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It’s a HALA and design review double feature tonight at SIFF Cinema Uptown

Get deep into policy tonight

SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Emmett Anderson/Flickr

Like with other mandatory housing affordability (MHA) rezones to neighborhoods before it, Uptown’s getting a public comment meeting right in the neighborhood—at SIFF Cinema Uptown tonight.

But there’s another pressing issue on the docket, too: Whether to streamline Seattle’s design review process, as a package of legislation being considered by the city council would do.

They’re being discussed back-to-back—the Uptown rezone at 5 p.m. and design review at 7 p.m.—in the theater’s Auditorium Three, so if you’re the kind of person who busts out the popcorn for public meetings anyway, the venue will match this time.

It’s sure to be a kind of city-planning policy marathon.

Uptown rezone

Here’s what the city has planned right now for Uptown, or lower Queen Anne, depending on your name preference: Like with other neighborhood rezones recommended by HALA, the measure would trade building height for affordable housing. Developers would have the option of either paying into a city fund or including the housing in the development.

Via Seattle OPCD

Most height increases are relatively small, although under the current plan, building heights could more than double—from 40 feet to 85 feet—in a thin area just north of the Seattle Center. The biggest heights would be in the southeast corner of the neighborhood near South Lake Union, where building height limits would go from 85 feet to up to 160 feet.

In exchange, in the highest areas, residential projects would need to be made up of 7 to 10 percent affordable units, or developers would have to pay between $20.75 and $29.75 per square foot. For commercial buildings, the requirement would be 5 to 10 percent of units, or $8.00 to $29.75 per square foot.

A few amendments proposed by city councilor Rob Johnson, who heads the Planning, Land Use, and Zoning committee, would allow for some more height and floor area ratio incentives, along with parking maximums to help manage vehicle traffic.

Reviewing design review

Design review, which most new constructions have to go through in order to come to fruition, is a complicated process. Developers submit their design plans, which are reviewed by a volunteer board appointed by the city council and the mayor’s office.

The process, which has been in place since 1994, aims to give neighborhoods a voice in their changing landscape. But review can take a long time, and some city planning advocates question whether or not it’s even useful.

Over at Sightline, Dan Bertolet says it’s sometimes even harmful. He points to the case of a transit-oriented development with 168 affordable housing units by the Capitol Hill light rail station, where the board delayed the project further for reasons he says “verge on the absurd”:

The board wants to pick the color scheme: “I would go with a different color.” “I do think that color is used a lot to spruce up affordable housing.”

A lone board member is adamant that a daycare should not be allowed on a commercial street: “I still think it’s a terrible idea to put ground-floor childcare on Broadway… frankly, I can’t support the project with this.”

Citing Bertolet’s article over at The Stranger, Charles Mudede says the process has turned Seattle into an “architectural wasteland”:

Along with wasting time and money, Seattle's Design Review Board often only offers bad ideas that cripple the key or revolutionary concepts of projects, as will be the case with the Passive House project on Capitol Hill (the "committee of amateurs" clearly did not understand what the Passivhaus movement in Europe is about), and it authorizes utter horrors like the Urbana Apartments, which is in the heart of Ballard—indeed, it's in the very spot that a Monorail station was supposed to be built many years ago. But just look at that thing [...] You could not approve a worse building if the Design Review Board was a bunch of beavers.

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) first proposed revisions back in June, and came up with a revised version last month. Under the new proposal, some projects could go to administrative review instead of full board review. Projects that meet certain affordability requirements would be put on the simpler path. It would also create some new requirements for community engagement.

SDCI estimates that on average, the design review reforms will cut project timelines by four to eight weeks.

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