Tag: design review

Queen Anne Project Approval, Delayed for Years, Illustrates Issues with Seattle’s Design Review Process

By Erica C. Barnett

In a three-hour meeting Wednesday night, Seattle’s West Design Review Board approved the design for a new Safeway-anchored apartment building in the Upper Queen Anne neighborhood, capping off several years of debate over virtually every element of the project, from the placement of flower pots to brick colors to the number of doorways that will open into the 50,000-square-foot urban grocery store.

The process for approving the development has dragged on for more than three years, as Queen Anne Greenways’ Mark Ostrow has meticulously documented on Twitter. Barrientos Ryan is the third developer to take a crack at the site, after community groups rejected plans by two previous developers.

Delaying the project, which will replace an outdated one-story Safeway and a large surface parking lot, has added between $750,000 and $800,000 to the cost of the project so far, an amount that accounts only for the cost of redesigns, sketches, and studies of changes suggested by the DRB. Delay typically adds significant costs to projects themselves, as the cost of labor and materials tends to go up, not down. This makes housing more expensive, and contributes to the city’s ongoing lack of affordability, as Seattle’s ongoing population growth forces renters to compete for a limited number of apartments.

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The building, which will replace an existing Safeway with a large surface parking lot, will add more than 320 new apartments to the neighborhood, including 30 that will be affordable under the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability legislation. (Barrientos Ryan will contribute another $6 million to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.) It will also include a 2,000-square-foot public plaza, outdoor seating, a mural, and four additional pedestrian entrances to mimic the appearance of many small sidewalk-facing storefronts.

At Wednesday’s public hearing and at previous meetings, neighborhood residents pleaded with the board to move forward with the project. “I have thoughts about the design elements that have just been discussed in the last 70 minutes, but I’m not going to offer them because the only thing I want is for the Design Review Board to move forward,” Queen Anne Community Council member Justin Allegro said. “Design review shouldn’t be about appeasing a few neighbors who show up but about the whole neighborhood,” another commenter, Joshua Whitney, added.


Design review was not originally intended to give neighborhood residents effective veto power over every element of a project. Over the years, though, it has turned into a tortuous process, one where individual preferences for Juliet balconies or garage-style rolling windows can hold up an entire project for months or years. Design review is frequently used as a cudgel to prevent projects or impose personal preferences that aren’t really about design at all—such as mandatory parking and whether people living in apartments have air conditioning or washers and dryers in their units.

Seattle’s design review process, it’s important to know, isn’t inevitable or—as public commenter Whitney put it—”a natural law.” And we don’t have to abandon all community control over building design to prevent development from being hijacked by individual residents who oppose housing or just have strong personal opinions about design.

In Portland, design review is done by a single, seven-person commission, made up primarily of professionals with experience in design, engineering, construction, and development, along with one representative of the general public. In contrast, Seattle’s eight neighborhood design review boards have five members each, all from the neighborhoods surrounding the projects they review.

Council Vote Allows Stalled Housing Projects to Move Forward Without Usual Lengthy Review

Not Seattle.

After more weeks of debate than any other piece of emergency legislation to come out of the COVID crisis so far, the Seattle City Council voted this morning to ease the requirement that certain developments go through the lengthy full design review process, allowing dozens of buildings that were already in the process pipeline to continue moving forward. The legislation died last week for lack of seven votes (the requirement for emergency legislation) but was brought back this afternoon with a new amendment from council member Tammy Morales, who initially voted against the bill on the li grounds that it would expedite gentrification in historic districts like the Chinatown/International District and the Central District.

Public comment, which returned last week, was split between people who insisted that streamlining design review, even for a few months, would lead to the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods and the decimation of urban forests, and those who argued that building housing was critical to the city’s recovery. Several speakers who opposed the bill said that the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections “can’t be trusted” and suggested that city land-use bureaucrats were hellbent on scraping single-family lots of trees and vegetation to build dense, “unaffordable buildings” in the middle of their single-family neighborhoods.

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Last week, Morales proposed an amendment that would have eliminated a provision allowing city staff, rather than historic district and landmark review boards, to approve changes in historic districts. That amendment failed, and Morales voted against the legislation, along with Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen. This time, she came back with a more narrowly tailored amendment specifically prohibiting any online meetings of the city’s International [District] Special Review District on the grounds that the community includes many people without access to technology and translation services. That amendment passed, and Morales voted for the final bill, calling her vote “my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.”

