Rule #1: No ugly buildings — Capitol Hill design guidelines up for review

Boxy. Monotonous. Ugly. We’re not sure changing the process will change the results but the City of Seattle wants to hear from you at this Thursday’s open house on changes to the Capitol Hill Design Review Guidelines.

“It’s been ten years. A lot of development has happened since then. There has been a change in the urban fabric, and there has been a call from the community to review those guidelines and bring some fresh light into them,” said Patrice Carroll, a planner with the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). “This is advice that the board gives to someone who is developing a project.”

Capitol Hill Design Guidelines Update Open House

The guidelines, which haven’t been updated since 2005, serve as a neighborhood-specific vetting framework for projects that go through the city’s broader design review process. These guidelines inform how design review boards evaluate the exterior aesthetic of proposed projects (the guidelines include metrics such as building materials and building shape).

City planners and Capitol Hill Community interest groups argue that the guidelines are out of date and could use a reboot given the amount of growth and development Capitol Hill has experienced since 2005.

OPCD has teamed up with members of Capitol Hill Housing, the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict initiative, the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, and other community members to establish a work group to brainstorm ideas for updating the guidelines. Carroll said that the work group has been meeting on a monthly basis over the past six months.

“We’ve gotten to the point with them now where we and they want to check in with the broader community about these early topics and priorities,” said Carroll.

“This is a great opportunity for people to show up and tell and the city and tell the work group whether they are on the right or wrong track,” said McCaela Daffern, sustainability manager at the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, and a member of both the Pike/Pine Urban Neighborhood Council and the workgroup.

In addition to looking at building materials, Daffern said that the workgroup has tried to get creative about how the guidelines could reflect community priorities and interact with other neighborhood initiatives—such as the Capitol Hill Arts District.

“Some of it is going to be a bit more interesting like, ‘okay if it this is in the Capitol Hill Arts District, what does it mean for a multi-family building to get built here,” said Daffern. “Which scenarios are we as the community comfortable with? Could the whole building be a pallet? Could it all be an art piece? What does that mean?”

One early hypothesis of the work group was assuming that Capitol Hill Station is a new central hub for the community, and working out how new design review guidelines could reflect this new reality.

Additionally, the workgroup has looked at sustainability and environment-minded ideas, such as guidelines calling for pollinator plants and design elements that help alleviate the effects of storm water.

Elements of the old guidelines also aggrandize single family homes, according to Daffern. “The old design guidelines reflects support for single family design typology. They talk a lot about pitched roofs,” she said. “80% of the people who live in the Capitol Hill Urban Village are renters. We’re not a single-family neighborhood.”

Thursday’s open house will the be the first of two community meetings on the subject, after which the work group hopes to have finalized recommended changes to the Capitol Hill guidelines completed in the spring of 2018 and before the Seattle City Council for approval.

“It’s still pretty high level,” said Carroll. “From here we’ll begin to go into more detailed.”

The citywide design review process has undergone changes as well. In 2016, city leaders considered reorganizing the various design review districts as well as streamlining the process to speed up project construction. Back in October of this year, the City Council approved similar changes to the process—such as raising the threshold determining whether projects should go through design review and requiring earlier community outreach by developers—

The open house will be held in the Pike/Pine room on the second floor of 12th Ave Arts at 1620 12th Avenue at 5:00 PM Thursday, November 16. Residents and non-residents are encouraged to attend, according to both Carroll and Daffern. The current Capitol Hill guidelines are below.

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11 thoughts on “Rule #1: No ugly buildings — Capitol Hill design guidelines up for review

  1. “Elements of the old guidelines also aggrandize single family homes, according to Daffern. “The old design guidelines reflects support for single family design typology. They talk a lot about pitched roofs,” she said. “80% of the people who live in the Capitol Hill Urban Village are renters. We’re not a single-family neighborhood.”

    Number of times the phrase “pitched roof” appears in the Guidelines: 0.

    What Daffern is really objecting to is the stated preference in the Guidelines for new development that is sensitive to the scale of surrounding buildings.

    This looks like it will be just like the HALA process. The business and development community are dominating it, and will mislead the public.

    • And….there are still LOTS of single-family homes in the “urban village.” …..although they are a “threatened species” because of pro-developer City policies.

  2. Perhaps what we need is a peer review process for the architects themselves, or establish an award scheme for good local architecture (look at RIBA awards in the uk), and then encourage the use of the more accredited architects. It’s also a vicious cycle of developers not wanting to spend, and guidelines which make it easier to do the same cement board clad box over and over.

    • That’s the problem – there ARE amazing architects here but developers don’t hire them and/or pressure them to do “design” quickly. Unfortunately the financing behind new construction incentivizes bad behaviour because every moment teasing out beautiful design means less profits.

    • There are local architecture awards – the AIA Seattle Honor Awards which are literally tonight. Why don’t you check them out.

      Architecture schools are accredited – professionals are licensed. And every building, even the ugly ones, require a licensed architect to be built.

  3. Right now they are slapping up shoddy, ugly, housing as quickly as they can. I think it is “nice” that they are considering this but I don’t think this will change how developers work. They are just meeting demand of the Seattle market which is “four walls and a roof; I’ll buy it!”.

    Unfortunately we’re going to have to deal with this either until demand for housing drops and the buyer gets the opportunity to be more picky or market hits an equilibrium that gives builders more bandwidth to be more creative. Right now there is a disincentive to building anything unique because it slows down construction. So many costs go into holding a property for additional months and labor and materials. It’s cheaper and easier just to meet the market demand and it sucks…

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