By Meghan Hall
The world of real estate development is often a long, complex process filled with numerous rounds of reviews, and each city has a different approach to the approvals process. After years without major changes to its design review process, the City of Seattle is looking at ways at how it may be able to improve its process going forward. In July 2018, a new measure went into effect that now requires development teams to conduct mandatory community outreach as part of the project’s early design phase. The first few projects to make their way through the new guidelines are just now submitting their master use applications, testing the development requirements that have gone unaltered for decades.
“If you weren’t in the ecosystem of development, you weren’t participating,” said Katherine Mackinnon, an account supervisor at Seattle-based Nyhus Communications. Nyhus is a boutique communications firm that aided Bellevue-based the anticipated Pinnacle Plus Development, located at 1516 2nd Ave., and Plus Capital Partners in receiving their approval to apply for a Master Use Permit.
Part of the greater entitlement process, Seattle’s design reviews have remained largely unchanged since its implementation in the 1980s, when volunteer — but appointed — industry professionals began reviewing projects’ preliminary scope and design alongside the city administrative process.
Early Design Guidance meetings (EDG) typically focus on the bulk and scale of the building, and until recently, were the public’s first opportunity to offer public input on the project. Yet, the formal process seemed static, and if the public was not proactively looking for ways to provide its input, the opportunity to do so may have been missed. The city’s new mandatory outreach period will now occur before the EDG pre-application phase, and it requires the applicant to approach community relations proactively from several different angles.
“Very early in the process, even prior to submitting to coming in for an EDG meeting, the developer must have performed community outreach three different ways,” explained Mackinnon. “This can take a lot of different forms and is a bit of a ‘choose your own adventure.’”
The developer must reach out to the community through digital, written and in-person formats. Mackinnon explains that typically digital outreach is done through the creation of a micro-site where members of the community can read about the project and provide written feedback. Written contact is often made by hanging flyers throughout the district or by distributing postcards, while face-to-face contact can take the form of a stakeholder meeting, a presentation to local community groups or a site tour.
According to Mackinnon, the changes were spurred because of Seattle’s rapid growth over the past decade.
“With the explosive growth of our city, we have a lot more attention being paid to projects,” said Mackinnon. “As infill becomes really common, and we’re building out in the neighborhoods, people are paying more attention.”
U.S. Census data released in the spring of 2018 shows that Seattle is now the fastest growing city by population in the nation and has grown by nearly 20 percent since 2010. In 2018, Seattle continued to see a historic level of investment, according to a report from the Downtown Seattle Association’s Mid-Year Development Guide. $5.6 billion worth of projects were under construction in downtown Seattle at the end of the second quarter of 2018, up from $5 billion in 2017.
As more projects continue to funnel through the pipeline, Mackinnon says that it makes sense that the City would want to create a standard procedure delineating how public engagement will factor into the City’s approvals and entitlements process.
“I think the City’s intent was to codify what [public involvement] looks like,” said Mackinnon. “It had gotten a little messy, and public involvement could be almost overwhelming. I think the City was trying to create some level of expectation across the board.”
Mackinnon claims that previous community outreach was not as necessary as before when Seattle’s world of development and construction was smaller and more isolated, and projects were approved without working directly with the community or adjacent neighbors.
For developers and architects, however, the change may not be as welcome.
“I mean practically speaking, it is absolutely another hoop to jump through,” said Mackinnon. “You’re looking at market cycles and financial cycles, so if there are more processes that can result in delaying your project moving forward into construction, that can be a very frustrating place.”
“However, if you make the outreach meaningful, it can give the project the boost it needs to go forward,” she added.
Mackinnon says that although the approvals process is now a step longer, community outreach has its benefits. Mackinnon referred to the recent Pinnacle Plus team, who hired Nyhus for their communications services, as an example of a project with successful community outreach. According to Mackinnon, early feedback allowed the design team to excel during the EDG phase, and the project received unanimous approval to move forward.
“There’s an opportunity to start teeing up some very early buzz about the project,” said Mackinnon of the processes’ potential benefits. “For example, if you’re building a condominium project, you’re already doing work to increase excitement for future sales.”
Mackinnon says that since the new rule was implemented, the firm has been receiving a lot of inquiries about the process and how to navigate the community outreach phase moving forward.
“Seattle is a unique animal,” said Mackinnon. “With the new rules and the ratcheting up of expectations from the public to have the opportunity for inquiry and transparency, having a communications team to navigate that is really valuable.”
The City of Seattle did not return The Registry’s request for comment.