New Seattle design review rules will give neighbors earlier say and, hopefully, better buildings

“This new requirement is for developers to begin conversation with community members before project designs are complete.”

New rules are designed to give Seattle residents early opportunities to comment on new developments in their neighborhoods. Just don’t expect it to usher in a new era of neighborhood-led construction plans.

Stemming from an ordinance passed by the City Council in 2017, the new rules went into effect July 1, and will apply to any project which starts its development permitting process after that date.

The changes simplify the rules for which projects are subject to design review. Then, if a project is subject to any level of design review – streamlined, administrative, or a full board review – the developer must actively solicit community input before beginning the design review process.

The Department of Neighborhoods will manage the process to ensure developers are conducting it properly.

The hope is developers will listen to what neighbors have to say and incorporate some of these ideas. Ideally, residents get to help shape their neighborhoods, and developers can hope for a smoother process that doesn’t result in angry neighbors throwing monkey wrenches into their later-stage plans.

“It’s certainly much more helpful to have the support of the community than the opposition of the community,” said John Feit, chairman of the Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council. The council is likely the sort of group to which developers will be pointed when they are soliciting input.

The city’s website explaining the new regulations, however, explains that developers are under no obligation to incorporate any of the suggestions they receive. It may behoove them to do so, but there is no mandate.

“While some feedback may not be possible or appropriate to incorporate, other feedback may improve the project and could be a benefit to both neighbors and future residents,” the website states.

The new rules also limit the number of times a project can come before the full Design Review Board for review. Under current rules, the board can bring a project in an unlimited number of times. Under the new rules, there will be a maximum of two preliminary hearings, and one final hearing.

The rules mandate that nearly all projects will need to go through some level of review. One exception that might pop up in Capitol Hill, is that most times a single family house is torn down and replaced with another single family house. Beyond that, most projects are likely to be subject to some level of review.

Under the new rules, most projects of more than 8,000 square feet must now go through some level of design review. Additionally, some residential projects as small as 5,000 square feet must also go through the review. There are some exceptions to these rules, but they are likely to cover the lion’s share of development in and around Capitol Hill.

Any project that meets the above threshold will now have to present and execute a plan for community engagement. The plan must include print, digital and in-person components, at least one of each. These three are then subdivided into high impact and multi-pronged methods. A developer must choose at least one high-impact method in their outreach plan. In general, all types of communication must include an overview of the project, and a way to reach the developer so that residents may comment on it.

Additionally, the city has identified “equity areas” which will require another layer of outreach. These areas have either a higher proportion of people of color; non-English speakers; or lower-income residents than the city as a whole. Capitol Hill and First Hill do not have many of these areas, though most of the city south of Union Street (on the map, click the box for Design Review Equity Areas) is included.

For residents, it means that there should be developers out soliciting your opinions about new construction, generally within 500 feet of any property you own or live in. The form of this solicitation can vary, so individuals will need to keep eyes peeled. Depending on the neighborhood and project, the Department of Neighborhoods may also suggest community groups which the developer should contact.  The Department of Neighborhoods has a reference chart, giving sample outreach plans that can help residents understand what to look for.

Beyond that, the Department of Neighborhoods will maintain a blog with details about projects in the early outreach phase.

The entry for an upcoming Capitol Hill development that is subject to the new design review process

A lot of the program’s success or failure could come down to the way Dept. of Neighborhoods manages the process, and what groups and people they point developers toward, Feit said. He hopes they will find groups that want to work with the developers in a collaborative fashion, rather than using design review as a back door to holding up a project.

He sees one big advantage of asking for input early, and that’s the existing built environment. When a developer is looking at a project area, they’ll often consider the existing buildings; they want their project to fit in, and they know that those buildings were able to make it through the approval process.

Feit notes that just because a building is there, doesn’t mean it’s generally well liked. If a developer starts asking residents before they start designing too much, they can get input that certain buildings or areas aren’t necessarily what the community likes. Hopefully that can steer builders away from drawing too much upon projects the community considers an eyesore.

There are some risks in the plan. What citizens want, and what the Design Review Board wants are not necessarily the same thing, and it’s the board that developers really need to please to see their projects go forward.

And an unscrupulous builder could point to the number of community meetings they’ve had as evidence that they are building what the community wants. Never mind that the meetings were poorly attended, or that the people objected to the plans. Fiet thinks that sort of thing, while possible, is unlikely. In the years he’s been following development in Seattle, he said he’s not really encountered blatant examples of such things.

The changes are a bit different from what was proposed in earlier discussions in 2016. For one, the city did not split Capitol Hill into three different areas and shrink the overall number of Design Review Boards, as had been proposed. It did, however, split the Central District off from the board which represents Capitol Hill, the East Design Review Board.

Some of the other changes, such as streamlining the Design Review Meetings online, don’t seem to have happened exactly as had been suggested, but the new things like the Department of Neighborhoods blog seems like a step meant to satisfy those ideas.

For more details, visit the city’s website.

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8 thoughts on “New Seattle design review rules will give neighbors earlier say and, hopefully, better buildings

  1. On one hand, this seems like a good idea as there are many ugly new buildings on the Hill.

    On the other hand, ever more meetings, city department reviews and public feedback are just going to make developing housing even slower, which in turn makes it more expensive. Which is the last thing a city with a homeless and housing affordability problem needs.

  2. “The new rules also limit the number of times a project can come before the full Design Review Board for review. Under current rules, the board can bring a project in an unlimited number of times. Under the new rules, there will be a maximum of two preliminary hearings, and one final hearing.”

    At which point the Board must approve the project? If so, this is a gutting of Design Review. Developers will be able to simply show up and not respond substantively to the Board’s guidance, knowing that the Board has no teeth.

  3. I disagree with the assertion that “most times a single family house is torn down and replaced with another single family house.”

    Much more commonly these days, a single family house is bulldozed and replaced by ugly, cheap-looking town homes wedged into the lot. It is especially egregious that beautiful older bungalows in good condition, with many years of life left in them, are being destroyed in the interest of “almighty density” and developer profits. Our neighborhood character is being eliminated right before our eyes, and the city is complicit in this process.

    • “most times a single family house is torn down and replaced with another single family house.”

      Yeah, I’d love to see facts to back that up, but don’t expect to. I can’t think of a case like that.

    • I think you have to keep in mind that townhouses and rowhouses are also classified as single family houses, not as multi-family houses. It is just that the original lot is being sub-divided in to smaller parcels

      • No, as a matter of fact, they are not. Different codes apply.

        (I think you have to keep in mind that some people who read this blog know something about land use.)

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