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”.