I was anxious to see what the review would look like. I helped craft the initial program, managed it for most of the 1990s, and then served on the Queen Anne/Magnolia/South Lake Union Design Review Board for four years ending in April.
The review conducted by city staff and the consultants is very thorough and presents many compelling observations and recommendations. What I wonder, after reading the report, is whether the recommendations go far enough.
When the Mayor and City Council began the process of creating Design Review in the late 1980’s there was very little trust in the community for the then Department of Construction and Land Use.
Little did folks realize that it wasn’t for lack of talent or compassion that DCLU was approving ugly stucco boxes in Wallingford, Ballard or the U District. It was simply that the department had few tools to deal with design. But because of this lack of trust, the group-think of the moment was that DCLU surely could not be entrusted with an administrative design review process.
As a result, the Design Review structure as we now know it was formed: with seven volunteer, five-member boards, comprised of diverse stakeholders, reviewing most multifamily and commercial projects in the city, while city staff are left to stitch everything together.
The problem with this format is that the decision-makers see these often ponderous and impacting projects usually no more than three times, with their actual review period comprising often no more than 20 minutes of a packed board meeting agenda. The beauty of the board structure is the diversity of opinion, experience and talent. There’s no doubt it adds balance to the discussion and richness to the outcome.
The downside is obvious. While city staff can literally spend dozens of hours laboring over site design and architectural details, the decision-makers may spend no more than one hour cumulatively over a several-month period. What’s more, the role of regulator may be difficult for some board members, while city staff are steeped in regulatory practice. This often leads to timid recommendations from the boards.
The result is that many projects are built and citizens stand back to ask: “THAT went through Design Review?”
Other municipalities, Vancouver, BC and San Diego included, conduct very thorough and professional design reviews administratively. With architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners on staff, they are able to work in concert with project architects to craft the design response to a specific site.
While I recognize that Seattle never met a process it didn’t like, perhaps it’s time the city consider a bolder alternative to the tweaks and tucks proposed in the Design Review report. Perhaps it’s time to take a serious look at an administrative Design Review process – maybe holding out the largest projects, master plans and institutions for the full-blown public process.