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‘New buildings should support and enhance places as they grow’ — Seattle to set new guidelines for Capitol Hill development

The Seattle City Council is poised to approve a new set of guidelines that will shape what Capitol Hill looks like in years to come.

The Capitol Hill Neighborhood Design Guidelines are essentially recommendations to developers of what neighborhood residents would like to see in new buildings. The neighborhood-specific guidelines were adopted in 2005. The update began in 2017, and was undertaken by city staff in conjunction with a 14-member working group of residents and representatives of various groups around the hill.

A draft was printed in May 2018. But the update was shifted to the back burner as the city wrestled with adopting the Mandatory Affordable Housing program. A new draft was released in January of this year.

Monday afternoon, the full council is prepared to approved the update.

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The Office of Planning and Community Development released what is likely to be the final draft last month. Patrice Carroll, of OCPD, praised the working group for sticking with the project for so long, and being diligent even through parts that had grown tedious.

The most dramatic change between the January and May versions had to do with protection of trees, said Carroll. She said they had received comments saying that the January version had weakened the language about tree preservation.

She said the new version has been changed to call for protection of trees and the tree canopy, both in the introduction and in specific guideline portions.

The guidelines call for new buildings to fit in with the existing architectural style of the neighborhood, to create space for arts, enhance the neighborhood’s walkability, be environmentally conscious and honor the neighborhood’s history as a center of LGBTQ activity. “New buildings should support and enhance places as they grow,” one guideline entry reads.

Guidelines call for developers to integrate art into their projects, to incorporate balconies (actual balconies, not just a railing tacked on outside a window) and recessed decks to add visual interest.

They specifically discourage great big flat walls of glass or metal or cement panels. Instead they call for brick or stone. If a developer has to use panels, the guidelines call for them to be detailed and well designed enough to create a pattern that will be interesting to people at a pedestrian scale.

They also get into smaller details, like calling for bike racks, and making sure the buildings are bird-friendly.

These guidelines set out ideas for ways to make the building better interact with the people, and other buildings around it. Ideally, they will be used by developers early on in the process, in a way that might make things smoother for everyone.

“This is an opportunity for us and the community to flag for the developer what sorts of things are important,” Carroll said.

Important to remember is that these are guidelines, not rules. Developers must comply with all zoning laws and other regulations concerning things like how big a building can be, energy efficiency, even things like what building materials can go into construction of taller buildings. All of those rules will still apply, and will still be reviewed by city staff.

For that reason, many guidelines use words like “encourage,” “consider,” “maximize” and “when possible.” Such language might appear toothless; considering something is a long way from doing it.

But Carroll noted these guidelines do not have regulatory authority, and so can’t force mandate upon a developer. But they can, and do, make suggestions.

What they can do is help avoid major hiccups during the design review process. That process has changed last year, requiring developers to do more community outreach prior to meeting with the Design Review Board.

If everything goes smoothly at Monday’s council vote, the new guidelines could come into effect as early as July.

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Bob Knudson
Bob Knudson
1 year ago

“The guidelines call for new buildings to fit in with the existing architectural style of the neighborhood,”

Unfortunately, that horse has already left the barn. Capitol Hill has been inundated by ugly, cheap-looking buildings which certainly do not make any attempt to “fit in.” Many more are under construction. And I doubt that few, if any, developers will pay attention to non-enforceable guidelines….their main priority is the bottom line.

1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Knudson

This is a terrible idea.

Styles change and the integration of modern architecture into residential neighborhoods has worked really well here, on average.

Mandating some ugly, fake-craftsman style will make this city look awful.

1 year ago
Reply to  PD

I wouldn’t even mind some ugly, “fake Craftsman” attempts to be attractive. But let’s keep in mind, many of the hideously ugly Worlds Fair-era buildings that have been torn down to be replaced by these generic glass cages apt buildings, weren’t exactly stellar design accomplishments themselves.

1 year ago

Too late