Early community outreach—what could be more sensitive to the people’s concerns? For those who follow development issues in the City of Seattle, the Design Review program is a familiar part of the building permit application process, a response generated in the late ‘90s to widespread discontent with the overall quality of built projects, intended to “promote designs that fit into and relate to the surrounding neighborhoods”. What may be less familiar are the recent changes to the program directed at improving the end result, as well as minimizing the cost of construction to building types dedicated to the public good (i.e., low income housing). In mid-2018, a new rule was passed by the City, Early Community Outreach for Design Review, “…requir(ing) developers to begin conversation with community members before building project designs are complete.” Once the early community engagement requirement is met, the project can then begin the Design Review process.
The department charged with issuing building permits and operating the Design Review program, SDCI (Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections) partners with the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) to administer this new outreach process. An applicant (developer and their design team) is required to put together a plan for engaging residents, ostensibly before an architect’s pen hits paper. The intent is to garner input before design decisions are baked into the proposal, so that the team can hear what the community’s concerns are and do so at a stage in the process where they might be incorporated into the design.
The key word here is “might.” While some in the design and development spheres feel the requirement to perform this outreach is onerous, there is no obligation to actually incorporate the input expressed in these forums into the design. Rather, the requirement is just to prove that the outreach occurred, and to summarize what was heard. As stated in the Director’s Rule describing the program states:
While a collaborative approach is encouraged between the applicant and the community, the applicant is not required to incorporate any specific community feedback into the project’s design. Comments and discussion presented at the Design Review meetings should focus on compliance with the established design guidelines. Applicants may, at their discretion, respond directly to the community about any feedback that is not related to Design Review.
So, while you may have taken the time to express your concerns at an Early Community Outreach event, there is no guarantee that it will have any influence on the design. The City seems to look at this as a baby step toward a more inclusive design process, an improvement over a condition where a development seems to spring out of nowhere. Merely fostering dialogue is deemed a positive, albeit small step. As stated in a meeting between LURC members and DON administrators this past summer, we were told that DON is “walking a tightrope” and wants to be very careful not to be seen as favoring the interests or concerns of neighborhood residents as opposed to developers.
The scope of the Design Review program is limited, directed primarily at the exterior character of a building, with a nod to the functional considerations of pedestrian and vehicular access to a site. This excludes many of the concerns people in the community have about new development, including affordability and housing unit type (e.g., the preponderance of tiny studios vs the relative dearth of two- and three-bedroom units). Bring up any of these topics at a Design Review Board meeting, and you will be politely reminded that this is not the place for that conversation. Discussion at an Early Community Outreach meeting on the other hand, is allowed to stray into whatever topic the community members care to bring up.
For many attending the Early Community Outreach events, the lack of documentation presented by the design team can be frustrating. While on the one hand, it can be rewarding to say something prior to any design commitments have occurred, the response can also be, what am I supposed to comment on? There is a conundrum here, which the City seems to acknowledge, but having both early input and a design proposal to react to, can’t occur simultaneously.
The biggest hurdle right now to the success of the Outreach process is actually from the other side: Us. You and I and all our concerned neighbors are not showing up in droves to these events. Despite the required notice reaching hundreds of residents, it is actually quite common that only one or two people show up to an Outreach event, even those held on evenings and weekends.
So, while there are some embedded oddities and tweaks necessary with the Outreach program, its full potential won’t be realized until the public decides to sit at the table.
If you find the topic of development and the future of our built environment interesting, consider attending a Central Area LURC meeting. We convene on the fourth Monday of every month (holidays excepted) at Byrd Barr Place. Visit our web page at centralarealurc.org for up-to-date information.
(Full disclosure: the author is a member of the Central Area Design Review Board, the volunteer program administered by the City of Seattle as part of the building permit process, and a member of the Central Area Land Use Review Committee (LURC).