Seattle’s process for gathering public and expert feedback on new building designs is poised to undergo the most significant update since it was established in 1994. For starters, we may be saying goodbye to the East Design Review Board.
Under changes proposed by a 16-member advisory group to Seattle’s design review program, the East DRB jurisdiction, which covers Capitol Hill, would be sliced between three new areas in order to lump the neighborhood’s high-rise zones with a new Central DRB that would also cover First Hill. Capitol Hill would be divided along E Pine, with the north half coming under a new Northeast DRB and the south half going to a new Southeast DRB.
“I think it makes sense that there be a more high-rise focused designed review board,” said Amanda Bryan, member of the Central Area Land Use Advisory Committee who also sat on the advisory panel. “I think (the boundaries) will move around depending on how people feel about it.”
Overall, the number of boards would be reduced from seven to five while each board would add a seventh member. The composition of the board could also shift to include more architects.
The advisory group was assembled last year to consider “organizational, structural, and procedural” changes to design review. In other words, expanding design review’s purview was not up for consideration — the program is still be limited to evaluating a building’s design and how that design responds to a site’s property.
Other recommendations in the report include requiring community engagement from developers, better facilitating online public comments, and streaming design review meetings online.
Design review regulars know that many projects receive little public attention and few recommendations from the design review board. In an attempt to better filter projects, the group recommended that a “hybrid design review” be added to the full design review and administrative design review tracks.
The most “complex” projects would go through multiple design reviews as it exists today. The new hybrid design review would include a design review meeting and a review phase with a Department of Construction and Inspections planner. DCI would then expand administrative design review to capture the least complex projects. The intent is to allow the board to spend more time on complex projects “so there are fewer ‘bottlenecks’ in the process.”
“It’s about picking the ones that people are most interested in” Bryan said.
And here is how projects would break out:
Had this model been in place over the past two years, the number of projects requiring full design review would have decreased from 67% to 41%
How much community outreach developers do on new projects is basically at their discretion. The advisory group considered making outreach mandatory or at least encouraging more public outreach.
- A community outreach plan would be submitted as part of the Early Design Guidance packet.
- Ideas include creating an email distribution list, updating neighborhood blogs and sites like Nextdoor, and holding community meetings.
- Require a report of community engagement efforts at the final recommendation meeting.
- This could be a strict requirement written into design review as general guidance.
The group also considered ways to boost public participation in design review. Ideas included, creating an online commenting platform, video streaming meetings, and web-based mapping and project information. There were some ideas for smaller improvements, too.
- Hold a Q&A between the public and review board to address clarifications about the process prior to deliberations.
- Ease the three design options requirement for EDG packets to alleviate “unnecessary cost associated with fully developing ‘straw man’ options that the applicant does not intend to pursue.”
- Create a design excellence award.
- Add another City staff member to meetings to record meetings, take detailed notes, and generate meeting reports.
Several hundred people participated in three feedback forums last year to help steer the advisory panel. Improving design review was also one of the recommendations to come out of last year’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee.
The City Council is expected to review and vote on the changes by September.