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.