East Design Review Board Delays Capitol Hill Station Development

Plaza connecting to Capitol Hill Station. (Gerding Edlen)

Last week the East Design Review Board threw a wrench in plans to begin construction on the complex planned around Capitol Hill Station when they declined to recommend any part of the project, including Capitol Hill Housing’s planned 110 affordable homes on the B-North site. Board members voiced a variety of concerns, from Kenny Pleasant’s objections to color palette to the chair Curtis Bigelow’s concerns about the location of the daycare on Broadway, which he found to be in poor taste or perhaps dangerous.

There was also Bigelow’s feeling that the building just hadn’t reached a high enough pinnacle of greatness. “This is a really good building. I think we were expecting it to be a great building,” Bigelow said, as quoted by Brandon Macz in Capitol Hill Times.

Capitol Hill Housing’s Communications Manager Ashwin Warrior said not getting the recommendation last week will certainly delay completion of the affordable housing and increase costs on the non-profit.

“We anticipate this recent setback delaying the project by at least eight weeks,” Warrior said in an email. “Just like any developer, we suffer the costs of project delays in the form of things like interest on pre-development loans, added design costs, and increases in construction costs (via materials and labor).”

Site B-North with its turquoise color scheme that offended board member Kenny Pleasant. (Capitol Hill Housing)

This project’s delay will also cause the community, particularly the housing insecure, to suffer, Warrior argued. “It is a shame that after years of the community working to bring this project to fruition, we will see an even further delay of the creation of desperately needed affordable housing,” he said.

Axonometric drawing of Capitol Hill Station site with Capitol Hill Housing’s Site-B North highlighted. (Gerding Edlen)

While the East Design Review Board weighed in on things like the siting of the daycare in the eleventh hour, details like that had been in negotiation for many years through an extensive community process.

“The Capitol Hill light rail station project has had years of deep community involvement dating back to at least 2010 and the Urban Design Recommendations developed by Schemata Workshop,” Warrior said. “In March 2010, the Capitol Hill Champion was established to represent the community in negotiations with Sound Transit. The Champion’s work was essential in creating a process for selecting the developer and arriving at the current design, which is largely informed by Sound Transit’s Coordinated Development Plan and original RFP [request for proposals].”

Buildings A and B. Click to enlarge. (Gerding Edlen)

About That Daycare

Chair Bigelow’s concerns about siting a daycare on Broadway show a lack of familiarity or at least deference to the history of the project when dealing with site constraints.

“The daycare was originally proposed to be at the B-North site, but was moved to site C because of a requirement that the daycare have a private play area, something that couldn’t be accommodated at the B-North site,” Warrior said.

The Broadway storefronts alongside planned daycare to the right. (Gerding Edlen)

Moreover, not wanting a daycare to be on Broadway–which historically was associated with mischief and grunginess–perhaps speaks to an obsolete thinking. In fact, a preschool, Harvard Avenue School, is located literally three blocks to the west. The boardmembers interest in additional Broadway storefronts might be nice in an alternate universe, but in this one the developer is obligated to build a daycare and limited in where it can fit it.

“We were disappointed that the Design Review Board did not appear to factor the nearly decade-long community process into their decision or weigh the support of community organizations like the Capitol Hill Champion, Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council, and Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce,” Warrior said. “We will return before the Design Review Board on October 11th, at which point we hope to have addressed their concerns about color and residential character of the B-North site.”

At the design review meeting, Brie Gyncild with Capitol Hill Champion said daycare service is in high demand and this project could help serve that desperate need.

The Market-Rate and MFTE Portion

It’s not just Capitol Hill Housing’s buildings; delaying approval of the rest of complex also means delaying affordable homes. At least 21% of the remaining 318 apartments in the three other sites will be affordable through the Multi-Family Tax Exemption (MFTE) program. That’s approximately 67 homes affordable and restricted to households below 75% of area median income for one bedrooms (slightly higher for two and three bedrooms).

One area Gerding Edlen did show responsiveness was to the board’s request from early design guidance to reduce parking (for our part, we suggested no parking was necessary). The board asked for the early design’s 334 parking stalls to be reduced to about 260, and the developer did even better and now proposes 216 stalls across the sites. Here’s how each building was rendered–which ultimately proved not enough–at the meeting:

Site A will abut the station entrance at E John St and Broadway. (Gerding Edlen)
  • Site A would include 150 homes (21% of them affordable) and 22,865 square feet of retail.
Cite C would border Cal Anderson Park. (Gerding Edlen)
  • Site B-South would include 74 homes (21% of them affordable) and 3,000 square feet of retail.
Site C will abut the station entrance at E Denny Way and Nagle Pl. (Gerding Edlen)
  • Site C would include 94 homes (22% of them affordable) and almost 12,000 square feet of retail.

