A city department entrusted with evaluating Seattle’s design review system appears to have recreated the very dysfunction it was supposed to resolve.
In late 2021, the Seattle City Council tasked the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) to produce a report to analyze the city’s design review program, a system that allows community members and city officials to scrutinize the aesthetics of large new buildings.
To satisfy the council’s Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI), SDCI hired consultants and convened a small stakeholder group made up of architects, people with experience serving on neighborhood design review boards, for-profit and nonprofit developers, city workers and community members.
In the original SLI, the council legislation stipulated “[t]he group would conduct a Racial Equity Toolkit (RET) analysis of the Design Review Program.” That implied that the stakeholder group was meant only to narrowly analyze the racial equity implications of design review, not the entire program. But, in another section of the SLI, the council asked that “[r]ecommendations for how the program should be modified to address the findings of the stakeholder group,” implying that stakeholders would have more latitude in suggesting potential policy changes.
From discussions with people involved in the process, it appears that SDCI ended up with the former interpretation of the stakeholder group’s purpose, while the Mayor’s Office had the latter one. City Councilmember Dan Strauss, who sponsored the SLI, said that he thought the stakeholder group would be involved both in the RET process as well as in contributing to the recommendations.
“There’s essentially two distinct products from the stakeholder group,” Strauss said. “One is setting the foundation for creating recommendations, and then the second is creating the recommendations.”
When consultants hired by the city were set to begin meetings in the spring, the Mayor’s Office appointed additional stakeholders, who were mostly white, at the last minute. The city’s RET outlined that the group should have parity between white participants and participants of color, leading facilitators to scramble to find additional members. Many of these newcomers also did not have the same familiarity with the purpose of the stakeholder group.
In an email, Communications Director Jamie Housen explained why the Mayor’s Office decided to add additional people to the stakeholder group.
“The Mayor’s Office discussed these alternate interpretations with the involved parties and instructed staff to include stakeholders in the broader analysis and development of recommendations,” Housen wrote.
Housen also wrote that “SDCI and [Office of Planning and Community Development] staff interpreted the SLI as instructing the stakeholder group to focus on the RET, with the other reporting, including developing reform recommendations, being the primary responsibility of staff or consultants.”
The conflict over the composition of the stakeholder group could reflect a difference in opinion of the design review program between the different departments. Some SDCI staff, who are responsible for implementing the program, appear to have a more positive view of design review as a whole compared to Mayor’s Office staff, who prefer streamlining the process as much as possible.
There were also differing opinions about racial equity among the stakeholders. Some did not understand the purpose of focusing so much on how design review affects BIPOC communities as opposed to looking at the system as a whole.
“If you dig deeper into what’s really plaguing design review, and what the impacts of design review are, it goes far beyond any kind of racial inequality,” said John Feit, a stakeholder and member of the Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council. “In fact, racial inequality, if it exists at all, it’s a secondary concern, as I said earlier, and we haven’t talked about what the major systematic problems are.”
Strauss said that, while he wasn’t present at the stakeholder meetings and wasn’t able to comment on them, he felt that some stakeholders did not prioritize looking at racial justice.
“I think that many of the stakeholders did not understand the importance of the Racial Equity Toolkit in this process, and that created internal frustrations,” he said.
These factors may have contributed to delaying the group’s work by a few months. The report was initially scheduled to publish in June 2022. According to a spokesperson from SDCI, the full report is now supposed to come out in the first quarter of 2023.
In response to the first part of the SLI, consultants utilized the RET process and interviewed members of the stakeholder group, producing a report in October 2022. It detailed the specific impacts of design review on communities of color.
One takeaway of the stakeholder report is the extremely technical nature of the process, which can be inaccessible for people who are not familiar with development, architecture and engineering. This reinforces structural racism within these industries, since many people of color have been historically excluded from educational and training pathways into those fields. At almost every aspect of the design review program, most of the people who are in the room are white.
Another highlight of the stakeholder report was the deficiency in using design review as a tool for gathering community input. Since the program is for addressing relatively superficial aspects of a building, such as window and door placement or the color of brick, it doesn’t allow for addressing issues such as the amount of affordable housing in a project.
“I think that a big thing that we see is people who are frustrated because their neighborhood is being basically taken over,” said a stakeholder who was quoted in the report. “But all of a sudden this is the last step and they show up and they’re not welcome because it’s the wrong place for them to show up.”
As a whole, the stakeholder report’s authors concluded that the design review program “is not working for, and is, in many ways, harming stakeholders.” The report concluded that, while the program must be changed to address these concerns, policy makers must also slow down to incorporate feedback and concerns from BIPOC communities and ensure that their voices are actually heard.
An equity concern that wasn’t addressed as much in the stakeholder report was the impact of the design review program on the timeline of housing development. A study of the program by the consulting firm ECONorthwest showed that the average wait time for a building to be permitted was 18 months, approximately three times longer than Tacoma’s permitting process. In some high profile cases, this has resulted in years of delays. Wealthier and whiter neighborhoods in Seattle, which tend to have less density, are among the places where design review is most often used to delay development. In a context of a severe underproduction of housing, housing advocates argue that the lack of supply disproportionately hurts low-income and BIPOC renters.
Policymakers are starting to make changes. Strauss said that he passed legislation to enable neighborhood design review boards to permanently meet remotely. In December, the City Council passed an ordinance to maintain a pandemic-era rule that allowed affordable housing to be fast-tracked through the design review process. In Olympia, lawmakers are considering a bill sponsored by state Rep. Amy Walen (D-Bellevue) that would eliminate review boards entirely and let local government employees handle the process instead.
Some stakeholders, like Feit, said that the design review process, and the neighborhood board system, is valuable despite its flaws.
“Some, such as myself, very much like design review, but still think it could be vastly improved, and I think the majority of participants agree that design review adds value and it should be improved,” he said.
Maria Barrientos, a developer and stakeholder who has served on a neighborhood design review board, thinks that the vast majority of developments don’t need it and just get bogged down in the process.
“From my personal perspective, I see that 80 to 90 percent of the projects that come before us are very well designed; they’re well thought out, they’re very thoughtful developers, they’re very thoughtful design teams,” she said. “And I’m not sure that design review, the process, does anything to enhance those projects: it only causes delay, it costs more money.”
In addition to impeding the development of new housing, Barrientos said that design review guidelines are too strict, preventing developers from constructing buildings with creative designs. She said that this is especially important for developers who come from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Barrientos is also a member of Seattle for Everyone, an advocacy group that supports building more housing and increasing density throughout the city. In August, the organization sent a letter to the mayor and city council, claiming that SDCI was ignoring recommendations from members of the stakeholder group.
Strauss said that he will wait for the final report before formulating changes to the design review program. He noted that what he read in the stakeholder report only reinforced his conviction that the system needs to be reformed.
“I’m relieved that I’m in the same position that I [was] the last time we talked, which is that there are benefits to the system — and it’s broken,” Strauss said.
Read more of the Jan. 18-24, 2023 issue.