WA lawmakers reform builders' bugaboo: the capricious design review process

The bill prevents local governments from using subject development regulations.

WA lawmakers reform builders' bugaboo: the capricious design review process

The state Legislature took a significant step to provide more certainty in the often burdensome and arbitrarily imposed municipal design review process.

House Bill 1293 is now on its way to Governor's desk, after sweeping both chambers. Local governments can use "only clear, objective development regulations."

The bill also states that reviews cannot lead to a reduction of the size or scope of the project, and "no design-review process can include more than one meeting".

This last provision will be a huge relief to developers who have been frustrated with having to return for further meetings when their design proposals do not pass the review board.

According to Seattle developer Maria Barrientos reducing the number of meetings can result in "huge savings" both in terms of time and money.

Her company, Barrientos Ryan is building a large apartment complex with a Safeway in Seattle's Queen Anne district.

She said that it "easily" cost the company $2,000,000 last year.

Barrientos, in an interview, said that "if you have to go over and over again, you will pay more in interest, as well as the time delays, if you are building office or housing."

Barrientos said that each request for a new design can add two to three extra months to the approval procedure. He is now a board member of the West Design Review Board in the city, which approved the approx. 325 apartment units with the Safeway store. This development includes approximately 325 parking spaces on site.

Barrientos believes that over 95% of the development proposals she reviews are "really well-done, very well designed and very thoughtful."

It frustrates her when others with their own opinions opine about what's attractive or not.

Barrientos added that such comments do not make projects any better. They only delay the production of housing, which is desperately needed.

She added, "I think it is a travesty."

According to Bryan Stevens of the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections, a spokesman, full design review of larger and more complex projects can take an average of 582 days. Administrative design of smaller proposals, however, takes only 471 days.

The average time to complete a full design review in Bellevue is 679. Amanda Rich, a spokeswoman for the city Development Services, stated that many projects involve multiple towers, and their complexity leads to longer timelines than simple single-tower proposals.

He added that project opponents could take their complaints to the city hearing examiner.

He said that SDCI is responsible for about 60% of the total time spent on design review projects.

Seattle exempted affordable housing design reviews during the Covid-19 epidemic. Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed legislation late last year to continue this exemption for a year, while the city considered a permanent exemption.

A group of stakeholders evaluated Seattle's Design Program with the aim of increasing participation among Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.

Stevens, SDCI's Director of Communications and Public Affairs, said that SDCI will send the recommendations to the City Council in a matter of weeks.

Seattle and Bellevue both wait for Gov. Jay Inslee must act before Seattle and Bellevue can take any further action.

Rich wrote an email saying that the legislation had been changed since it was first proposed. "Until we know what the final wording will be, we can't determine specifics," Rich said.