Failing to even consider updating design-review recommendations misses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by the design of our city.
LAST month, at the Seattle City Council’s Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee, Chair Rob Johnson decided to delay action on important changes to the neighborhood design-review process, even before the deadline for public comment on those recommendations had passed. This was disheartening news for the design community — and should be disheartening news for everyone in the city who is concerned about housing our growing population.
Why is it important that we address the troubled design-review process, and why now?
Our city is growing at an extraordinary rate. Every week, additional construction changes the look and livability of our neighborhoods. It is no secret that we are experiencing a shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing. Design review is both an unavoidable part of the building-supply chain and a critical tool in the city’s tool kit to produce better designed, more livable neighborhoods. Failing to even consider these recommendations right now misses a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by the design of our city.
Architects support the concept of design review. Since 1994, most private building projects of any size have been reviewed by volunteer boards of design professionals and community members — appointed by the mayor and council — to ensure development is consistent with neighborhood design guidelines. Seattle is divided into seven geographic districts and each district has its own review board. When working well, design review can provide valuable input and improve design.
But who these days would say that those goals are being met? Surely not neighbors impacted by growth and change and certainly not architects and their clients who wait months for design-review board meetings and then wait weeks for feedback.
The city has been trying to address these problems for years. The latest effort was started more than two years ago when the city worked with members of the American Institute of Architects’ Seattle chapter and a broad and diverse group of citizens to craft a set of recommendations endorsed by neighborhood representatives, developers, designers and city staff. Recommended changes were intended to raise the quality of design in our city and help worthy projects, especially housing, see the light of day.
The recommendations fall into five categories:
• Early community engagement, requiring new development to reach out to neighbors in the early stages of a project
• New tools and techniques, including online community feedback and better training for staff and Design Review Board members
• More effective design-review boards that can review more projects in a more consistent manner
• Diversification of the types of review, ensuring that bigger, more complex projects with greater impact to our communities would receive more comprehensive review.
• Updated design-review thresholds, based on more relevant criteria, such as total square footage, rather than the number of living units
Of these recommendations, only one — early community engagement — was identified by the committee as something to consider. While a trial run of this particular recommendation might be a good opportunity, without the other changes to make everything run more smoothly, it is unlikely to produce a satisfying result. This top-down approach would push true improvements back two years or more.
A better course would be to start with the recommendations that modernize the process: Implement new tools and techniques and change board composition and structure. Simply adding two new members to each board would greatly improve the process for all the stakeholders.
When fully functional, design review is a tool that can improve our city for everyone. In its current state, it is inhibiting us from doing our best work. Design review will not stop because the committee declines to consider improvements. It will simply continue with the same or higher level of friction.
As the comprehensive plan is revised and housing policy and zoning are addressed, it would be much easier to realize our larger goals if we have a nimble, functional and efficient design-review program in place and ready to serve the bigger vision.