VIDEO: Proposed changes to Design Review critiqued from multiple sides at late-running hearing

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

When city staff booked a Queen Anne movie theater for a doubleheader public hearing before the City Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee, they seriously underestimated the amount of time and space they would need.

Last night’s hearing at SIFF Cinema Uptown was scheduled for an hour and a half of public comment on the HALA upzoning proposal for the Uptown area, and then two hours of public comment on proposed changes to the city’s Design Review program.

The former turned out to be the hottest ticket. When we arrived around 6:40 pm, planning to cover the Design Review hearing, we found dozens of people waiting outside the theater – not for one of the movies in the other two auditoriums, but for the upzoning hearing. The theater had declared Auditorium 3 at capacity and was only letting people in to replace those who left; we had to argue our way in.

As it turned out, though, we might as well have waited, as the Uptown hearing ran an hour extra. It was a standing-room-only crowd, with four councilmembers – committee chair Rob Johnson, vice chair Mike O’Brien, Tim Burgess, and Sally Bagshaw – present for that hearing, while only Johnson and O’Brien stayed for the Design Review hearing. (West Seattle/South Park Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who is a member of the committee, was not there.)

Uptown testimony finally wrapped up just after 8 pm, and Johnson ordered the proceedings to move immediately into the Design Review topic. A very quick overview was given by Christina Ghan from the Department of Construction and Inspections, and then it was on into the ~40 people who had signed up to speak. Seattle Channel was there, recording, but as of this writing, its video of the marathon hearing hasn’t appeared online, so here’s what we recorded. There’s literally nothing to see after the first couple slides, as our angle didn’t get the speakers (who were almost all down on the auditorium floor anyway), but you can play it as audio in the background.

Below – highlights of each speaker. Not full transcriptions – you’ll want to listen, to get the entirety of what was said. In summary, the criticism was wide-ranging, and not necessarily along the lines you’d expect. Criticism of the proposed “early community engagement” component ranged from leaving the fox in charge of the hen house to adds even more unpredictability for project teams; last-minute amendments led to a variety of concerns about changing the thresholds for design review, either raising them or lowering them. And several people suggested that adding staffing to SDCI would be the best way to speed up project reviews, expressing doubt that the design-review process was really a major factor in delays. Only a few people alluded to the amendments brought up last Friday (see them here). Ahead, the toplines:

(Note – we recognized two speakers as West Seattleites, but those are the only names we have.)

First speaker said she was in favor of simplifying things but she had a few comments about the community engagement proposals – thinking it’s not going to be resulting in improved dialogue – “dropping flyers at a coffee shop or sending mail to a 2-block radius” isn’t really going to strengthen and deepen that intereaction. She also wanted to see stronger requirements for engagement – actual numbers of people clicking on websites, calling hotlines, etc. Make sure “we take the opportunity to learn from data if this new process is really working.”

Second person said she is from the group Seattle for Everyone and in favor of Design Review reform as part of HALA. “Many of our coalition partners have experience with the (current process),” she said. She said they support “robust training” on HALA, ensure “regular participation by board members,” and green goals.

Third person said she agrees about the importance of getting the word out about meetings and Design Review – “in my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, there’s a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on.”

Fourth person identified herself as from Futurewise and said the legislation addresses “one of the most common yet overlooked causes of housing shortage – delay.” Like the second speaker, she suggested funding for “robust training” for city staffers regarding the impact of their decisionmaking.

Fifth person said he was a member of the HALA workgroup and strongly supports reforming the Design Review process. “Developers look at how much money they can make but are way more concerned about how much they can lose” – they are concerned about risk – and Design Review is responsible for some of that, he said.
“Community input is great but,” he thinks there should be more predictability.

Sixth person, from Lake City, said that “it takes time for neighborhoods to be involved in these processes” and the result of a process in her neighborhood worked out well. “This is about for-profit market-rate housing, it’s not about affordable housing whatsoever,” she said. And she even wonders about the “inclusionary” part of HALA. “The community deserves to hve a place at the table, that’s all we’re asking for.”

Seventh person said that developers’ complaints were not speaking to livability and that “the way (this) is drafted is a mess” because the outreach was stopped for a long time and “then this was dropped on us the same day as the HALA DEIS.” He said, “You need to have honest engagement and include the people who are affected by these projects in the community.”

Eighth person, West Seattleite Matt Hutchins, wondered if “my own kid is going to be able to live in the neighborhood I live in,” and he contends that the answer is “no” because of the housing shortage. Design Review is “kind of addressing the fringe” of design elements, but not livability. The current process is costly, byzantine, and more, he said. He favors limited meetings and predictable outcomes.

Applause throughout the hearing, by the way, seemed evenly split – there was an equal amount for supporters and opponents.

