Chapter 23.41 Early Project Implementation: Use design review to promote change and growth

I promised to keep an open mind as I reviewed design review. And I have an idea. Why not expand the powers of design review committees and change their charge? The current design review process is well intentioned, but I think we should take a closer look at the foundational assumptions underneath it and re-task it to support growth and density.

According to the code the purpose of design review is to:

A. Encourage better design and site planning to help ensure that new development enhances the character of the city and sensitively fits into neighborhoods, while allowing for diversity and creativity; and

B. Provide flexibility in the application of development standards to better meet the intent of the Land Use Code as established by City policy, to meet neighborhood objectives, and to provide for effective mitigation of a proposed project’s impact and influence on a neighborhood; and

C. Improve communication and mutual understanding among developers, neighborhoods, and the City early and throughout the development review process.

Design review establishes some threshold requirements based on the intensity of the development, beginning with L3 and L4 and moving through other designations. For example, the thresholds for Lowrise, Midrise, and Highrise designations are:

Lowrise (L3, L4) 8 dwelling units
Midrise (MR) 20 dwelling units
Highrise (HR) 20 dwelling units

Any proposal with less density than these presumably doesn’t warrant design guidance. After all design review is intended to mitigate supposed negative impacts of more intense use of land for housing by improving design.

There are some exemptions to the design review process that, for the most part, get reviewed somewhere else. The code goes on to describe the design review board, which is the group of people that actually engage developers and neighborhoods in the design review process and make recommendations.

So what is the process?

Essentially what the City has done is set up a trip switch for new projects that might generate a lot of opposition of single family and other residential neighbors. The hope and the plan is to catch really aggressive design early, encourage more sensitivity, and offer some departures from code requirements in exchange for taking the advice (improvements were made recently to the code to use design review to improve townhouses. I don’t cover those here).

Various neighborhoods, 19 in all, have their own guidelines. These aren’t about use, but about design. Here is a guideline from the West Seattle Junction neighborhood’s design guidelines (which I was around for during development):

In general, the pedestrian environment (sidewalks, pathways, entries and crossings) should be safe, accessible to all, connect to places people want to go, and provide good places to be used for many things. New development should reflect these principles by enhancing commercial district streetscapes with development that makes pedestrian activity at the street level a priority.

Mmmmkay. Good idea. And there are some drawings of what that might look like. The guidelines move on to the dreaded Heightbulkenscale. In the Junction, most of the neighborhood is zoned for 65 or 85 feet, which cause “potential conflicts in height, bulk and scale compatibility between new development and existing one to two story commercial buildings occupying small parcels of land.”

The code says a developer can build to 65 or 85 feet. The Council could do two things here: downzone the neighborhood to existing heights or simply say to the neighborhood that it, potentially, is going to have some big buildings in its midst.

I get that design review is intended to get in front of that opposition by blunting the “impact” of increased density. But that’s thinking about it all wrong. Density means more people, and more people walking and shopping in the Junction is a good thing. Why is it something that has to be mitigated? Why does the Council need to have its 85 foot tall cake but also eat its 40 foot tall existing architecture, too?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Heightbulkenscale is really a stalking horse for “don’t change anything.” It’s true that putting a Cabrini Green scaled housing development in the Junction would be a terrible idea. But nobody has ever proposed that. If NC 65 and NC 85 are so bad, then get rid of them or change them. If we believe that those designations meet bigger city goals then let’s trust them and make them better.

The problem here is that design review is a kind of half measure driven by fear of density. The folks in the Junction are great people. I worked closely with them for years. But what they want is an incrementally better Junction, not huge changes in the buildingscape. Intellectually, the business owners and residents there know that more people living in the Junction could be a really good thing. But the guidelines enshrine the sentiment that the “quality of the Junction’s small town ‘feel’ is expressed in the existing architecture.”

I’m sorry folks, but that makes design review kind of a speed bump for density and promoting more good growth. Good building and urban design shouldn’t be about trying to maintain a neighborhood’s existing architecture, but promoting the latest and best and preserving history. Change is inevitable. Is the West Seattle Junction supposed to look exactly like it does today 25, 50, or 100 years from now? We’re talking about a city here, not an amusement park.

So while I think design review is pragmatic and well intentioned (I think the review committee’s work really hard and often successfully to make projects better) it seems strange to have a code and then another process that essentially says “the code doesn’t work.”

Here’s my idea. How about we pilot giving the design review committees more power?

Right now the design review process allows for departures from the land use code “if an applicant demonstrates that departures from Land Use Code requirements would result in a development that better meets the intent of adopted design guidelines.” Not surprisingly, right after this sentence the code stipulates that “departures may be granted from any Land Use Code standard or requirement, except for the following” and then lists 22 items for which departures cannot be granted.

If more departure power were granted to the review process and the intent of the guidelines was changed from “save existing architecture” to “accommodating growth and change in an innovative and livable way,” then we’d be on to something approaching performance based zoning. We have to shift our social norm away from seeing growth and change as a negative but, instead, a positive filled with opportunity.

Design review can sometimes remind me of Leavenworth, Washington with its  gas stations that look like Bavarian cottages. We can do better than that, using design review to do more than preserve the look and feel of the status quo but promote more density, livability, change, and better design.

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One Response to Chapter 23.41 Early Project Implementation: Use design review to promote change and growth

  1. Erin says:

    yes! I agree the code should encourage greater densities & infill that accommodates the future influx of people within existing neighborhoods. That said, I have spent a lot of time in the Junction, and think that part of what makes it special are those two blocks of super-small-scale 1&2 story retail. California Ave does not have the same ROW width as some other places. If you go a few blocks south of the Junction, you can see what 65-85 on each side of the street feels like (try it on a sunny afternoon). In the area overall it is a good density to strive for – imho with the exception of those two blocks which might be preserved in scale & keep the more open feeling where people like to gather & shop.

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