Council member Andrew Lewis proposed an amendment, which failed to pass, that would have halted work on three projects that are participating in the city’s Living Building pilot program by requiring them to continue through the full design review process. “Living buildings” get some extra height and density in exchange for being built to high environmental standards, but like other buildings that receive height bonuses, they tend to be controversial among traditional neighborhood groups. Lewis said he had heard concerns from “the community” that allowing these projects to shift to administrative design review, which doesn’t require in-person meetings but does allow public feedback, would lead to inferior buildings. The amendment failed despite an assist from Herbold, who encouraged Lewis to reiterate his reasons for believing that projects shouldn’t shift from full design review to a less process-y process midstream.

“This will be my first and last concession in the name of easing process or relieving administrative burdens if it means that it will accelerate disaster gentrification.” — Council member Tammy Morales

And what about Herbold, who voted against the bill last week after her own amendment, which would have eliminated a provision that exempts affordable housing from design review for six months, failed? City rules prohibited her from bringing up the same amendment again (as they did with Morales’ unsuccessful changes), and she voted against the bill a second time, arguing that the affordable-housing exemption violates Gov. Jay Inslee’s order restricting cities from considering legislation that is unrelated to the COVID emergency. Council president Lorena Gonzalez, who said she had consulted on this question extensively with the city clerk and city attorney’s office, disagreed, and the legislation passed 7-2.

The upshot of all this is actually more significant than the last few weeks’ arcane finagling suggest. Dozens of projects, including affordable housing projects, have been on hold since Inslee’s order halted in-person public meetings, putting a critical economic sector in a holding pattern until the city decided what to do. Now, and for the next six months, these projects can get back underway. As Queen Anne Community Council board member Justin Allegro put it during public comment, “We don’t want to look back and regret that we missed out on huousing opportunities now just because we weren’t willing to trust our city employee experts to make design review decisions for the next few months.”

With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process

The Standard towers in the University District, one of dozens of projects caught in limbo when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of all public meetings.

Nonprofit affordable housing providers and other developers were alarmed when a proposal from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office that would make it possible for their projects to move forward during the COVID crisis was abruptly removed from this week’s city council agenda. The legislation would allow projects to go through the shorter “administrative” design review process, in which projects are reviewed and approved by trained city staff, instead of the usual “full” design review, which involves public meetings and sometimes-lengthy deliberations. Similarly, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer would be empowered to approve or deny changes to landmarked buildings for six months.

The changes would last for six months, or until the city has developed a system for design-review and landmarks board meetings to take place online. Without a process for projects to move forward, land-use attorney Jack McCullough says, a lot of planned developments could be “dead in the water.”

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“If we have to tell everyone who’s in the pipeline or ready to get in, ‘We can’t tell you when you’ll ever be able to move forward,’ people will mothball their projects. They may not kill them, but they’re going to say, ‘If there’s not a path, why am I spending money money on this?”

The council was prepared to adopt the proposal on Monday, but after an executive session at which the city’s law department reportedly expressed concerns that it could open up the city to appeals to the state Growth Management Board, the legislation was yanked from the agenda. (City council president Lorena Gonzalez was unable for comment Thursday, and a city council spokeswoman did not return a call.) On Thursday, after both for-profit developers and low-income housing builders raised a ruckus, it’s back on next week’s agenda.

The city’s eight design review boards are supposed to ensure that their designs are high-quality, comply with regulations, and are appropriate for the neighborhoods where they’re being built. (This process, of course, can be quite contentious and subjective.) Twenty-nine projects, totaling 3,500 new housing units, were supposed to get hearings between March 11 and May 4, according to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections, and another 30 were starting the community outreach process that precedes design review.  SDCI spokesman Bryan Stevens says many of these projects will provide affordable housing funds through the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability Program or include affordable units through the Multifamily Tax Exemption program. The 30 projects that were just starting out include four affordable-housing buildings.