Same Board Will Decide Fate of Madison Valley PCC Complex

Will Madison get a PCC Market? (Studio Meng Strazzara)

The East Design Review Board is the same board that put a proposal for a Madison Valley PCC Market (2925 E Madison St) through the ringer, bowing to pressure from neighbors who formed a group called Save Madison Valley. The project needed three design meetings just to clear Early Design Guidance, and even then just barely. Its fourth meeting on September 13th is set to be a showdown to gets its final design recommendation and thus its Master Use Permit. Save Madison Valley worries what a grocery store with 82 apartments attached within a short walk of the northeastern terminus of the soon-to-be-built RapidRide G–also known as Madison BRT (bus rapid transit)–means for the neighborhood. Sounds like an improvement to me.

Pro-housing advocates are gearing up for the project’s next design review and hoping to turn out numbers in support. They’ll go up against Save Madison Valley, who hired the help of architect Peter Steinbrueck to make their case at previous reviews. Steinbrueck is a former Seattle City Councilmember and presently a candidate for Port of Seattle Commission Position 4. We endorsed Preeti Shridhar in that race. 

An Argument For Design Review Reform

The delay add costs on Capitol Hill Housing at a time of great need when the non-profit is attempting to stretch funds to develop a number of other projects (such as the Liberty Bank Building that recently broke ground). Luckily, the design review reform package that the Seattle City Council is contemplating could help avoid costly delays to affordable housing projects like this in the future.

“The situation is a perfect argument for the Mayor’s proposed changes to the design review program, which would allow affordable housing projects to go through the administrative design review process, speeding up the production of affordable homes in our city,” Warrior concluded.

Design review reform might not have helped the other 318 apartments, though, since they’re large enough to trigger full review. That may suggest the reform should go further if we want to avoid capricious delay.

Sound Transit Green Lights Capitol Hill Station TOD

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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“This is a really good building. I think we were expecting it to be a great building,” Bigelow said,

That this shocking quotation was uttered by the chair of the review committee (to justify delaying and thereby driving up the cost of badly needed development) is as damning of design review as practiced in Seattle as anything its critics say about it.


It’s shocking in what way? Design Review is usually pretty civilized, board members might well offer an encouraging word like that to flatter the egos of the designers they’re sending back to the drawing board. But suppose the Design Review board did insist on great architecture, for a building in a prominent location that’s going to be around a long time – shocking? Is that the “urbanist” line there?


I consider the shortage of housing generally and affordable housing in particular to be something we should treat as an urgent crisis. I don’t think this view is particularly radical; that virtually every serious mayoral candidate adopted similar language suggests my view is widely shared.

The notion that a “good” building is inadequate, and every damn thing needs to be great, and endless, ongoing cost-increasing delays are a price worth paying to make sure each and every major development is architecturally stellar is a position that isn’t remotely consistent with a the notion that addressing the housing shortage–especially affordable housing–is a matter of importance and urgency.

In many cases I strongly suspect design review is little more than a way to slow, prevent, and generally increase the costs of new development by NIMBYs and slow-growthers. I doubt that’s the case here; virtually no one opposes putting a significant development of some sort in this precise location. In this case the arbitrary power of the design review board seems to have gone to their heads a bit here.

It also strikes me that the fact that the building will be there for a very long time doesn’t work in favor of design review quite as much as it’s often assumed to. We’re really not very good at predicting the aesthetic preferences of future generations. Plenty of things we now find appealing and talk about preserving (Craftsmans, brownstones in NYC) were loathed by tastemakers in real time. The notion that “we” in general, or a group of 8-10 busybodies who lack any democratic accountability in particular are have somehow figured out how predict the aesthetic preferences of future generations seems very hubristic to me.

Sometimes new builds have obvious and egregious errors, a design review process designed to eliminate those with strong checks against mission creep seems sensible. Beyond that, I don’t really see any evidence of any significant public value to justify the delay.


If we “NIMBYs and slow-growthers” are the only people left in the city who care about quality of our built environment, then it’s a sad commentary on “urbanism.” The reality is that Design Review doesn’t have much to offer in support of those objectives – as you may have noticed, the action tends to be in SEPA. I think nearly everyone would support changes to Design Review that really made it better, but the objective that defines “better” must be better design outcomes.

And … don’t wave that “crisis” over our heads, when by definition this really isn’t a crisis. A crisis is a point in time when outcomes hang in the balance, but this housing affordability problem is guaranteed to last indefinitely, and in fact city hall is committed to making it worse. For example with high rise office building upzones in the University District. The victims of this “crisis” are just useful hostages, to be brought out every time developers want something.


This is the largest development in Capitol Hill ever and the gateway to the neighborhood. There is no excuse for the project not being great design and high quality materials. The details matter because it will define the neighborhood for decades to come. Hopefully, the extra level of scrutiny will mean that they get it right.


