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Design review overhaul: Rule on fewer projects, put meetings online, split Capitol Hill at Pine

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 2.19.56 PMSeattle’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.

Complexity would be defined under four categories:Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 12.05.28 PM

And here is how projects would break out:

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 1.27.04 PM

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.

Design Review Improvements

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13 thoughts on “Design review overhaul: Rule on fewer projects, put meetings online, split Capitol Hill at Pine

  1. This proposal disenfranchises the Capitol Hill community. By splitting the neighborhood into three different boards, it makes it unlikely that any of the design review meetings will be held on Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill residents would have to travel to north Seattle, south Seattle or downtown to provide public testimony. It also makes it less likely that the board members would live in the neighborhood and be familiar with the local streetscape. Lesser design review for projects in urban villages (much of Capitol Hill) is also problematic. Urban Villages are the heart of Seattle neighborhoods, and if anything they should get greater design scrutiny. I also dislike the shifting of board membership to a strictly a panel of architects. While this sounds reasonable and positive initially, the result is that everyone on the boards has skin in the redevelopment game. This could result in a lot of conflict of interest situations. It is critical that design review boards have community participation.

    • In general, I don’t really disagree here, but I want to comment on your first point: I have personally never made it to a review meeing due to the fact that they are normally scheduled during or directly adjacent to my work hours (I work into the evening and have a 40 minute commute). I suspect many other Capitol Hill residents are in the same situation, meaning relocation of the meetings might only make a difference for a certain segment of the community. Maybe there are better ways to encourage community participation in the process.

    • Fully agree. Most importantly on this part: “It also makes it less likely that the board members would live in the neighborhood and be familiar with the local streetscape.”
      I suppose the “Central” DRB might make sense — but dividing rest of East DRB into the NE & SE DRBs is truly insane and completely unnatural based on how Seattle is broken up by water, highways, etc. You’d have parts of CH/CD in same DRB with areas nearly 10 miles to the north & other parts in same DRB with areas nearly as far to the south. You’d totally lose the essential local knowledge & perspective.
      My only small exception (and yes, I realize the forum) is this isn’t just about disenfranchising Capitol Hill (and Central District) — I’m guessing people in Kenwood or Rainier Beach don’t want DRB reviews by people who rarely step foot in those areas any more than we do.
      The fact that there’s dividing line right through the middle of CH/CD makes the proposal uniquely f*cked up for our neighborhoods, but otherwise it’s equal opportunity f*cked up across the board

    • No kidding! It would make more sense to do away with regional design review boards entirely and do it all city-wide – these proposed northeast and southeast regions are completely nonsensical as representations of the communities they cover.

  2. This sounds like a terrible idea. What on earth does dense, active, lively, youthful, development-friendly Capitol Hill have to do with all the vast sprawls of rich yuppie nimbydom covering most of this proposed northeast region? I can’t see this doing anything but suppressing further development right at a time when we need to be unclenching our overly-strict zoning codes so we can get some more housing capacity going and stop driving everyone out of town who makes less than six figures.

  3. The Design Review process definitely needed change and improvement but this seems totally backwards – Pine is the middle of the neighborhood, not a dividing line. And why do developments in an Urban Village get a free pass but ones that aren’t are subject to review? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

  4. It’s about time. It will make the design review process more egalitarian, less political. The design review boards should function as champions of the design guidelines, no matter what area of the city they are located in. Good design = good design.

    For that matter, the East design review board, as currently composed, is one of the worst in the city. They often react to projects based on their own personal opinion rather than respond to projects based on the citywide design guidelines. I don’t support the notion that the boards should mostly be comprised of architects. Everyone who wants a voice and can have a conversation about design should be able to be heard. It seems like the East Review Board are all made up of architects, but they rarely have a rational conversation, so there you go.

    WIth that said, while I do support a central design review board, it doesn’t make sense to split the NE/SE boards at Pine. Maybe Olive and John instead?

    • To some, no design is good design. Anything new near them hurts their feelings, and they use the design review process to process troll the building as far as possible. The practice should be totally abolished.

      Heck, there was even one woman on here a few weeks ago that didn’t want a building built near her because her cat would lose a bush. That’s the level of criticism design review elicits. It has no value.

    • Zach: in some ways I agree. The design review process has become a joke. But what is the alternative? I really don’t know. Maybe this change might elicit a better process. If it is abolished completely, then how can the general public have some sort of say when it comes to new developments in their neighborhoods? (Notwithstanding cat people who want to save bushes.)

    • ADH: Ha! Hardly. Just a graphic designer who is married to an architect, if you must know. Just because I don’t agree that each neighborhood should have its own specific board doesn’t make me a developer. I am just acutely aware of how my neighborhood is changing, in some ways for the better, some ways for the worse. Look, the design review process is broken as is. Maybe splitting it up into fewer boundaries will allow people to focus less on the emotional (read: neighborhood specific) aspect of design review, and more on general aspects of what makes a good design good. Which, in my opinion, is how a building meets the streets and engages with pedestrians–because at the end of the day that is how most people interact with any new development.