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COVID-19 and Design Review Processes

Posted on Jan 15, 2021 in:
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Administrative design review processes implemented due to COVID-19 are permitting housing faster. We should consider making them permanent.

Architectural massing concept comparison for Queen Anne Safeway. Three separate building designs presented: A) Major Minor, B) Four Point, C) Cottage Rows (Preferred Scheme)

Excerpt from design review document for Queen Anne mixed-use Safeway redevelopment

Washington state is experiencing an unprecedented shortfall of housing, coming short 225,000 homes between 2000–2015 to meet housing needs. The Puget Sound region is projected to add 1.8 million more people and 1.2 million more jobs by 2050, which means if we want to accommodate for growth, we cannot afford to stall building.

On April 27, 2020, Seattle City Council passed CB 119769. With COVID-19 rendering the usual community meetings unsafe and projects backing up in the pipeline, this emergency measure allowed projects subject to full design review to opt into administrative design review (ADR) instead.

Developers and builders could choose this expedited process or wait until the design review board resumed business. Under ADR, city staffers, rather than volunteer design review boards, had final approval. Public comments on projects continued through email in a 14-day window. Affordable housing projects were exempted altogether.

SDCI also implemented video or virtual inspections of approved projects, meaning that wait times for land use, permitting, and final inspections have also been streamlined as city staffers continue to work from home.

These streamlined methods meant to alleviate pressures during a health crisis show us that these same expedited processes can also help address our housing crisis.

We have the technology readily available for moving public comments and inspections onto virtual platforms, helping to mitigate costs and ultimately move affordable and missing middle housing through the pipeline faster.

What kind of benefits would a streamlined process produce?

More Affordable Housing

Unnecessary delays add up. The high cost of design review is passed down to renters and buyers alike and can have devastating consequences. Having proposals return for review and comment through multiple meetings, stalling construction for six months to two years, costs thousands of dollars for every month of delay. Multifamily projects that spend less time in design review ultimately end up being less expensive.

For an in-depth look: How Seattle’s Design Review Sabotages Housing Affordability, Dan Bertolet, Sightline Institute

More Housing Types

Exempting affordable housing projects frees up more time for city staff to look over other projects that sit in design review limbo for too long. On top of that, certain housing types, like townhouses and smaller multifamily buildings, could get faster approval processes or be exempted completely based on their size. More housing types means more housing choices means more housing for everyone.

Administrative design review shows us a glimpse of what could be an effective alternative, pending a more intensive design review overhaul in the city of Seattle. Cities looking to address rising housing costs and create efficient permitting processes could—and should—consider eliminating design review altogether.

We understand those concerned about not having a say in how their neighborhoods are designed. We know it’s important for neighbors to come together in shaping their communities. But it should not come at the expense of people having a safe and healthy place to call home.


Help us build a sound future.