By Laura Loe
Editor’s note: This is a followup to It’s Time to Ditch Design Review.
I’ve been advocating for reforming Seattle’s design review process, in which appointed boards impose aesthetic requirements (and delays) on dense new housing, since 2016. I’ve attended many hours-long design review meetings, hosted lunch-and-learns about this gate-kept and arcane process, and created user-friendly advocacy documents to help community members participate in the process. But design review is irreparably broken. It’s a way to object to new neighbors, not an opportunity to make neighborhoods better.
The city appears to agree: In 2013, the Department of Construction and Inspections recommended simplifying the process in response to public feedback. “Most complaints [during public comment for design review] are NIMBY-ism,” one focus group participant put it.
On December 8, 2022, the City Council’s land use committee unanimously passed legislation from committee chair Dan Strauss that will extend COVID-era rules exempting some affordable housing from design review for one year. While the bill is a rare win for Seattle’s future, it does not address the scale and scope of our housing crisis.
But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either.
Exempting affordable housing from design review is a win for those of us who have advocated for reforms—a clear acknowledgement that design review makes affordable housing less affordable.
But why don’t we want to make all housing less affordable? Market-rate housing doesn’t deserve the punishment of the often capricious design review process, either. Multi-family, market-rate development in Seattle provides essential housing for Seattle renters. It contributes to Mandatory Housing Affordability, a program that requires developers to fund affordable housing either elsewhere or on site. And it increases our overall supply of housing—a necessity if we’re going combat the housing scarcity that leads to homelessness, as housing scholar Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern documented recently in the book Homelessness is a Housing Problem.
There have even been recent examples where market-rate housing has become available to those with deep housing insecurity through “rapid acquisition” by affordable housing developers.
A few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that the one-year extension of the design review exemption will allow the city to conduct a full environmental review of legislation that would permanently exempt some affordable housing projects from design review and begin two new pilot programs, each lasting two years.
The first pilot would exempt from design review any projects that use the city’s (highly effective) Mandatory Housing Affordability program to produce new units on-site, instead of contributing to a housing fund. The second would allow developers of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, to choose whether to participate in the full design review process or a shorter Administrative Design Review (ADR) by city staff.
ADR follows the same steps as full design review; the difference is that the applications are reviewed privately by a Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) planner, not a public design review board.
The interim legislation, which is expected to pass at the tomorrow’s city council meeting, is an acknowledgment that design review is a superfluous hurdle to addressing our housing crisis. We hope to see additional bold proposals from Strauss.
While we celebrate this rare win, we are disappointed that Harrell’s announcement does not address the flaws in design review generally and doesn’t address challenges with the administrative design review (ADR) processes at all.
Merely exempting subsidized housing projects from the current design review process doesn’t come close to meeting the breadth of recommendations from community coalitions in September 2021 to fix this onerous, costly, and undemocratic process. We would like to see a complete overhaul of the program instead of the pilot Mayor Harrell has proposed, including a transformation of administrative design review itself.
One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may opt for the “devil you know” public design review process.
Although ADR is less onerous than the full design-review process, it’s still no picnic for professionals trying to build housing. One study documented delays at a high level. After initial community engagement in the early stages, projects that go through administrative review are not visible to the public. This means NIMBY neighbors can’t interfere, but it also means advocates like myself lack insight into internal deliberations and can’t to counter potential NIMBY objections from city staff.
According to several builders I’ve spoken to, ADR can be significantly more unpredictable, lengthy, and costly than going through a design review board. Builders describe city staffers interjecting their personal aesthetic tastes as they pick and choose which design guidelines to enforce— an ineffective and unjust way to apply policy. One architect said the administrative process provides “no dialogue or recourse” that would help builders understand “why a planner asks you to do things.” Because of this risk of delays, many builders may not opt for administrative review and will continue to participate in the “devil you know” public design review process.
Design review is not making our city more resilient, more climate-friendly, more affordable, or more welcoming. Let’s not continue to conflate nostalgia and anti-renter calls for preserving neighborhood “character” with livability and wellbeing for all. The city must follow this rare win for Seattle’s future with the comprehensive reforms outlined by Seattle For Everyone, a pro-housing coalition that includes developers and housing advocates, with a particular focus on reforms to administrative design review.
The council will take public comment on its design review reform legislation at 2pm tomorrow, December 13. Please write or call in to support the provision to exempt low-income affordable projects from design review while pushing the city (and the mayor) to systematically fix the process.
Laura Loe is the founder of Share The Cities Organizing Collective, an all-volunteer advocacy group.