Does Capitol Hill need a new group to press developers to meet community priorities?

"No, it's too expensive" (Image: evil robot 6 via Flickr)

“No, it’s too expensive” (Image: evil robot 6 via Flickr)

Last month, developers behind the project that will rise at the old Piecora’s site made an appearance at a Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council meeting. They weren’t there to defend design sketches, rather the Equity Residential team said they wanted feedback while architects were still at the drawing board.

P/PUNC’s mix of development professionals and community members offered specific examples of popular and unpopular corner-property developments in the area and used wonky terms to push for safer building designs.

The following night at the annual State of the Hill event, Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce director Michael Wells said another group’s work on the upcoming light rail station development marked a major neighborhood accomplishment. Capitol Hill Champion members worked for years forging a document of community priorities that the project’s developers will be required to follow when work starts this year.

Capitol Hill’s development boom has given rise to a small but increasingly persuasive group of community members pressing developers to build what they see as more neighborhood-appropriate projects. Early plans are now in the works to sustain the momentum by creating a Capitol Hill group modeled off the Central Area Land Use Committee.

“We thought we have two successful organizations that are very focused, is it possible to do that work on a larger Capitol Hill scale?” said Wells, who’s one of the people proposing a Capitol Hill Land Use Committee.

While the Capitol Hill Community Council, P/PUNC, and other community groups address new developments, they’re limited in various ways. Supporters of a new Capitol Hill LURC say the group could specifically tackle new projects across the entire neighborhood.

The Central Area LURC (centralarealurc.org) is a community group in the truest sense: It’s not chartered by the city and it’s not responsible for executing any codified neighborhood plan. What it does offer is a venue for developers to meet with a consistent group of community members in order to inform the neighborhood, and maybe even build support for their projects.

As an architect and member of P/PUNC, John Feit frequently finds himself on both sides of the table. He said there are real advantages for developers to reach out to focused community groups. For one, design review meetings can be far less contentious if projects have some community backing. “You’re trying to build as much support for project as you can,” Feit said.

Of course, there is a limit to how much community groups can influence private development, undoubtedly leaving some people frustrated with the soft-influence approach. For Feit, it’s the only way neighborhood residents can hope to have an impact.

“P/PUNC has been successful because we’re not obstructionist,” Feit said. At last week’s meeting, Feit began by reminding those assembled that P/PUNC was, at its core, pro-development.

The group helped forge the the Pike/Pine Conservation Overlay District and is the steward of the Pike/Pine Neighborhood plan.

Since it formed, Feit said P/PUNC has coalcesed around pushing developers to consider three key issues, which could serve as the framework for a broader Capitol Hill group.

  • Create smaller commercial spaces to attract local, independent retailers that strive on Capitol Hill
  • Include 3-4 bedroom units to accommodate families and roommates
  • Build simpler forms with higher quality materials

Amanda Bryan, one of the founding members of Central Area LURC, said the group was formed to address similar issues which are not typically part of the city’s design review process.

“We’re starting the conversation a whole lot earlier than design review,” she said.
“What we don’t want to be is seen as the group stopping development. We want to see good, quality development.”

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

5 thoughts on “Does Capitol Hill need a new group to press developers to meet community priorities?

  1. In theory, the Design Review Boards are supposed to include voices from the community-at-large, but their membership is stacked with developers, architects, and their supporters. For example, the East District DRB, covering Capitol Hill, includes the following:

    The local business representative is an architect.
    The local residential representative is an architect.
    The development representative is a developer/architect.
    The design professional representative is an architect.
    The get engaged representative works for a construction company.
    And the community representative is a professor of architecture.

    Other districts have similar make-up. It’s a joke. There is no real community participation on the Design Review Boards.
    http://www.seattle.gov/dpd/aboutus/whoweare/designreview/boards/default.htm

    • Community members are perfectly free to apply to serve on the DRB whenever there is a vacancy, which is fairly frequent as DRB seats are term-limited. However, rarely do we see community members interested enough in making the time commitment, which for East District DRB often means two evening meetings a month, each running 3 hours or more. Plus the time outside of the meetings needed to review 2-4 design review packages a month.

    • It makes sense to me that the DRB would be composed of a number of architects. Hopefully, they look at projects objectively and are not shills for the developers. But I would hope that the board would get a little tougher, and demand more quality, to prevent the kind of ugly/cheap buildings that are going up everywhere.

      Would you rather have some “regular Joe”, who knows nothing about architecture, be on the DRB?

    • Yes, I want a “Regular Joe” (or “Jane”) on the Board. Would I want a board composed entirely of them? No. Just like I don’t want one composed entirely of architects and developers. Regular Joes, like me live, eat, and breathe in the neighborhood, and we have opinions that aren’t tainted by bias (or the perception of bias) towards the developer/architect industry.

      And @iknowsnow, given that every DRB is stacked with architects and developers, and given that the Seattle Department of Planning and Development oversees the appointment process and is also stacked with architects and developers, I have to assume that the lack of diversity on the Boards is by design.

  2. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Unaffordable, Overburdened, Decaying, and Dysfunctional | The Urbanist