to me that it is the small mom-and-pop landlords that are basically taking properties off the market.

“My interest,” Nelson continued, “is in making sure that we are not driving small landlords out of the market” by passing too many renter protections that impose new requirements on landlords, such as the “first in time” law that requires landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who said she supported Pedersen’s legislation, pushed back at the idea that landlords were going out of business because of renter protections. “That is a claim by landlords,” she said. “Nobody else is claiming that. The reality is that property values are skyrocketing. Are landlords selling because they don’t want to comply or because property values have gone through the roof and they can cash in on their property like never before? It’s totally their right and if they are selling their property, that’s their decision. But connecting it to increased renters rights is not appropriate.”

With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward

Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle. University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Housing like this Seattle duplex is currently banned in single-family-zoned areas across the state, including in Seattle.
University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Leo Brine

The House Appropriations Committee narrowly passed Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) housing density bill (HB 1782) on Monday, by a 17-16 vote, and sent it to the House rules committee with a “do pass” recommendation. Her bill would require cities with populations greater than 10,000 to rezone single-family residential neighborhoods for more housing options, such as duplexes and fourplexes.

The committee passed the bill with an almost party-line vote. The only Democrats to vote against the bill were Reps. Tana Senn (D-41, Mercer Island) and Jesse Johnson (D-30, Federal Way). Seattle-area representatives Steve Bergquist (D-11), Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37), Noel Frame (D-36), Nicole Macri (D-43), Gerry Pollet (D-46), Eileen Cody (D-34), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) and Frank Chopp (D-43) all voted yes.

The bill also includes an amendment added by single-family preservationist Rep. Pollet that would allow any city to opt out of the fourplex requirement by achieving an average density goal of 33 units per acre within a half-mile of frequent transit stops. Cities would be allowed to achieve that average density by concentrating housing in certain areas, much as it is now in Seattle—allowing density only along busy arterial streets and highways, for example, instead of allowing duplexes and fourplexes next to single-family houses.

Citing the possibility of “unintended consequences,” officials from Gig Harbor, Auburn, Issaquah, and other Washington cities had urged committee members to stop Bateman’s bill from moving out of committee.

Taking up a “local control” stance, those cities opposed the legislation because, they said, they’ve already developed their own plans to add denser housing options to single-family residential neighborhoods. Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly told the committee more than 45 percent of Issaquah’s residential land is already zoned for multi-family, but they haven’t figured out “how to get people to build there.”

Other officials complained that new development would make single-family homes in their region unaffordable. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph told the committee, “Kent has some of the most naturally occurring affordable housing” in King County, and “these homes may be displaced” because of Bateman’s bill. However, data from Redfin shows houses in Kent are unaffordable now, indicating that prices are skyrocketing under the status quo, in which density is largely prohibited. In 2021, the median sale price for a housing unit in Kent was  $617,000, 37 percent higher than it was the same time the year before. Continue reading “With Backing of Build Back Black Alliance, YIMBY Housing Bill Moves Forward”

Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice

Seattle generalized zoning mapby Leo Brine

Last week, the state house and senate Local Government and Housing Committees held hearings on Rep. Jessica Bateman’s (D-22, Olympia) and Sen. Mona Das’ (D-47, Kent) “middle-housing” bills, which would let cities build denser housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

If passed, the bills would require all cities with more than 20,000 residents to allow multi-family housing such as six-unit multiplexes, row homes, courtyard apartments and other medium-density housing options in areas within a half-mile of frequent transit service—places where buses or trains arrive at least every 15 minutes during peak hours on weekdays. Cities would also need to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in neighborhoods further than a half-mile from transit. Under the legislation, cities would have two years to update their comprehensive growth plans to allow this type of housing.

Bateman’s and Das’ bills (HB 1782 and SB 5760, respectively) would dramatically change Seattle’s zoning laws, permitting denser housing options in most parts of the city. Currently, most of Seattle’s residential land is exclusively zoned for detached single-family housing. Many of these single-family-only areas are within a half-mile of frequent transit stops, meaning that if the bills pass, most of Seattle’s neighborhoods would have to allow significantly denser housing options. We’ve reached out to the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development for a more detailed description of how the bills would alter Seattle’s housing landscape.

Seattle Councilmembers Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, and Dan Strauss all signed on to support Rep. Bateman’s bill at the House Local Government Committee’s public hearing.

The bills do offer an alternative option for cities that don’t want to allow denser housing in all single-family residential zones. Cities could instead meet average minimum density standards within their urban growth areas. If a city opted for this approach, it could theoretically allow a high-rise apartment or condo complex far away from single family neighborhoods, meeting average density goals without allowing a mix of denser housing development throughout the city. However, that opt-out alternative only applies to single-family residential zones more than a half-mile from transit areas; Seattle has few of those, so even if the city chose the alternate route—which would accomplish the opposite goal of increasing housing stock citywide, by the way—it would still have to permit denser housing options in most places.

Mosqueda said she supports the bill’s statewide approach to addressing both housing affordability and supply problems. “I think this will help ensure we’re building housing for our region so that fewer people have to commute hours into their jobs or into city cores,” she said. “That will be good for environment as well.”

Mosqueda, who’s been pushing to allow more density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods, said that the legislation wouldn’t preempt or disrupt the city’s pre-existing Mandatory Housing Affordability law, which increased density allowances in some areas that are already multifamily (and slightly expanded some multifamily areas) while requiring developers who take advantage of upzones to build or fund affordable housing.

Sen. Das said, “there’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard.’”

Das, who has tried to pass state legislation requiring denser housing options for four-years running, addressed one of the persistent fears about upzones: gentrification. Rather than causing displacement, she argued, the legislation will give “BIPOC community members an opportunity to get in the [housing] market with a condo or a townhouse” in the neighborhoods they live in, rather than having to uproot themselves to find housing they can afford in other parts of the state. “There’s no silver bullet to fix the housing crisis, but we cannot keep saying ‘not in my backyard,’” Das added.

Responding to concerns about displacement, Bateman pointed to last year’s HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Petersen (D-21, Lynnwood) and Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), which requires cities to adopt anti-displacement measures into their comprehensive plans. (Seattle’s next comprehensive plan update is slated for 2024.)

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Despite Das’ assurances, there is still concern that new developments will result in high-income residents moving into new housing, gentrifying low-income and vulnerable neighborhoods. On the other hand, people are being displaced and priced out of Seattle already under our current, inflexible zoning regime, where rents continue to increase largely because demand (the number of people, particularly wealthy people, living in and moving to the city) eclipses supply (the number of new units being built). Continue reading “Pro-Housing Bills in Olympia Could Put Seattle’s Single Family Zones on Notice”