DESIGN REVIEW CHANGES? City Council briefing focuses on new thresholds, ‘community outreach’ requirement for developers

August 17, 2017 9:08 pm
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(Seattle Channel video of PLUZ committee meeting Tuesday. Design Review discussion starts 1 hour, 53 minutes in)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

If the city’s Design Review process is dramatically overhauled, as currently proposed, it could cut one or two months off the time it takes a development to get through the permitting process. The speed-it-up aspect was touted at the start of the mayor’s announcement earlier this month that the proposal was ready to go public.

But is that the most important goal? That’s one of the questions being considered by the City Council’s Planning, Land Use, and Zoning Committee, which got its second briefing Tuesday on the proposed Design Review changes.

They were told the all-volunteer Design Review Boards around the city have a backlog (although here in West Seattle, for example, as of this writing, the Southwest Design Review Board has only one project on its calendar, the September 7th review of 2222 SW Barton (the official notice was published today, but we reported on the scheduling two weeks ago).

One reason for scrutiny of the proposed changes: Design Review remains the only part of the project-vetting process that requires public meetings for some projects. If these changes pass, fewer projects will have to go through Design Review – and most of those that do will have fewer, if any, meetings. The overall changes are summarized in this council-staff memo:

1. Require early community engagement by applicants with the community;

2. Modify the thresholds above which design review is required. To ensure consistent application, thresholds will be based on the total square footage in a building instead of dwelling unit counts, use and zone;

3. Establish new thresholds to determine the type of design review required based on site and project characteristics;

4. Change the composition of design review boards (DRBs) to replace the general community interest seat with a second local residential/community interest seat and allow more than one Get Engaged member to participate on the boards; and

5. Modify and update other provisions related to design review.

At Tuesday’s briefing, city staffers focused on two components – the “new thresholds” and the “early community engagement.” The latter would in effect replace the first public meeting for some projects – with a new type of “outreach” that developers will be expected to arrange.

(The Design Review aspect that’s dealt with in the current process’s first public meeting, Early Design Guidance, would be handled administratively by city staff for all but the largest projects.)

Councilmembers were told that the “outreach” could take many forms – flexible so the developer could tailor it to the neighborhood. From the slide deck:

One aspect that drew questions from councilmembers including West Seattle’s Lisa Herbold – the Department of Neighborhoods will be accountable for verifying that the “outreach” occurred, not the Department of Construction and Inspections, which to date has been accountable for all aspects of the Design Review process. Staffers told the council that this seems natural because DON has the “outreach” expertise. But they also said no additional staffing would be provided, and that they expect the responsibilities would be handled as half of one full-time DON employee’s job. The tasks listed included providing development applicants with neighborhood fact sheets, lists of “stakeholder groups,” lists of venues, information on the most-commonly spoken languages in neighborhoods, and a “research handbook.”

The staffers said they hope the new “outreach” would be “more informal and organic.” There was no mention of how community members would know in advance about the outreach plan if they weren’t on the lists provided to the developers, only that the DON would have to verify that the outreach eventually had occurred.

The other changes detailed in the briefing, the thresholds for Design Review, were more arbitrary. For one, no project with less than 10,000 square feet of floor space would be required to go through DR. Here are the highlights, again, from the slide deck:

Since square footage is not usually part of what WSB development/design-review reports has included, we can’t easily cross-reference to tell you which projects reviewed in the past might not have had to go through the process if these changes were in effect.

Some of the other issues, meantime, are discussed in this memo provided to the committee. It notes that speeding up the timeline was a suggestion that emerged from HALA (the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda), with an observation that getting projects going faster could save up to $4,000 per unit. But, the memo also notes:

… Reducing review timelines under design review and potentially reducing construction costs may be a worthy policy goal, however, focusing primarily on timelines may come at the cost of reducing the quality of design if the review is rushed and/or diluting the public’s trust in the City’s ability to promote development that will positively contribute to the built environment over the long term. Reducing permitting costs will not necessarily reduce the price at which a unit is offered for sale or rent as construction costs are not the only factor driving for-sale or rental prices. Developers have a fiduciary duty to deliver an adequate return on investment to their investors. …

The memo also goes on to say there could be a conflict between the program’s goals and the sped-up-process aspect, and includes potential amendments that could result in more “incremental” changes to Design Review rather than a dramatic overhaul.

WHAT’S NEXT: The PLUZ Committee has a public hearing September 11th in Queen Anne to take public comments on the proposed Design Review changes. The official notice includes a longer summary of the proposed changes. The hearing will be at SIFF Cinema Uptown, Auditorium 3, at 511 Queen Anne Avenue North, and child care is available. You also can send written comments until 5 pm that day – the e-mail and postal-mail addresses are toward the end of the notice. Documents related to the proposed changes are linked on the left side of this city webpage. At a later date after the public hearing, the committee will vote on the proposals, along with potential amendments to what’s on the table now, and whatever makes it out of the committee would go on to the full City Council.

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