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May 15, 2023

Recently signed bill takes aim at design review

A/E Editor

Rendering by MZA Architecture [enlarge]
This proposed 44-story tower in Belltown had its first design review meeting in 2017, and its final in 2023.

Last Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1293 into law. The law imposes new restrictions on cities and counties engaging in design review, such as Seattle. It will significantly reduce design reviewers' power to dictate the look of new developments while at the same time streamlining the design review process.

Seattle will have to adhere to the new restrictions by mid-2025.

The city currently requires most new multifamily and commercial buildings to go through full design review. To move forward, projects must be approved by a local design review board made up of professional volunteers. Those volunteers have significant say in what a project can look like, down to the minutia of the specific colors and materials used.

As it stands, a project requiring full design review cannot move forward until the review board gives its approval, which can often be a lengthy, drawn-out, and sometimes fraught process. It is not uncommon for projects to have to go through multiple design review board meetings over the course of several years. For example, Chainqui Development's planned 44-story tower at 2005 Fifth Ave. in Belltown only recently received design review board approval, eight years after the developer purchased the land for the project.

The new law aims to change this by limiting design review to one public meeting only. It also states that moving forward review boards should only evaluate “clear and objective development regulations governing the exterior design of the new development,” meaning the board would no longer have final say on elements considered a matter of aesthetic opinion.

Seattle's design review board meetings are open to the public who are encouraged to provide input. The city says the democratic process is a tool “to create a better city” that gives planners, residents, and the professional volunteers a voice in the design of their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, for many years critics have decried the process which is often seen as an impediment to the efficient construction of new housing and development. Those critics include District 6 City Councilmember Dan Strauss who has previously described the process as “broken” and misused to stop important community projects.

Advocates for more affordable housing, Strauss included, have been particularly vocal about their concerns with the process and have successfully lobbied for affordable housing projects to be exempt from full design review. Since 2017, affordable-housing developments can now skip the process, as can some smaller market-rate projects. Instead, these developments go through Administrative Design Review, a much quicker process in which city planners review and sign off on projects without input from volunteer boards. Further extension of that method is a possible response to the passing of Bill 1923 being signed into law.

In addition to its impact on design review, the new law also requires modest upzones across the state and streamlines the environmental review process.


Emma Hinchliffe can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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