Chris Persons, the head of Capitol Hill Housing, says he has two projects in the development pipeline, including one that requires approval by the landmarks board. “It’s stuck, but it could be resolved by this legislation,” Persons says. Continue reading “With Public Meetings Shut Down, Housing Developers Seek Temporary Relief from Seattle Process”

Morning Crank: Endless Appeals Are a Common Tactic

1. Depending on your perspective, a meeting tomorrow night to discuss efforts to prevent displacement and gentrification in light of a proposed upzone in the Chinatown/International District is either: a) A “special meeting” of the city council’s planning and land use committee, with a “focus on Chinatown/International District” (the city’s version) or b) a “town hall” to “Save the Chinatown – ID—Stop Displacement Now” (the Interim Community Development Association’s version). “WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED! Come and make your voice heard to City Council!” Interim’s announcement urges—and if that use of a Civil Rights-era slogan didn’t put a fine enough point on what the activists think is at stake in the upzone, these flyers, which appeared around the neighborhood in the past week, certainly did:

And here’s the source material:

The second poster is a notice posted during World War II, when the US rounded up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and sent them to internment camps. The (very slightly) coded message is that if the city upzones the Chinatown/ID, the gentrification and displacement that result will have a similar impact on its residents as the forced removal of Japanese Americans in the 1940s.

2. The Chinatown/ID meeting will actually be the second contentious meeting in one day for the land use committee. Tuesday morning, they’ll take up a proposal related to the design review process—ostensibly a process to consider the design of proposed new buildings; in reality an opportunity for anti-density activists to stall projects they don’t like—that could make it easier for development opponents to file appeals. (In August, the council will consider more sweeping changes to design review that could streamline the process for developers.)

The proposed change would remove one step in the process that opponents of new projects must go through before filing a formal appeal to stop a proposed development. The step, called a land-use interpretation, costs $3,150 and is required before a project can go before the city’s hearing examiner, the judicial official who ultimately decides whether contested projects can move forward. According to a council staff analysis, removing the interpretation step could “facilitate judicial appeals of land use decisions for projects that may be considered locally undesirable by near-neighbors, such as low-income housing projects, work-release centers, and homeless shelters.” According to the Livable Phinney website, the group “with other activists in West Seattle and Council member Lisa Herbold” to eliminate the interpretation requirement.

Endless appeals are a common tactic used by neighborhood groups to prevent new housing near single-family areas. For example, a group of Phinney Ridge homeowners has successfully stalled a four-story, 57-unit studio apartment building on a commercial stretch of Greenwood Avenue for more than a year by filing appeal after appeal; although previous complaints have involved everything from the lack of air conditioning and washer/dryer units in the apartments to the size of the units, they’re now arguing that Metro’s Route 5, which runs along Greenwood, is inadequate to serve the 57 new residents. Ultimately, like many such battles, this argument comes down to parking—the opponents believe the new residents will all own cars, which will make it harder for existing Phinney Ridge homeowners to park their cars on the street.

3. Just weeks after issuing a statement denouncing “the politics of personal destruction” after a man who had accused Mayor Ed Murray of sexual abuse in the 1980s withdrew his lawsuit, mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell reversed course, saying last night that the mayor should resign instead of serving out his term. Farrell said newly disclosed information in a separate sexual abuse case “severely undermines our confidence in his ability to carry out the duties of his office,” according to Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman. On Sunday, the Times reported that an investigator with Oregon’s Child Protective Services concluded that Murray had sexually abused his foster son in the early 1980s. Murray denied the allegations, noting that the case was withdrawn and no charges were ever filed.

Farrell’s dramatic reversal (dramatic in part because there was no reason she had to weigh in at all) makes more sense in light of events that transpired after she defended Murray the first time. Back then, Farrell was still seeking the mayor’s endorsement, and believed she had a real shot at getting it. Since then, Murray has endorsed Jenny Durkan, saying the former federal prosecutor “has the best chance of winning.” While Farrell may be relieved that she lost Murray’s endorsement to Durkan, the snub had to sting—and it’s hardly a stretch to see Farrell’s denunciation as payback.

4. If you still aren’t sure which mayoral candidate you prefer, there are at least two more chances to see the candidates debate before you fill out your ballot. The first, a live debate sponsored by CityClub, KING 5, GeekWire, and KUOW, is sold out, but a viewing party from 6:30 to 9pm at the nearby Flatstick Pub will also offer a post-debate opportunity to meet the candidates. And on Tuesday, LGBTQ Allyship will sponsor its own debate, featuring candidates for mayor and council positions 8 and 9, focusing on LGBTQ issues. That forum will be held at the Southside Commons in Columbia City from 6 to 9 pm.

