Commenter Matthew, in response to my questions about the value of design review:

What value are we getting out of the process? I would argue a few that should be important to the Seattle Transit Blog readers.

I am an architect and a significant portion of my time has been permitting projects in Seattle. The article referenced from the Seattle Times reflects the well on the facts of the permitting situation. The software rollout was terrible as is likely influencing the increase in review times, but it seems like they are getting up to speed and SDCI internally reviews this and have indicated they are getting closer to their targets.

SDCI is really short staffed and even if they have enough people the new folks are just not as experienced as the more veteran staff. I think anyone can relate to this at any job. One can hire all the people in the world, but the experience is what is needed.

In parallel the industry is also short on labor and experience. Architects and Engineers need more people who know multifamily housing and contractors desperately need more people, particularly in the trades, to build these buildings.

So what is the value of the permitting process? I’m assuming this is asking the question about design review, since the permit review and inspection process helps ensure our buildings are safe for people to be in and while it takes time it’s critical to get correct.

The design review process helps protect against bad development and ensure that we are building our structures to respond well to the site and work well to achieve a better urban fabric. We argue a lot on the blog for quality transit systems and smart planning and the design review process does this for buildings in the urban fabric and its eventual users. For example I just attended a meeting this week as a member of the community and questions like how does the building face the street, does the building address accessibility well, will the building feel safe to it’s occupants as primary drivers of the conversation. The community weighed in and some points were well received by everyone and will have a lasting impact. Also while I still had some concerns aesthetically for this project, the board thought it was good enough and approved it. So it’s not just a discussion on if the design looks good.

I think what is always overlooked in this process is departure requests. A departure request is when the architect/developer requests approval to build something that does not conform to the zoning code. Almost every project I’ve seen go through design review has requested at least one departure request. The architect can argue that meeting the zoning code is not beneficial to the design and the board can approve this. This almost always helps save significant amount of money for a project and makes a better impact to city. I have an example where this allowed an additional unit on the property. What is the value of departure requests that is a key part of the design review process? Does it make up for the 89 days and additional “cost”?

If one has a good project team, a good design will sail through the design review process. Also one can really reduce the time it takes with good project management and foresight…

I will conclude that blaming the permitting process for the lack of affordable housing is a bit of a red herring. I know this is not shared by many in this community, but I feel like I am close enough to the front lines of the process to offer some perspective.

I’d like to thank Matthew for sharing his valuable perspective. If the new software wasn’t truly ready, it would have been wise to pilot it with a few projects until the bugs were addressed.

I wouldn’t claim that permits are the chief driver of housing costs, although they don’t help. And although someone can probably point to an example I would agree with, the threat of “bad development” is significantly overstated.

Anyway, for a much more nuanced (and informed) criticism of the design review process, Dan Bertolet’s 2017 classic is a great place to start. Though the law has changed a bit since then, Bertolet says “the changes helped a little but not nearly enough” and in the requirement for more outreach “it made things worse”.

10 Replies to “Comment of the week: design review”

  1. Pretend I’m as ignorant as I really am, but across the spectrum lately, seems like “software” and “consultants” are blanket excuse for failure. If we backed off to the last technology that worked….for time or expense, any chance we’d come out ahead?

    Appreciate your helping us with this.


  2. One thing the city is short of is new construction, 3-4 stories, of small units with 3-4 bedrooms for lower income families. Designed for economy perhaps only one full bath, the other 3/4 or a half bath. Ideally one large living space (think country kitchen) and a small parlor. Typically one space or the other is for quiet or for noisy things. Bedrooms on the small side. NO master bath. Quality and design more for low maintenance. Proven designs for ‘good’ living. Probably no elevators. (Regs forbid small inexpensive ones, perhaps some exceptions?) Exterior stairways would negate the need for using expensive interior space.

    I would appreciate what costs for such a unit could be. Such buildings could perhaps be privileged to be built throughout most neighbor hoods, say no more than one per block.

  3. I see the bigger issue of affordability as different than the design review process. It’s the decision to set many height limits at 65 or 85 feet. Those heights are tall enough to require more complex engineering but too short to recover the added delay of planning and building by building a few more floors.

    Here’s an article from a DC blog that explains it:

  4. I didn’t realize there was a comment of the week category! Thank you for including my comment and the Seattle Transit Blog community keeping everything civil.

    In regards to the feedback, there is never a perfect solution and there’s always room for improvement. The article from Dan Bertolet has some really good points.

    The recent revision to the design review addressed some issues, but I with most architects had some criticisms, one being the new community outreach efforts dictated by SDCI and many items that paralleled Dan’ piece.

    1. I think it’s a periodic award whenever there’s an especially notable comment, and an estimate that there won’t be another one equal to it within a week.

  5. [ot]

    But what I would really like is your own extremely well-stated conclusion is what should we, the voters who hire them, should demand that our politicians do to, say, remedy present lack of housing that working people can afford to buy?

    If answer given by one of our major parties, “Less Than Nothing” is plain truth….any chance that employee-owned cooperatives can accomplish commerce without predation? Again, thanks for being here.

    Mark Dublin

  6. i have yet to see a new building that does not look like soviet brutalism. it’s still alive and kicking in seattle. what is up with the disgusting color blocking in intense ugly colors?? everyone has drank the gray koolaid. gray is everywhere, ugh!
    i posit the more money you have the worse your taste becomes.
    having recently remodeled, i would say the city process is in need of major overhaul. it took more than a year to site the proposed house (not at their expense!), the garage was turned away from the street, eating up over twenty feet of garden. such rules were not made for anyone else but the city to step on homeowner’s necks constantly.
    io see no evidence that having an architect actually helps people live in seattle, it’s become a city of deep canyons without sun. good luck!

    1. Worse than that, Jeffrey. Looking up at the King Street Station clock tower, a favorite view of mine because it contains both beauty and trains, horrible to see the background of buildings behind it. Really says it all, and all of it bad.

      Any architect tell me: Did the new architects even think about the visual effects of their structures on the scenery so long cared for by their predecessors?

      Would be half forgivable, though, if whoever all makes up the financial establishment, whatever their position and title, could redirect enough of of the profit to fully fund whatever agencies are responsible for the well-being of people who are neither millionaires nor sane.

      That view westbound from Jackson and Fourth- wrong, just wrong.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Personally, I don’t see Soviet brutalism here, but I do see a bunch of what I would call the “big box stores” of apartment buildings. New townhome construction appears to be more varied in materials, shape/massing, and design. But the apartment buildings are all essentially the same: big, boring boxes.

      1. SAAM needed to add a certain amount of square feet, neighborhood and other park fans were concerned with losing to much of the lawns, so what was built needed to be a reasonable compromise. We visited on the 6th, about as horrible a rainy day as you could imagine, and came via the #10 bus. We liked what we saw – both the new park trails and the newly reopened museum.

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