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Why Seattle’s New Early Community Outreach Requirement Will Actually Damage the City

Seattle, like many large cities, has a required Design Review process for most large-scale commercial, multifamily and mixed-use projects. This program is run by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) and the size thresholds for this program vary by zone and project type. For instance, Design Review is required for a townhouse project in a Low Rise (LR) zone with more than 8 dwelling units. Similarly, Design Review is also required for an apartment building in a Midrise (MR) zone with more than 20 units.

According to the SDCI, there are three principle objectives of this Design Review process:
1. To encourage excellence in site planning and design of projects such that they enhance the character of the City.
2. To provide flexibility in the application of development standards.
3. To improve communication and participation among developers, neighbors and the City early in the process.

This design review process involves a public notice, a presentation by the design team, an evaluation by a Design Review Board for guidance and recommendation, and opportunity for comment by the public. The time, energy, and capital necessary to lead a project through the city’s design review process are substantial. While the requirement of Design Review is controversial in Seattle, for large projects that have a significant impact on the city, context, culture, and people around it, these objectives are, at the very least, admirable.

Earlier this month, the SDCI put Director’s Rule DR 4-2018 into effect which will require all projects going through Design Review to also comply with an Early Community Outreach Rule as part of the permitting process. Each project is now required to include at least 3 different types of outreach including a printed form of outreach, and electronic outreach, and an in-person outreach. According to the SDCI, the purpose of these outreach methods is to establish a dialogue with nearby communities early in the development process in order to share information about the project, better understand the local context, and hear community interests and concerns related to the project. In theory, this sounds great. In practice, it’s an urban planning nightmare that will slow development and threaten the quality of projects that manage to navigate through all the red tape. Here’s why.

Adding more steps to the permitting process will not foster healthy growth in Seattle, it will penalize it. The added time, effort, and cost of the new Design Review process favors large architecture firms with out-of-town financial backing rather than small to medium-sized, local architects and developers. The groups capable of jumping through the new bureaucratic hoops will more often be less invested in these projects and the quality of work will suffer. For a city in a homelessness crisis, we need an abundance of housing yesterday. The added red tape will extend the timeline of every multi-family project in the city.

  • As more effort, time, and funding are required of the permitting process, fewer resources can be allocated to the actual design of the projects. Required outreach will make it more challenging to provide efficient, affordable, equitable, and beautiful housing in Seattle.
  • It promotes design by committee. Seattle doesn’t need any more big, bland buildings with their imitation facades chopped up to look like a quaint cluster of buildings with paint-by-numbers color schemes. Bloating the Design Review process will reward architects and developers who can navigate the process more so than encourage thoughtful, community-minded designs to be built.
  • In order to offset the costs of the added layers of permitting, projects will continue to experience diminishing square footages and escalating rents. Apodments and micro-housing will become increasingly prominent. It becomes a numbers game. Quality and diversity of housing (which Seattle desperately needs, as families aren’t looking for 300 sf studios) will fall by the wayside to the goal of adding the most units and collecting the highest rents.
  • It will scare design and development talent away from Seattle. Mindful architects and developers will choose to work in outlying jurisdictions because their time and effort will be actually utilized in collaboration with a jurisdiction to meet a community’s needs—whether it’s more housing, better housing, or revitalization of a neighborhood, etc. SDCI’s new regulation demonstrates an adversarial rather than a collaborative approach to solving one of our city’s biggest issues.
  • And last but not least, it’s making housing more expensive in a city already plagued by ridiculously high rents. The addition of steps like this have a cost, and that cost will be felt by the end user.

Seattle, you talk about the immediate need to increase density and affordable housing, yet SDCI’s actions continue to run directly counter to these “commitments”. Even the AIA, the leading advocacy group for architects in the nation, has come out against this new Early Community Outreach Rule, you can read their response letter, inclusive of their own recommendations, here.

Early Community Outreach *sounds* wonderful, but for 95% of projects, is entirely unnecessary as a formalized process. And upon peeling back the layers of this new process at work, it will result in further burdened projects, a likely increase in liability, and leave us with lower quality projects. Please stop with the abstract, idealistic nonsense and listen to the reasoned logic of groups like the AIA and the broader community of design professionals.

The City needs to remove steps and de-regulate. Seriously. Housing has gotten so expensive due to land costs (which is market driven), but more importantly, it has become more expensive because of the insane amount of rules, processes and red tape of all City agencies. It’s time for all of us to acknowledge this issue and to cease all activities that make it worse.

SDCI, please. Stop adding layers. It’s hurting our city.

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