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Under Neighborhood Pressure, Apartment Building Heads for Fourth Design Review


In a highly unusual move for such a small project, the Northwest Design Review Board voted Monday to delay a 57-unit, 44-foot-tall, four-story apartment building planned on Greenwood Ave. (on the site of what is now Ed’s Kort Haus and the Stumbling Goat Bistro, which would reopen in the new space) for a third time for additional design revisions. The board came to the split decision after pressure from a large group of Phinney Ridge property owners who argue that the building is—you guessed it—ugly and out of scale. They also argued that the building of small efficiency apartments should have parking for cars (it has none) and that people shouldn’t have to live the way the layout will “force” them to live, which is to say: in compact studios with two washer/dryer units for every 17 apartments and no air conditioning.

The “lack” of washer/dryers (extremely generous by the standards of every apartment building where I’ve ever lived in Seattle, but definitely less so than the one-per-house ratio most of those objecting are used to) and air conditioning (I’ve never lived in a place with A/C, so I’m not sure why this is a deficiency in a city that never gets hot) came up again and again on Monday. Such complaints, in substance if not in exact details, are familiar to anyone who pays attention to the hand-wringing that seems necessary for any north-end development. They are also, with the exception of charges that the building is ugly, totally irrelevant to the work of the Design Review Board. The board is charged with looking at the exterior design of the building, and absolutely everything else—massing, scale, parking, and the size of the apartments–is the business of other city departments (including the city council, which already imposed onerous new restrictions that effectively legislated micro-units, commonly known as “apodments,” out of existence.)

Tuesday’s meeting was a repeat of the gatherings that preceded the previous two delays, according to advocates for the development who have been trying to get the thing approved since last October. Architect Jay Janette of Skidmore/Janette Architects presented the proposal and showed what had changed since the last design review meeting in January. (The major changes involved improvements to facades, larger step-backs on upper floors so the building would feel smaller and cast fewer shadows, and taller ground-floor commercial spaces.) Then the crowd made comments for an hour (the board had allotted 20 minutes). The comments were universally negative, and more than half involved issues board member Dale Kutzera explicitly asked audience members not to bring up, including parking, scale, and the size of the apartments.


One woman was concerned that the building’s two live-work spaces  would create traffic and crowd nearby sidewalks. “If you’re maybe somebody who has clients coming and going [from the] live-work units, going in and out, and if you’re on Greenwood, they’re going to be crossing the sidewalk. I’m concerned about blocking the sidewalk so frequently and so often,” she said.

Another woman said she “would like the developers and the builders to spend three weeks, 24 hours a day, in those units with no A/C and see how they like it in 80-degree weather. That’s inhumane and unacceptable. How many people go in their houses and it’s hot and they just sit in the heat?” (Another woman chimed in later: “The people whose houses back up to [the apartments] are going to have 30 fans blowing right at them all summer.”)

Others expressed dismay that the newer apartment buildings surrounding the development are now being regarded as part of the “neighborhood character,” said the apartments were “very Soviet Union-like,” and suggested that the tenants would probably want to “party” in the 700-square-foot landscaped open space on the building’s roof. Objections that were ostensibly about design mostly had to do with aesthetic preferences: “This does not have ambiance; this is not what you want to take the tour by,” one man said. “Give us a building that gives us joy to walk by. It’s like that saying, ‘I don’t know what art is but I know it when I see it.’ Well, I don’t know what good architecture is, but I know it when I see it.”

This, by the way, is what the location looks like now:

Does this give you joy?

It’s unclear at what point the design review will decide the building is acceptable enough, aesthetically and from the standpoint of neighborhood support, to move forward. But it speaks to the broken nature of our planning processes in Seattle that a few dozen who currently live adjacent to a building that will house 60 people can drag the design review process out (without substantially changing the building or preventing its construction) for more than a year, adding to the already substantial cost of building housing and keeping new units off the market at a time when the housing market is tighter than it has ever been.

I got the sense that among those who weren’t simply opposed to any development, the only design that might have worked would be a wedding-cake-shaped building set back 15 feet from the street in every direction so that it was barely noticeable. But of course, such a building is impossible—no developer would build it without doubling rents, and no renters would pay twice the current market rate to live in it. Emotions and individual aesthetic preferences will always play a role in development decisions, but there comes a point when it’s up to the city itself to say enough is enough, and this little building in Phinney Ridge is an excellent example of a time when the city should have put its foot down but didn’t.

