Front row at design review

As I posted last time, a real live design review issue was playing itself out in my own neighborhood. The B & O project as it is called was facing what it’s proponents were hoping would be it’s final design review meeting. I had thought there might be some fire works, but in the end the meeting was somewhat anti-climatic but very typical and it didn’t change my mind about design review. The project is going forward, but not without lots of delays. Here’s what happened.

First up at the meeting was the review of Casa Latina’s project at 1614 S Jackson St. The question that was heavily discussed was “why does the building look so suburban?”

I didn’t look suburban to me. But that was a big question. Someone pointed out that the building makes obvious reference to the style of Luis Baragan. A helpful point, as Baragan was, arguably, an urban architect. Much of his work was done in and around Mexico City. It was pointed out that the color scheme of the Casa Latina project was making references to Baragan’s use of color, especially yellow and red.

One of the first things you’ll notice about any design review meeting is the almost comic (for the unschooled) use of design speak. Here are some examples:


And oh so many more. But it’s a real language. When a board member asks “I wonder what you’re doing to transform the sense of arrival in that space so that it more clearly articulates the compelling accents of the second floor?” she’s not joking around.

The project got some further design guidance and was approved.

During the Jackson Street project deliberations I ended up talking with the architect for the B & O project and it turns out he used to live in my neighborhood. He said all the obstacles had been overcome on view protection. The site is divided between a lot that is zoned 65 feet and one that is Midrise, which allows for 75 feet.

If you’re standing on Belmont facing east, the left third of the site is MR and the right two thirds is NC 65. Here’s an elevation looking west, from the alley side of the building:

The fact is that the developer could have gone higher on that MR side but kept the building a uniform 65 feet. That becomes something of a factor because if the design review process starts getting too fussy about the views, the developer could simply go higher on the MR side to make up for any  development capacity lost on the other side when they compensate for view loss.

Two neighbors showed up to make the case for the views although the chair of the committee said that views wouldn’t be part of the consideration. They don’t matter at this point because the SEPA process determined that the views don’t constitute a violation. And practically, the view in question is from a street corner and unfolds down the hill. If every existing view from the top of the hill were protected, nothing would ever get built on the down slope.

But the neighbors gave it their best shot anyway.

Interestingly the B & O never came up as it had in other meetings. The architect told me that the B & O is hurting right now. It’s true, they don’t even open until 10 and their bar is always completely empty. We chatted about the fact that the B&O is struggling largely due to the uncertainty around the redevelopment. The plan is that the B & O will remain a ground floor tenant. Delaying the project longer won’t help them. And it’s been 5 years since the project first went into permitting.

I got up and spoke to the board and the small crowd of architects and one famous local land use attorney.

My name is Roger Valdez and I live in the neighborhood.  I am worried about our view–our view of the future of our neighborhood.

This is a good project. I would like to thank the, owners, developers, and architects for their persistence through the long process that is land use in our city. They have made the project better with the help of the design review process–truncating the corner as the board asked, for example. This site is an ideal location for new development and I welcome you to the neighborhood. Welcome to the neighborhood!

We will benefit from the activation of this block, it will further enliven our neighborhood, and provide more customers for local businesses. The sooner we start work the better.

This is not the first time I have appeared in front of this board with my pom poms to be a cheerleader for new development in my neighborhood. I guess it won’t be the last. I don’t think it mattered much. The final verdict was rendered after 10 pm. Sharon Sutton, who has been chair of this board for 4 years and is going off the board soon, rendered her verdict.

One of the neighbors complained about loss of privacy from people hanging out on their balconies and looming over his garage. Mmmmkay. I guess that might happen. What’s goin’ on in that garage anyway? The developer frosted the glass on the balconies to keep this guy’s privacy in tact. If my experience of Seattlites and their balconies is any guide, the only things looking at this guys garage will be some dead plants, an unused hibachi, and some packing crates. People in Seattle don’t know how to use balconies.

All in all, the meeting confirmed what I has suggested in my post about design review. The process seems to wear out NIMBYs by picking off their stated worries and concerns one by one until, eventually, they mostly disappear. The process offers guidance to design professionals and billable hours for land use attorneys (a noble pursuit). And there is some flexibility accorded to the use of the building envelope in exchange for letting the public into the design process. It is democratic if you’re in to that kind of thing, allowing ordinary people real influence over development.

It still seems like most of the downsides are on the developer side (time, money, delays for tenants, costs for renters and homeowners) and the upsides (some changes on roof lines, windows, and materials) aren’t really that beneficial to the general public. I do like the idea that there is some facilitated interaction between the developers and the neighborhood folks. But that seems irrelevant when the neighbors truly just want the project stopped. The boards do a great job of working to make projects better and are genuine in their pursuit of making density more acceptable. But I think rather than tempering aggressive development, the process should be figuring out how to achieve maximum intensity with maximum benefits.

I think there is an important role to play for design review in a revamped code. More on that later.

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2 Responses to Front row at design review

  1. Pingback: Chapter 23.45 Multi-Family: Parts 1 and 2, Lowrise | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Pingback: Can They Take It? New Development on Beacon Hill Up for Review - Seattle Transit Blog

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