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Seattle overhauls its Design Review guidelines — Now we just need to put them to use

From the Capitol Hill neighborhood design guidelines, below

From the Capitol Hill neighborhood design guidelines, below

Monday night at 5:30 PM — an hour when people who work during the day might actually be able to make it to the session — the City Council’s planning and land use committee will hold a public hearing on the underpinnings of Seattle’s design review process — the Seattle Design Guidelines.

But anybody getting their hopes up for a significant overhaul of the marching orders given to the members of the East Design Review Board — “Section 1.3a — Ugly Buildings: Building shall not be big nor ugly nor big and ugly” — will be disappointed. The design guidelines update process is mostly about cleaning up the documentation and dealing with redundancies between the citywide guidelines and neighborhood-specific principles:

The City of Seattle Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is proposing to amend the Land Use Code (Title 23) and to update the Seattle Design Guidelines to implement the following proposed changes to Seattle’s Design Review Program:

  • Replace the design guidelines used in the Design Review Program entitled “Design Review: Guidelines for Multifamily and Commercial Buildings” (October 1993, November 1998) with updated design guidelines entitled “Seattle Design Guidelines.”

  • Revise the 19 sets of Neighborhood Design Guidelines in order to be consistent with the updated Seattle Design Guidelines in organization and layout. No substantive changes are proposed.

  • Amend the Design Review regulations in the Seattle Land Use Code, SMC Sections 23.41.002, 23.41.008 and 23.41.010, to reflect the new Design Guidelines and revised Neighborhood Design Guidelines.

Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 5.56.19 PMIn the executive summary delivered in the Department of Planning and Development Director’s letter on the changes, staff described a set of eight areas in which the guidelines need to be cleaned up:

  • Finding #1: Important issues are missing from the current guidelines. Guidance on current architectural issues is not adequately provided in the existing guidelines.
  • Finding #2: The current guidelines contain redundancies. Information in the current guidelines is often repeated between sections, making it difficult for Board members and applicants to choose the most applicable guidelines for a given project.
  • Finding #3: The guidelines are generally standing the test of time. The individual guidelines reflect time-tested principles of good design, and have served well since the inception of the Design Review program. The language in several of the guidelines, however, is not a clear or strong as it could be.
  • Finding #4: Explanatory text and graphics need to be updated. The guidelines are supported with hand sketches and explanatory text. The images are not clearly labeled and it may be difficult to understand what they’re attempting to illustrate. The explanatory text is often lengthy and lacks clear and compelling language that would give the guidelines more weight.
  • Finding #5: The current guidelines lack hierarchy. The existing structure of the guidelines gives equal weight to every guideline. Some guidelines are based upon broad concepts that are integral to the design process, such as (A-1) site planning and (C-1) architectural concept. These guidelines deserve more importance than guidelines that are focused on a specific aspect of building design, such as signage or lighting.
  • Finding #6: The current guideline format does not encourage conceptual thinking. The design guidelines were originally intended to follow the architectural design process. However, as design is not a linear process, any guidelines need to be based on conceptual thinking that integrates site planning, open space, and architectural direction simultaneously.
  • Finding #7: Exterior spaces should be prioritized. Neighborhood groups and the design community have expressed a desire for a more active and engaging public realm (public property and right-of-way). This was the highest priority of every set of neighborhood guidelines, and is important for the creation of development that is designed to address its impacts to the public realm. Existing citywide design guidelines refer to the elements of a good pedestrian environment but do not address the public realm more broadly.
  • Finding #8: The guidelines and the Design Review process need better integration, especially with the neighborhood guidelines. Board members and land use planners have explained that they often use the current guidelines as a framework to hang their recommendations on after the Design Review presentation. Occasionally, there is no appropriate guideline to address a desired recommendation. The large number of individual neighborhood-specific guidelines also makes it logistically difficult for Board members to reference the primary guidelines during meetings. Combined, these issues make the guidelines seem more an afterthought to the process rather than integral to it.

Note again: nothing, specifically, about big, ugly buildings. But review the updated Capitol Hill-specific amendments to the city guidelines embedded at the end of this post. The document is clear on its calls for sensitive transitions between multifamily and single-family structures, pedestrian-scale development and small merchant-friendly retail design. When you read the document, you might ask yourself if the tools are already in place to better shape the neighborhood’s development would only they be more forcefully applied.Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 5.56.51 PM Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 5.55.30 PM Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 5.56.34 PM

To that end, the director’s letter on the design updates also recommends a new online asset be created to augment the neighborhood sections of the guidelines:

  • Switch the design guidelines to a primarily web-based document
  • Maintain a web-based photo gallery
  • Embed “clickable links to related photos, diagrams, drawings, and other relevant documents within the online design guidelines.”
  • Develop a range of supplemental materials to complement the design guidelines and help constituents use the guidelines effectively such as checklists, a reader’s guide, charts to summarize guidelines for each Design Review district, and other materials.

DPD staff writes that, if implemented, the changes “will give the Design Review Program the tools it needs to move forward into another generation of design review with the assurance that the guidelines reflect best practices of the day.”

You can tell Council what you think of the clean-up Monday night:


Monday, April 29, 2013, 5:30pm


Council Chambers
Seattle City Hall, Floor 2
600 Fourth Avenue


City Hall, Council Chamber

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One thought on “Seattle overhauls its Design Review guidelines — Now we just need to put them to use

  1. You’ve missed a major aspect of this proposal: the deletion of all the neighborhood objectives from the Capitol Hill Design Guidelines, the 15 pages that provide context, and that DPD decided to ignore a long time ago. This, for example (the East Core is roughly the blocks between Broadway and 15th):

    “The community’s primary objective for the East Core District is to find creative ways to preserve and increase detached, small-scale, multiple-family housing. Development under the current Lowrise 3 (L3) zoning typically is done by
    assembling numerous parcels and demolishing existing housing in order to build larger structures and townhouses. The resulting structures may be out of
    scale with the desired neighborhood character.”

    That’s not too hard to interpret, but it doesn’t make developers happy, so it’s being removed from the Land Use Code, so there will be no question of it having any legal force.