Council Could Delay Design Review Changes a Year or More


In what looks like a concession to single-family neighborhood activists, but which committee chair Rob Johnson insists is merely a concession to reality, the city council could put off controversial changes to the process for approving new development until after several key land-use proposals go through, including the expansion of urban-village boundaries under the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, the adoption of the comprehensive plan update known as Seattle 2035, and the approval of a new future land use map for the entire city. (According to the current schedule, draft legislation to make the changes was supposed to come out next month).

That could mean waiting a year and a half or more before making changes proposed by city staffers to help resolve years of complaints: By developers, who call the design review process burdensome and unnecessarily complicated, and by neighbors, who say the process doesn’t  allow them enough time and opportunity to comment on new development.

On Wednesday, the council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee (which Johnson chairs) discussed five potential changes to design review, recommended by the city after a stakeholder process that started last year. The first recommendation would require (or possibly just encourage) earlier community outreach from developers; the second would create a new form of design review, called a hybrid design review, which would include two phases of review done by the local design review board and city staff, respectively. It would also change the size of projects that would be subject to design review, with the general result that fewer small projects would have to go through the full design review. The third recommendation would expand the city’s definition of outreach, adding online tools (including online comments), video streaming of meetings, and more two-way dialogue at board meetings, for example. The fourth would restructure the geographic reach of the design review boards, expanding the downtown area into a larger central district, for example, so that the city’s densest neighborhoods are all under the same umbrella, and changing the size of other districts to distribute design review workload more evenly. The idea, city planner Geoff Wentlandt said, to “reduce the number of meeting cancellations by providing a quorum, and to provide more checks and balances by having more members on each board.”


Finally, the fifth and most contentious recommendation would expand on the second by changing the thresholds for design review, so that projects under 10,000 square feet wouldn’t go through design review at all, and only the largest projects (those over 20,000 square feet) would have to go through full design review. This recommendation was by far the most controversial, because it would  result in fewer projects going through design review (and thus fewer opportunities to comment in person on smaller-scale new projects).

A number of homeowners from Wallingford, part of Johnson’s District 4, showed up to oppose the threshold changes. One of them, Max Nicolai, told the committee that the changes would “all but eliminate” what he called “citizen control” over development, and that by adopting them, the council would be ignoring all the public comments at previous meetings favoring more design review, not less. “It’s like you just checked the box and said, now we’re done; we don’t have to listen to them at all,” Nicolai said, adding, “this is the worst possible time to relinquish citizen control and input over development.” Other commenters spoke of buildings going in mere feet from their windows, or of hypothetical row houses (“lot line to lot line development”) that would be vulnerable to quick-spreading fires. (As an editorial aside, the implication of this would be that  row houses are inherently dangerous, which would certainly be news to the many East Coast cities where row houses are the dominant form of single-family dwelling).

Ultimately, whether this was his intention or not, committee chairman Johnson went along with his Wallingford constituents, suggesting that the council delay any changes to the design review process until after the city has finished up all its work on HALA, Seattle 2035, and new future land use map. “I’d like to kind of pump the brakes on design review for a little while,” he said.

“For me, as a linear thinker, the sequence is to start with the broad-scale comprehensive plan and then move to detailed land use changes by neighborhood and then move into design review and design characteristics.” That would mean pushing the schedule to make design-review changes out as far as 2018, a prospect that didn’t sit well with some other council members, who suggested considering some of the other changes now. District 6 (Ballard/Fremont) council member Mike O’Brien, who represents another rapidly growing part of the city, argued that “we’re going to continue to hear from folks concerned about the bulk and scale of projects in communities throughout this whole process,” not just at the end. O’Brien, it’s worth noting, is the only non-freshman council member on the PLUZ committee.

After the meeting, Johnson (who says he had not spoken to his colleagues before proposing the delay) told me he’d be open to adding more comment and feedback opportunities now, but still believed, despite some pushback from his colleagues, that putting off the threshold changes was the way to go.

“My inclination is. until we understand the threshold issues that we’re talking about, we’re putting the cart before horse to change the thresholds, to change community engagement, to act on almost any of the issues that are in [the recommendations,” Johnson said. “If we were to make changes this year and zoning changes came next year [that made those changes obsolete], that could lead to the need to make further design review changes” in the future, he said. “All of these things are so hypothetical because we haven’t even really had a conversation about where the growth is going to go.” Johnson said he isn’t sure when the committee will consider the recommendations again, and said council staff have told him there’s no real risk to waiting on the changes, except for the fact that some of the design review boards are drowning in backlogs, a situation that likely won’t improve until the  council restructures the system.