More to building in the city than thought

Developers of commercial and multifamily residential projects past a certain threshold in Seattle can't just whip up some plans, get a permit from the city and start building. The city doesn't get a free pass, either, on capital-improvement projects.Instead, both camps have to go through a design-review process that began in 1994 for private projects and in 1968 for the city's capital-improvement projects.The need was especially evident with private projects, according to Vince Lyons, manager of the city's design-review program. The problem was the result of new land-use codes that went into effect in the early 1980s, he said.The new codes were a creative attempt to prevent the creation of ugly buildings, but it didn't work out that way. One example was the construction of "big ugly boxes in Ballard," Lyons said. "They were too high, they were too wide and they were too big."It was obvious that getting more people meaningfully involved early in the design process was necessary, he said. "And we needed some critics." That led to the creation of seven, five-member Design Review Boards in Seattle to: "encourage better design and site planning that enhances the character of the city and ensures that new development fits sensitively into neighborhoods," according to a city Web site. The boards review projects in the northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, Queen Anne/Magnolia and Capitol Hill areas, as well as in downtown.Board members are appointed by both the mayor and the Seattle City Council, and they have to be confirmed by the City Council.They represent a cross section of the community and include a combination of design professions, development interests, community-at-large interests, local residential interests and local business interests, according to a city Web site.Opponents used to be able to appeal projects to a city hearing examiner and then to the City Council if they weren't satisfied with the hearing examiner ruling, Lyons said. It made for an adversarial situation, and lines were drawn in the sand. "It was ugly," he said."We dropped the appeal to the city council as a tradeoff," added Lyons, who noted that hearing examiner rulings can still be appealed in Superior Court.Design review has had an effect. During the last 14 years, there have been three or four appeals a year, Lyons said. "When prior to design review, there were probably 30 to 40 a year."Matt Roewe, an architect and local residential representative on the Queen Anne/Magnolia Design Review Board, believes the program is effective."I can honestly say that every project I've been involved with has been a better project because of the process," he said. "The other part of it, it's a public forum."[[In-content Ad]]