Ninth person said he cannot support the reforms as written – as a project designer, he thinks they will make things worse and add delay. He said citizens’ complaints are seldom about design components but more about the project even happening, about parking, or about the people who wll live there. “Design review is broken and needs reform, but this is not the answer.”

Tenth person identified himself as from Mercy Housing Northwest, a nonprofit affordable-housing developer, and talked about his organization’s latest project, saying they had 2,000 applications for 100+ apartments – but despite a variety of positive elements, he said, “we didn’t make it through Design Review,” and spent $100,000 “modulating” the back alley. He said he supports community engagement. But the hybrid process, he suggested, should be community first, then staff, as opposed to the other way around.

Eleventh person said the process isn’t perfect but wants a halt to currently proposed changes – focusing on the “early community engagement” suggestions, she noted that the meetings between developers and residents in the early going are supposed to be “self-reported” by the developers and that isn’t transparent enough. That would also be stressful for both sides, with residents not-knowing … the meetings would be messy, contentious, but in the early going the Design Review Board acts as an impartial mediator – reducing the imbalance of power between developers and residents. The process is public, online, transparent, improve on the process. Improve Design Review, don’t reduce it, she concluded.

Twelfth person said that tweaking DR for efficiency is important, but saying it’s for affordable housing is without merit. He’s an architect as well as a community advocate and said that changing permitting time and design won’t have a penny of effect on rent, for example. The projects that suffer delay are often applicants who disregard DRB input, he said. “The most egregious offenders of community respect are the smallest projects,” he said.

Thirteenth speaker noted that she is in the insurance industry. She was concerned about insurance thresholds.

Fourteenth person, from Welcoming Wallingford, said he supports 4A and 4B. He also supports requiring developers to use all methods of outreach.

Fifteenth person, saying she was from Fremont, explained that she has often participated in advance outreach with developers, and it does often make for better buildings over and over. “One time we were able to convince the developer to add back family-size units.” She also mentioned the neighborhood wariness over the Mercy Housing building for 71 formerly homeless individuals, and said the process allowed them to figure out what supports the people would have. She said Design Review for smaller projects remains vital, especially as HALA takes effect to “make sure those buildings really fit.”

Sixteenth person said “reform is an Orwellian use of the word” in this context.

Seventeenth person, saying he was from Seattle Fair Growth, said he’s “very disappointed in these so-called improvements but not surprised” – he mentioned the city cutting ties with (neighborhood district) councils, the “HALA grand bargain being a dead giveaway for downtown developers,” “so why should I be surprised that 30 percent of housing will no longer be subject to design review?”

Eighteenth person said she supports some of the positive comments made earlier and also favors the idea of affordable-housing projects going through administrative (rather than board) review.

19th person started by saying she was grateful to SDCI for even proposing improving community dialogue. Some of her concerns: That the changes would not focus design review on projects most likely to affect residential neighborhoods. She identified herself as being from Baker Street Community Group and wanted notification and comment periods to be standardized – “developers should not be able to determine for themselves what constitutes public outreach.’ She also opposes excluding projects of less than 10,000 SF. They want lot-boundary adjustments to be appealable, Type 2 decisions.

20th person to speak said public process was missing in development of these proposals. “(They) allow the developer to basically devise their own outreach plan.” He said a survey in the past day had resulted in 110 people asking the council to take more time.

21st person said he works on urban infill projects. He spoke in opposition to the proposed discontinuance of streamlined design review. And he thinks the minimum eligible size for Design Review should be 15,000 SF.

22nd person voiced concern about changes in Design Review thresholds – such as removing consideration of the number of apartments in a project, which brings in “the human dimension.” He mentioned two eight-story projects, an existing one with 34 apartments, one proposed with 66 units “including a number of units with windowless bedrooms.” That, he said, was a balking factor when the latter project went through Design Review: “For us to avoid an epidemic of windowless bedrooms, we need to protect the timeliness and rigor of review boards.”

23rd person urged the council to put the brakes on the changes because they’re “a half-baked mess – the public deserves clear and concise legislation – sloppy codes makes for sloppy government. If you do anything at all, you should embrace increasing the requirements for Design Review rather than decreasing them. ” The major problems have to do wth staffing shortages in the city, not the Design Review process.

24rd person recommended not changing the thresholds for design review. The smaller projects have more potential for causing trouble. He also said a shortage of SDCI staff seemed to have long been more of the reason for delayed projects than Design Review. He said it’s vital that project notice be on neighborhood websites. Allowing developers to self-select who they notify is not appropriate, he said.

25th person said he favors amendment 9C. He said he loves Seattle, appreciates its LGBTQ support, and “it breaks my heart that there might be other queer people out there who can’t afford to live on Capitol Hill and have to live in a hostile environment.”

