It's Hunting Season on Capitol Hill!

The headline in the Capitol Hill Seattle blog pretty much says it all:

Facing ‘unprecedented wave’ of development, letter gives design board license to kill (bad projects)

Well I’m afraid to deliver the bad news, but no it doesn’t. Design review was never intended to kill projects whether they were deemed “bad” by the public or even by the design review committee. The purpose of design review is to provide “a forum for citizens, developers and the City to review and guide the design of qualifying commercial and multifamily development projects (emphasis mine).”

It is simply appaling that two sitting Councilmembers would write a letter fanning community hostility toward development and that they would imply that design review is a forum to stop projects. In fact, every design review committee I’ve attended the chair of the committee has to go to great lengths to remind neighbors who oppose a project that design review isn’t a way to change underlying zoning, stop a project, or even repurpose or redirect a project.

The purpose of design review was supposed to be to allow new development minor departures in exchange for modifying design in accordance with generally accepted design guidelines. Some neighborhoods have developed their own guidelines with more refinements. But as many have pointed out before, design review is a feeble measure for neighborhoods who want to “kill” new development. I think that’s a good thing and that’s what the law says.

I’ve suggested other ideas about how design review could be modified along with introduction of zero based zoning, but the truth is the design review is not a way to kill projects and  shouldn’t become a vehicle for that, ever. At best, design reivew is a give and take process to help move beyond neighborhood objections and get projects built.

Tom Rassmussen and Sally Clark should be embarrassed and ought to make an effort to counter the impression the Capitol Hill blog has created. All their letter and the post does is promote a common misconception about design reivew and add more frustration and costs to people who are trying to follow the law and get their projects built. And furthermore, it stokes an already frantic obession among some that we’re facing some kind of swarm of bad development. We need more housing options in Seattle and Councilmembers who will encourage and support growth, not make it harder for our city to accomodate more people by vilifying developers.

32 Replies to “CHS: Rasmussen and Clark Hand Out Hunting Licenses to ‘Kill’ Development”

  1. I’m not sure about a link to Facebook, since I didn’t put one in.

    The link to the blog post is at the top.

  2. The design review board is about the only formal place that citizens can voice their concerns to developers about their projects. This isn’t about resisting development in full or resisting density or even resisting increased height limits. Many people I know on Capitol Hill favor increased, transit-oriented density and see the value of inviting more neighbors into the community. With all due respect, Roger, I feel your dismissiveness of the neighborhood’s concerns about preserving historic, signature, architectural and cultural features chips away at the strong credibility of this blog to stand up against real anti-development sentiment and risks alienating some of our best allies in the push for smart, urban growth.

    1. That said, I understand the nuance of your argument about the purpose of design review boards, and I agree we shouldn’t vilify developers. But I still cringe at the underlying, dismissive nature of this post.

  3. I completely disagree with this proposal, and agree with Roger mostly. However, I think “vilifying developers” is well within our right. You need only know this:
    to know that vilifying developers is often the right thing to do.

    We can’t confuse “density” and developers, assuming that developers are always building “good” density and not “bad” density (or the opposite). Democracy sucks, but it sure beats the alternative.

    1. You’re argument doesn’t make sense. It’s like saying you like what fire fighters do, fight fires and save people’s lives, but you don’t like fire fighters themselves. You might not like some aspects of them, say unions perhaps, but you wouldn’t vilify them.

      1. You can vilify people doing villainous things (for example, look at the sinking ship parking garage, those developers were villain). Some developers do villainous things, and those we can vilify.

        Not all of them are villains obviously, but those who are…

      2. My point is you can’t take for granted that developers aren’t villains. Some may be villains. Why developers do villainous things, you have the right to vilify them.

  4. The headline from the blog does a disservice to the letter- the letter says to use discretion in handing to design departures, hardly a way to “kill” anything. If you assume that departures from the land use Code are always justified when a developer says they need them, you would probably disagree with me, but most people would view a departure from an established community standard of design as a privilege that must be earned by doing something extraordinary.

    Sorry Roger, but the zero based zoning concept you suggested, which I just re-read, sounds like much more of a disaster for promoting development than what we have with design review (you lost me with the three community members selected at random but meeting certain demographic criteria, charged with reviewing a zero-based zoning proposal). I think the Pike-Pine dilemma proves the case: as a developer would you rather face a DPD planner and 3 random people making decisions on what fits and send your proposal to the City Council for an up or down vote, or a review board that has a set of community design standards as a guide, a diverse set of interests and training, and the dedication to volunteer to review not one but many proposals over several years in an area?

  5. The onus should be on the developer to show why their building belongs in a neighborhood, not on the design review board to prove why it does not. We need a way to avoid another Joule building.

