Downtown Seattle Development
Downtown Seattle Development

The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is engaging with stakeholders and residents to develop improvements for the City’s Design Review Program. In 1994, the City of Seattle adopted a Design Review Program for new development projects of significant scale. Over 1,500 projects (111 per year) have undergone some form design review since the program was originally instituted. Last year saw a whopping 192 projects go through the process.

Design review is meant to instill public involvement and communication into the planning process, develop superior site and contextual design outcomes, and offer flexibility to the application of development regulations. This is achieved by design guidelines and participation of the public and professional staff that review a broad set of design considerations like form, layout, and aesthetic of development proposals. Design review occurs long before a project ever breaks ground and often before formal building permits and land use applications are filed.

Generally, the Design Review Program captures new multifamily, commercial, and mixed-use development proposals. The City has enlisted community delegates to conduct design review responsibilities for the most complex projects. These community delegates are usually composed of a mix of planning professionals (planners, architects, landscape architects) and ordinary residents. They sit on the City’s five design review boards, which each cover a portion of the city’s geographic area. City staff also partake in certain elements of the full design review process, although they have full responsibility when projects go through the administrative design review processes.

The design review process of today can be quite extensive if a project must proceed through the full formal process (although projects may qualify for administrative or streamlined review):

Full Design Review Process
Full Design Review Process

The DPD wants input on three primary areas for possible change: early outreach, process changes, and new tools.

Early outreach could be modified by requiring project applicants to conduct and demonstrate that they have engaged with the community before submitting for permits. This engagement would be required throughout the review and permitting process. The DPD wants to know how this could be improved. Would social media or project websites be a better of way of communicating? Would online dialogues and less formal public meetings be more beneficial?

Process changes to design review could also be made by implementing a “tiered” approach. Their overarching proposal is to streamline design review by matching specific characteristics of projects to the complexity and formality of review. For projects that could have greater impacts or that highly complex, they would continue to go through Early Design Guidance with design review boards. Projects that don’t present these same characteristics could instead be reviewed by DPD staff during the Early Design Guidance phase. Although, all design review projects would ultimately find their way before the local design review board at the Recommendation stage.

To differentiate projects, the DPD is exploring special accommodations for projects that consist of affordable housing, cultural and arts features, and green building techniques. The DPD also wants to know what considerations should be made in determining unique characteristics. Perhaps that’s a project proposed in the Pike/Pine District or historic landmark site. Of course, the DPD ultimately wants to gauge if people value the current method of design review or would like to see an overhaul in the process.

The DPD is considering new tools for the design review process like streaming video of meetings and online interactive commenting. Staffing and procedural changes could also be in the mix like changing the size of design review boards and the number of them, increasing direct dialogue with applicants at meetings, and providing more educational opportunities to board members and staff on urban design and architecture. The hope is that these changes would create more consistency in recommendations and expectations while offering different avenues of engagement with community members.

If you have an interest in helping the DPD in formulating program changes to Design Review, learn more about the effort and provide your feedback. The feedback window is open until July 24.

Article Author

Stephen is a professional urban planner in Puget Sound with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. With stints in great cities like Bellingham and Cork, Stephen currently lives in Seattle. He primarily covers land use and transportation issues and has been with The Urbanist since 2014.