26th person, saying she’s with Seattle Fair Growth and the Wallingford Community Council, said Design Review changes ‘are saying to a lot of people ‘we don’t want to hear your voice’ and telling developers ‘do what you want’.” And the prospect of dealing with departures – proposed exceptions to zoning – outside the official city-involved process is disturbing, she said. She talked about a project in which a project would have put its trash outside a backyard cottage, for example, if not for Design Review. Checks and balances are important – the city should not be silencing people, she said, noting that “these buildings are going to be there for a very long time.”

27th person, also from Wallingford, said one way to speed the DR process would be to hire more staff for the permitting process and also to create more Design Review Boards. She said changing thresholds would “create more loopholes for developers.” She said the feedback/engagement process had not been “very authentic.”

28th person, Christy Tobin-Presser from the West Seattle Junction talked about HALA upzoning’s potential effects on the area, with three potential mitigation components having mentioned Design Review, so, she said, it seems only fair that if some neighborhoods are asked to absorb more developent, then Design Review should be expanded, not reduced. She said that while they’ve heard anecdotes about development delays related to DR, that’s because developers see people as obstacles: “There’s something very unfair about just steamrolling over residents who have made the neighborhoods what they are.”

29th person, who identified himself as from the AIA public policy board, 2300 design professions. They support greater predictability and efficiency. They support removing smaller projects such as townhomes from the process. They do not support the early community outreach process. Would be less predictable. It’s up to the city to handle early outreach, city-led, for predictability.

30th person – Irene? City Neighborhood Council? Says she sees lots of notices and doesn’t see much slowdown and doesn’t think design review is getting in the way. Just means the wait for the EDG meeting is going to be a wait to see a staff member for an admin review. These reforms do not focus on design character or preserving the character of our neighborhoods. There is a bright spot i the focus on commnity engagemetn Having read – “while collaboration approach is encouraged, the applicant is not required to incorporate any specific community feedback into the project’s design” You can’t come up with a better means of (creating) apathy … this is a project that needs to be fixed.

31st person – Steve Zemke: Seattle Urban Forestry Cmsn but not speaking for them – TreePAC and more. Issue is uch larger than Design Review. City is not gving adequate protectio to trees. Some of this canged in design review language. The city needs to get something back for the trees being lost. He mentions SDCI not coming to Urban Forestry to bring this process up, “we only hearda bout it by accident.” He has some recommendations.

32nd perosn – Laura, gone to many design review meetings. Pattern she sees is, we’re gonna throw everything we can up against the wall to try to stop this project. She talks about Escala and some project that’s been delayd for years. If you’re angry at hte way our system is set up, if you’re upset about capitalism, don’t use the Design Review process.

33rd person said he’s concerned about tree canopy – the Green Factor, so relied upon as a mitigation factor, is not working. “It’s just turning into cement walls, lot line to lot line.” He declared, “The city is avoiding dealing with the tree issue” and says the attempts date back years, to when Jan Drago was on the council: “We’re building a city that’s going to be less and less livable.”

34th speaker said he was for housing, for affordability, for livability, but against raising thresholds for Design Review.

35th speaker said she lives in Seattle and has been on a Design Review Board and is opposed to the changes – she then described herself as “also one of those evil developers putting up midrise and high-rise projects so you can all be mad at me” – saying that the predictability of the DRB process is actually important to us. Staff up, and get the Early Design Guidance going early, she urged. She says developers are scared away from some neighborhoods because of unpredictable boards.

36th and final speaker, saying he’s from Greenwood, pointed out that the department’s name includes CONSTRUCTION, so “if we want to build stuff, they need to listen to us.” The outcome of these changes are going to mean that “exceptional trees and exceptional greenspaces are the exception” in the city, adding that, “A tree, like a bird or a fish, doesn’t have the ability to come down here and speak into a microphone” to advocate for itself.

At 9:29 pm, the public hearing was closed, and Councilmember Johnson said both of the night’s issues – Uptown upzoning as well as Design Review – would come before his committee next week – 9:30 am September 19th at City Hall – possibly for votes to move them on to the full Council.

10 Replies to "VIDEO: Proposed changes to Design Review critiqued from multiple sides at late-running hearing"

  • Matt September 12, 2017 (9:22 pm)

    Wow, Tracy, amazing work relaying all these opinions!  It was a brutally long hearing.  I went home and cleaned up my testimony:   

    Comments on Design Review: Less is more

    We have a housing shortage, because we are not building nearly enough homes for our future neighbors and future generations. 

    Does Design Review address this?  No, it isn’t an proponent for more housing, something the city desperately needs.  It is a mechanism concerned with the mostly superficial, like what color the siding is, or ‘modulation.’ When was the last time Design Review recommended more housing than the owners or architects proposed?  

    Everyone agrees that:

    Design Review is long.

    It is unpredictable and capricious. 

    It is expensive.  

