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Design Review – Seattle Transit Blog Urban Planning

Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Matthew’s comment, in response to my questions about the value of the design review:

What are the benefits of the process? I would make a few arguments that should be important to readers of the Seattle Transit blog.

I am an architect and a significant part of my time has enabled projects in Seattle. The article referred to in the Seattle Times reflects the facts of the approval situation. The software rollout was terrible as it is likely to affect the lengthening of review times, but it appears to be up to date, and SDCI is reviewing this internally, suggesting that they are approaching their goals.

SDCI has little staff and although there are enough people, the new people are not as experienced as the more experienced. I think everyone can refer to it in any job. You can hire everyone in the world, but experience is what is needed.

At the same time, the industry also lacks labor and experience. Architects and engineers need more people who are familiar with apartment buildings, and contractors urgently need more people, especially in the trades, to build these buildings.

What is the value of the approval process? I’m assuming this poses the question of design review as the approval review and inspection process helps ensure that our buildings are safe for people, and although it takes time, it’s important that they’re correct.

The design review process helps protect against bad developments and ensures that we build our structures so that they respond well to the location and achieve a better urban structure. The blog argues a lot for high quality transportation systems and smart planning, and the design review process does this for buildings in the urban structure and their potential users. For example, I just attended a meeting this week as a member of the community and asked how the building faces the street, whether the building’s address is easily accessible, and whether the building is safe for the residents of the building as the main reason for the conversation feels. The community got involved and some points were received positively by everyone and will have a lasting impact. Even when I had some aesthetic concerns about this project, the board found it good enough and approved it. So it’s not just about whether the design looks good.

I think what is always overlooked in this process are requests for departure. A departure request exists when the architect / developer requests permission to create objects that do not conform to the zone code. Almost every project for which I have undergone a draft review has submitted at least one departure request. The architect can argue that keeping the zone code is not beneficial to the design, and the panel can approve it. This almost always saves a lot of money for a project and has a better impact on the city. I have an example where this allows an additional unit on the property. What is the value of departure requests that are an integral part of the design review process? Does it compensate for the 89 days and additional “costs”?

If you have a good project team, good design goes through the design review process. In addition, with good project management and foresight, you can really shorten the time it takes …

I conclude that blaming the approval process for the lack of affordable housing is a red herring. I know this isn’t shared by many in this community, but I feel close enough to the front lines of the process to offer some perspective.

I want to thank Matthew for sharing his valuable perspective. If the new software wasn’t really ready, it would have been wise to test it with a few projects until the bugs were fixed.

I would not argue that permits are the main cause of housing costs, although they do not help. And although someone can probably refer to an example that I would agree with, the risk of “bad development” is clearly overestimated.

Still, for a much more nuanced (and knowledgeable) critique of the design review process, Dan Bertolet’s classic 2017 is a great place to start. Although the law has changed a little since then, Bertolet says, “The changes have helped a little, but not nearly enough” and in calling for more public relations, “it has made things worse”.

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