Seattle Design Review Process Is Fatally Flawed

The Design Review Guidelines state that “design review provides a forum for citizens and developers to work toward achieving a better urban environment through attention to fundamental design principles.” Design Review Guidelines for Downtown Development at 5; Belltown Urban Center Village Design Guidelines at III (emphasis supplied). One principle objective of design review is “to improve communications and participation among developers, neighbors, and the City early in the design and siting of new development.” The actual process for projects we have witnessed does not reflect this optimistic language in favor of citizen involvement, which is neither fair nor just.

For example, as we sat through the two Early Design Guidance meetings for a project at 5th & Virginia St., it became evident that the Design Review Board members had not actually received and/or reviewed the written public comment letters that had been submitted to them prior to those meetings. Members of the public, spent a great deal of effort and time preparing written comments only to realize that the decision makers didn’t even review those comments before they made their decision. When I asked about this after the meeting, I was told that the Design Board members are volunteers and the City cannot ask for too much of their time. In other words, because they are volunteers, the City does not expect these decision makers to review the written public comments about project design.

I was also told that, because the public is given an opportunity for public comment during the EDG meeting, there is no need for the Board to review the written comments. But, that opportunity for public comment is hardly a fair substitute for written comments. In an effort to cram the applicants’ presentation, questions from the DRB to the applicant, public comment, and Board deliberation and decision making into the strict 1 1⁄2 hours that are scheduled for each Board meeting, the entire public is given 20 minutes total for comments. That leaves each person with less than 90 seconds to speak. Each person barely had enough time to make a few basic points, much less provide the DRB with critical details, within the rushed and limited time allocated for us to speak. Preparing for the meeting, we were forced to abandon major points that we wanted to make because we knew we wouldn’t be given the time we needed to say everything we wanted to say.

To make matters worse, the process had us blasting through this public testimony just minutes before the Board members deliberated and made a decision. There was no give and take between the Board and the citizens, no time was provided for the Board to ask questions related to the public comments, and there was no time whatsoever for the Board to think about or explore what they heard from the public or review details in graphs/tables, photographs, or other information that the public presented. This incredibly flawed process resulted in a Design Review decision that was made without meaningful public participation.