    Recently, in our neighborhood, we’ve seen a 41 unit project on a small lot be purchased, go through design review and then reappear on the market for a million dollars more.  Someone is willing to pay a million dollars to avoid the uncertainty and risk of Design Review.  Ultimately that cost will be recouped, by charging more rent for every single household living there. Design Review is at odds with affordability and does little for actual design.   

    I would love to see council: 

    1-Raise the threshold for project participation in DR to 15000 square feet, which will allow many small ‘missing middle’ housing projects to go forward.  

    2-Simplify the tiers

    3-Resist the urge to solve for every nuance and like criteria for complex or simple sites, different mechanisms for outreach etc (just imagine how much experience it will take to master the process!)

    4-make the schedule more predictable, by limiting meetings and delays.

    5-trade greener buildings, or more controlled Affordable units for less Design Review. 

    If we want a city that’s diverse, vibrant and affordable, we need to build for everyone, and prioritize the creation of housing as a higher social good than what the wrapper looks like. Design Review today is superficial process for process’ sake that drains drains all the joy and uniqueness out of architecture.   Less is more.

    • CMT September 12, 2017 (9:45 pm)

      With all due respect, maybe projects get delayed in design review because . . . they need improvement.  Perhaps pushing a project through as rapidly as possible should not be the sole consideration.  Taking a good look at the primary proponents of reducing design review’s applicability does little to convince me that reducing design review is in anyone’s best interest but those poised to make money off of the development.

      • Also John September 13, 2017 (9:01 am)

        I agree with CMT.  I’d much rather see eyes on a set of plans for a longer time period making sure the developer isn’t trying to skip on building codes.

    • Duanob September 13, 2017 (9:28 am)

      Something tells me MATT has his fingers in the development pie. According to just about all of my friends and neighbors in West Seattle, we need to pump the brakes on all this willy-nilly development and possibly build something, I don’t know, we can be proud of? I know my blood pressure raises every time I drive home into West Seattle and are forced to look at that big LA Fitness sign or the Whittaker Building for which I find ugly and not very Seattle like at all. This is what we get when we don’t get to decide as a neighborhood on what gets built. We are looking more and more like California each and every day. I am no longer proud to be a Seattle-ite thanks the uglification of our city from too much development. 

      Buildmorebuildmorebuildmore is the mantra of developers and nobody else wins. 

  • Matt September 12, 2017 (9:26 pm)

    As an followup, an architect friend posted that they spend between 500 and 1000 hours to get a project through D.R. and mused about what problems they could be solving if not for the drain of Design Review. 

  • CMT September 12, 2017 (9:33 pm)

    Wow!  Thanks for the comprehensive review.  Not surprisingly, the developers that are now oh-so-concerned about the housing crisis showed up to voice their support for decreasing design review requirements to avoid the delay caused by those pesky residents.  The City brilliantly created HALA to create a convenient platform for all that want to profit from the destruction of neighborhoods to assert that they are simply “concerned about the affordability crisis” and to push its agenda through.   

    Case in point, look at the otherwise unlikely allies that comprise the innocuously named “Seattle for Everyone”(!):  

    “Seattle for Everyone is a broad coalition of affordable housing developers and advocates, for-profit developers and businesses, labor and social justice advocates, environmentalists and urbanists, all united to build an equitable, prosperous, thriving, and inclusive Seattle by ensuring that the benefits of the city’s growth are shared by all current and future residents – from those struggling with homelessness to wage-earners and families.”

     Those members of the coalition that believe that HALA/MHA is going to actually benefit anyone but developers and those that are being funded by developers are going to be disillusioned while the rest of us live with the resulting crappy development.

  • WS Guy September 13, 2017 (12:42 am)

    Nailed it!

  • Cynical girl September 13, 2017 (2:22 pm)

    Dwellings lied to a renter and tried to evict them for no reason other than to raise the rent and make more money.  Because $1900.00 just isn’t enough for them. When the city found out, no penalties were levied against Dwellings. They can keep on keeping on with the “affordable housing” nonsense.

  • NWSanFran September 13, 2017 (2:53 pm)

    If the developers are so concerned about affordability and inclusiveness, why are they dead set on demolishing every last unit of affordable housing in the city and replacing it with unaffordable units?  My block used to have 3 affordable, older apartment complexes and I had all sorts of neighbors – old, young, retired, service workers, disabled, college students.  This has been replaced by $700k townhouses and an army of 30-something blue-badgers with designer dogs they leave on their rooftop decks to whine and bark for 16 hours per day.

  • Jon Lisbin September 16, 2017 (6:24 am)

    Exactly CMT. Can’t let those pesky residents get in the way of progress. We’ve already cut ties with the neighborhood councils and they’re still showing up at these things  slowing us down!  Heck, we were only able to build 9,000 units last year (95% luxury BTW) at an average of 2 persons per household.   More more more!!!

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