And once it’s done, how long will it be there? How many decades will Capitol Hill live with this project, after taking an additional 8 weeks to make it better?

I’m all for making design review better, but it seems like the current administration might as well hire Ben Carson to do it, for all the detectable interest in improving outcomes. Don’t point to the new community engagement component – as illustrated by the present case (“nearly decade-long community process”), community engagement per se isn’t guaranteed to help a bit, especially when not backed up by any authority to affect outcomes.


Were you at the meeting? The Board did not request a change in the color of the building. Two of six members expressed some reservations about the color scheme being trendy, and thus not likely to age well, but no change was requested. Most liked it. The main concerned seemed to be that the developers had taken a step backward in terms of design detailing, street level experience, and material quality from what was presented in their winning bid for the site and in the early design guidance proposal. As a result the project (all four buildings including the one being developed by CHH) lacked a unifying design element and bold design details such as the glass “lanterns” and columns presented at EDG that are fitting for this prominent site at the gateway to Capitol Hill. The only concern I recall regarding the affordable housing piece was that it felt segregated. Vertical integration with shared amenity spaces with market rate housing would be a better model for future developments of this type (I.e., 12th Ave Arts). The development has been delayed for many years by an overly bureaucratic process, not by design review. The level of design review is consistent with the development agreement and totally appropriate for such an important site.


It looks like there’s some doubt about the facts here, but suppose that the color issue had been a major one (as apparently it may not have been), and that this and other esthetic criticisms mostly came from Kenny Pleasant (so it seems from the Capitol Hill Times article.) A realtor.

I’m not saying his criticisms weren’t well founded, but as a matter of principle, would you agree that the Design Review boards should have more design professionals on them, and fewer realtors? Just thinking about how to make Design Review better.

While we’re at it, if we’re going to have really qualified design professionals, serving for free on these boards, we have to treat them with respect, don’t you think? The way I read the mayor’s bill, it falls down there – given less authority, treated to more lectures from staff, stuff like that.


The opposition to additional housing on Madison near MLK appears very NIMBY. You can’t expect to get a major investment in your neighborhoods transit system (BRT G line) and have all of the restaurants/shops that have upgraded the area and yet be closed to more people living there. You just can’t expect to have it both ways.

It is similar to the Roosevelt area, where people can’t wait for the new Link Station (and are already reaping the benefit of higher home values and development), while at the same time people are against increasing housing density near the station. When hundreds of millions are sunk into a transit hub you have to be willing to except greater housing density to maximize the ROI.

When I lived in the densely populated Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago, the community development organization SOAR struck the right balance. They encouraged high density development, and used their power to direct that development towards increasing community services and maximizing the benefits of the added density. They would advocate for changes in the proposed buildings to make them better… not in an attempt to block change. Because of this they had great partnerships with both the city and developers, which increased their influence as a community advocate- thus amplifying the voice of local residensts who have the greatest knowledge of how these developments impact a neighborhood.


i agree this sounds very nimby and the number of design review meetings sounds excessive. That being said, I wasn’t there and I haven’t seen the proposal. On a different but related topic for this particular development, I find it frustrating that Seattle and many urbanists are focused so narrowly on just getting more housing built fast. Yes, that is the biggest issue, but making sure we retain and add all the elements of a livable city also matter. This site was home to City People, the last remaining nursery in central Seattle. In other words, it is priceless. Without it there are going to be a lot more people in there cars driving out to Ballard, West Seattle or Mill Creek for their gardening needs. The employees wanted to buy it, but the owner sold it at top dollar to a developer before they could get a proposal together. Why doesn’t Seattle offer tax breaks or restrictions to maintain critical businesses, arts organizations and other irreplaceable businesses in the city? Why don’t more urbanists fight to maintain the fabric of functioning and complete neighborhoods? We need to upzone more single family neighborhoods to add density and hopefully keep prices down, but we need to be smarter about it. The framing of affordable housing or good design and preservation of key elements of the city is a false dichotomy. we can have both if we are smart about it. Look to european cities for a model.


Good points. It would be great to keep City People. But if they are going, then PCC makes a lot of sense. And adding housing- especially affordable housing- right by a major new transit line makes a ton of sense.

I’m not trying to diminish the impact of this type of development. But I also think you need to increase density at major transit upgrades if the city is going to maximize the benefits of these major expenditures.


I agree with maximizing density around major transit upgrades. I just want to see more dialogue about how we do it and leave room for exceptions (I.e., the last nursery in central Seattle, a notable historic building) so at the end of the day we have a special city not just a dense one.


CHH should blame the delay on the architect for coming up with such a horrible design. Stop experimenting on the poor with housing. Build good simple quality housing and leave the experimental gimmicky architecture to the 1%.

mike eliason

reform ain’t enough. just abolish it – it’s a homeowner subsidy that raises the cost of living for tenants and newcomers.