    1. I think you’d need to amend the Constitution to do this. The property being developed belongs to the owner, not the neighborhood. A neighborhood group can’t stop a private landowner from improving his/her property by fiat just because they don’t like the design. Municipalities can enforce zoning regulations, but they can’t stop a private party from developing his/her property within the parameters of existing zoning as a matter of aesthetics.

      If you want to ensure that another Joule isn’t built, your best options is to lobby the City to down zone your block.

      1. A relative is selling a 100 year old home in the Mission Hill district of Boston. You can pretty much do what you want with the inside but the outside of this neighborhood would be destroyed if this New Urbania zero zoning was in effect. Nice theory, bad idea.

  6. Projects like the one pictured should be killed. There is no reason for massive structures consuming a single city block to exist in residential neighborhoods. Multiple buildings and human scale extremely under rated unfortunately.

    1. You think it should be leveled back to a gravel lot for several more years until no one objects to the design?

      1. Dunno ’bout Capitol Hill since I haven’t lived there since 1994. But take the old Denny’s here in Ballard. It’s finally coming to something after being a gravel lot for years, and that could have been avoided easily.

      2. No I think the city needs to address flaws in design code that allow for crap like this to get built in the first place.

    2. Caveat: I write this in complete ignorance.

      It would be interesting for me to understand why large, full-block buildings have become the norm. Are they the only way to get a project to pencil out? The only way to get a bank to underwrite construction? Has the permitting/approval process gotten too expensive or time-consuming, resulting in a preference to run fewer large projects through it rather than many small projects? Maybe its codes & regulations (quality inspections, elevator permits, fire code, etc) that make it cheaper to do things in “bulk”?

      Educate me.

      1. I’m interested in your question, but I guess before I tried to answer it, I’d want to know one thing: are you saying that “full-block buildings” are a bad thing?

        As I’ve pointed out before, there are a lot of ugly cars out there but nobody makes that their starting point for arguing against auto dependance.

        What confuses me is why form dominates the discussion rather than use. Use is truly what matters, and while the massing or look of a building might not be pleasing to us the question is “does it work.”

        I would never drive a Dodge Stratus, but if I was in needed to get somewhere, I’d ride in one.

      2. Full block buildings are a bad thing. They are monotonous in nature, ugly looking, and do not lend themselves greatly to street level activity.

      3. Esthetics is as much a part of “quality of life” as function and form. Prisons are a form of large block size buildings with few amenities other than function and use. Civilized folk like to make choices that make life more enjoyable as well as more efficient.
        And since we all don’t always agree, have diversity in all areas makes good sense.
        Builders and their investors are, for the most part, playing the green card in hopes of doing better than making something pencil out. No harm in profit, it’s just that there are many who will choose something else.

      4. I can think of many full-block buildings (for lack of a better/proper term) that are aesthetically pleasing, and many smaller buildings that are an eyesore. In other words, full-block doesn’t imply bad, and non-full-block doesn’t imply good.

        More than anything I’m curious as to why we seem to build largely townhomes and 4-5 story full-block buildings. If nothing else, full-block means a builder/developer has to wait until they are able to acquire all the small parcels (if they are replacing SFH) before the project proceeds. Is it possible we could end up with more density if smaller projects penciled out?

    3. Pike/Pine is an urban district dominated almost exclusively by multistory housing. To claim that the project pictured is out of scale is hard to fathom. It’s surrounded by buildings of comparable height and bulk. Also, the project replaced a full-block brick structure.

  7. Roger, I do not believe you read that letter correctly. It seems to me that Clark and Rasmussen are encouraging the design review board there to weigh neighborhood character when allowing departures. Departures are usually things that are outside of the law, as in, departures from zoning laws or departures from design rules. The council members seem to be saying “don’t allow departures that aren’t in line with the character of the neighborhood”. Hardly a license to kill…

    1. The post is about the headline and the general confusion it adds to the whole process.

      I think it’s a good idea for both Councilmembers to explicitly disavow the headline if they don’t agree with it. Right now the whole thing has an air of malfeasance.

      My point is to call this out and make sure people get that CHS is wrong. Do the Councilmembers think their letter was misinterpreted by CHS? Let’s hear from them.

      1. Yes, CHS is certainly wrong, but it doesn’t seem like the intention of what Clark and Rasmussen was to mislead people to believe that (which is the “appalling”

        CHS is responsible for their (incorrect) interpretation, and Rasmussen and Clark needn’t be “embarrassed” because someone else is confused.

  8. Roger didn’t read the letter, but confidently posts an inflammatory, ignorant diatribe about it asking its authors apologize for someone else’s inflammatory, ignorant misreading of their letter….Stay classy.

    A commenter on CHB pointed out the inaccuracy of CHB’s coverage and the benign nature of Rasmussen and Clark’s letter. Did Roger read that comment and decide to try to make hay out of nothing anyway, as a favor to his developer buddies?

Comments are closed.