November 15, 2001

Getting a project off the ground

  • The ins and outs of the entitlement process
    MulvannyG2 Architecture



    A myriad of issues is making it harder than ever to get a new commercial project off the ground in the Seattle area.

    Decreased land availability, increased growth control measures, traffic, parking, utilities and wetlands are just some of the issues developers and architects have to wade through to get their project entitled.

    The major issue currently, of course, is the economic slowdown. When the economy picks back up, however — and many economists are pointing to a fairly quick recovery — the entitlement issues will still be there.

    Many projects never get past the first stage of entitlements because of the increasingly complex process. The reason the entitlement process can be so difficult is that each jurisdiction has different rules and regulations, which are constantly changing and evolving. It’s a vital part of an architect’s job to keep abreast of these changes and help their clients through the entitlement maze.

    The first step for the architect is to do a quick study of the land before it’s purchased. At this point, the owner is looking for insight to validate if it’s a good site to build his or her project. This study will reveal what type of constraints there are and what approvals are needed. It’s essential here that the architect knows the big picture, such as technical aspects, and political and legal issues.

    After this step, an official legal and site survey is done that confirms and validates all the site’s components. The architect will then start more in-depth design studies, which incorporate owner programming input and all applicable zoning and code requirements. This helps maximize the development potential of the project.

    One of the best ways to maximize the development within the constraints of the current zoning ordinances is to put together a core team of people that can negotiate with jurisdictions and push the envelope.

    No one member of the development team can know everything. It’s vital that the architects, developers, lawyers and any project consultants, such as civil, soil, landscape and structural consultants, are all active in the process. One of the keys to successfully completing an entitlement process is having a team effort to catch everything and analyze all the alternatives.

    The team approach is also invaluable in avoiding or removing development obstacles. These include height restrictions, setbacks that don’t leave enough room for the project, contaminated sites from old gas stations, streams that run alongside or through the property, limited vehicle or pedestrian site access, no fire truck access, and a host of other issues.

    One thing’s for sure; it’s never a simple process.

    The entitlement process can take anywhere from three to 12 months, and sometimes even years. One of the best ways to speed up this complicated process is by building strong relationships with the staff of the local jurisdictions. They know the pitfalls and the regulation issues. Individual planners within the different jurisdictions interpret the rules and regulations differently, so it’s important to understand their goals.

    The key is to establish a good working rapport with the local staff so you’re working together, not in an adversarial relationship.

    Adding yet another wrinkle into the entitlement process is that many jurisdictions now overlap. One road could be under three different jurisdictions: city, county and state. The difficulty is that these jurisdictions often don’t communicate with each other and they all have slightly different goals and criteria. The only way to solve this dilemma is for the architect to jump right in the middle of it all and assist with the negotiations and approvals.

    A successful example of local jurisdiction negotiating is “transfer development rights.” This is where developers will buy land at a different location to give to the city for the rights to make changes to the development of their property. A lot of the land in the Sammamish Valley near the Willows Run golf course has been bought up from developers buying transfer development rights. This process is available in Redmond and lots of other jurisdictions, but not all.

    One of the toughest things to negotiate with all types of jurisdictions is wetland issues. Some jurisdictions will not let you encroach into wetlands, but some will let you modify or relocate wetland areas. Wetlands bring in a heavy set of review processes with local, state and federal governments, plus the Army Corps of Engineers. Sometimes it can take years to get all the approvals needed.

    Traffic approvals are also becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain. Nearby roads need to have the capacity to handle the increased traffic your project will create. One of the ways to address this issue is to replace existing buildings with new facilities, which minimizes the new vehicle trip rates.

    Once the site approvals are secure, most jurisdictions require some form of design review in the entitlement process. The city of Seattle calls this review a master use permit (MUP), where the city of Redmond uses a design review board (DRB). This is where the architect establishes the building’s shell and core layout and exterior appearance, the site layout, landscaping concepts, traffic impact approvals, site access and utility layouts.

    The architect has to be very careful at this point not to miss any hidden components. A classic example of this is a project surrounded by existing city streets. The zoning requires the utilities for this project to run along the street with the existing utilities. The problem is that in many cases there’s not enough room for new utilities. This can easily be missed if a thorough study is not done. If this does get missed, it could end up costing the client hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix. That could be enough of a cost overrun to make the project not feasible.

     One Twelfth @ Twelfth
    One Twelfth @ Twelfth

    Another component of the design review that could make or break a project’s feasibility is height restrictions. The recently completed One Twelfth @ Twelfth office campus in Bellevue is an example of this.

    The project was originally scheduled to have only five floors due to height restrictions. Capitalizing on the city of Bellevue’s bonus program for distinctive rooftop features, MulvannyG2 Architecture’s design gained another floor on each building. This maximized the development by increasing the rentable square feet of the project by nearly 20 percent, which enabled it to be built.

    The entitlement process creates many roadblocks to getting a project built. The keys to successfully maneuvering around these obstacles are understanding all the issues, building strong relationships with local jurisdictions, and working with a team of experts. If done correctly, you will then be entitled to get your project permitted and off the ground.

    Greg Krape and Justin Hill are both vice presidents at MulvannyG2 Architecture. Combined, they have more than 35 years of architecture experience.

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