The next stop on our trip through the code is design review. I’ve always thought of design review as kind of the food review of land use. Interesting, inclusive of popular opinion, sometimes pointed and critical, but not very effective if you’re hoping a restaurant will change it’s ways. The non-binding nature of design review seems mostly cathartic, based on the notion that allowing neighborhood NIMBYs believe that they are improving what they hate by adding, if you will, an order of fries with their spinach.
But tweaking rooflines and fenestration can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t lead to changes of use. And that is the problem I have with design review. It appears to be self consciously designed to sort of win over people angry about change by “engaging” them in land use decisions. The problem is that the stuff that design review has sway over is fundamentally insignificant to the underlying issues of land use in Seattle–mainly that we need to fit in more people. And while it might assuage enough paranoia to prevent total neighborhood opposition.
Here’s what the City’s Design Review webpage says about the history of design review:
The City of Seattle developed the Design Review program in response to the city’s building boom of the 1980s when hundreds of new, poorly designed or out-of-scale multifamily and commercial buildings cropped up throughout Seattle’s neighborhoods.
The new buildings led citizens to urge for downzones throughout the neighborhoods, reduce the density and height in the multifamily zones, and a drastic downzone of downtown by the “CAP” initiative.
Citizens weren’t the only ones to complain. Designers and developers also bemoaned the City’s development process. The lack of flexibility in the City’s zoning standards didn’t allow for creativity in design or recognize unusual lot or siting configurations.
And as the next paragraph says, “the City was determined to address these problems,” and so they created the design review program which is now enshrined in Title 23.41. But all of this seems a tall order for the land use code. Why not just change the code itself. If we permit “poorly designed out of scale” crapola, then stop permitting that stuff. What am I missing here?
A crowd of angry neighbors are typically opposed to the underlying use, like L 4 for example, and are likely to be unhappy if anything happens on that lot. Also I’m going to be honest here and reveal myself as a true philistine (is that term not PC?). Design, at the point when design review kicks in, is mostly irrelevant. For NIMBYs it amounts to debating a last meal with the prison chef. For others, I’m sure battling over the roofline and what color siding the townhouse will have makes it more tolerable, but it will still be a townhouse.
Having said all that, I will admit that, yes, I could be embarrassingly wrong. Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. People I respect serve on these boards, are designers, and have taken the process quite seriously. And I have been told it works. It seems like a really good idea to get to that balancing of rules with creativity and fairness with innovation that I mentioned at the end of my last post. My own experience with design review is limited to helping a neighborhood start putting their guidelines together and being involved as a citizen once.
So I am opening my mind now as I dig in. But I start out feeling like design review is an exercise in making residential density palatable under the existing designations when what we likely need is a fundamental rethink about those designations. In preparing for writing about residential designations I have spent a fair amount of time looking at existing L 1, L 2, and L 3 lots that are built out. We need a lot more stuff like that. Lots more. Can design review support that transformation of entire single family neighborhoods into fully built out L 3 type density? I don’t know. Let’s see.