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Seattle Department of Neighborhoods’ New Early Community Outreach Guidelines: a Help or a Hindrance in a Growing City?

Seattle, Living Building Challenge, Seattle 2030 District, Miller Hull Partnership, Seattle's 2030 Challenge Pilot Program

By Jack Stubbs

Seattle is by all accounts a city in a period of growth and transition as new multifamily, mixed-use and commercial developments continue to shape the skyline. The challenge faced by city agencies and private entities alike is how to ensure that the city, and the projects that continue to shape it, grow effectively.

The project teams for developments presented to the city’s Department of Construction and Inspections and design review boards are typically comprised of architects and developers. The purpose of the city’s design review board is to give planners, city residents and the wider community a voice in the conceptual design of in-the-works multifamily and commercial buildings. The city’s design review process covers multiple aspects of a building’s design and its site, including the overall appearance of the building; its relationship to the adjacent streetscape; pedestrian and vehicular circulation around the site; and the project’s fit for its surrounding neighborhood context.

In recent weeks, the city has taken strides to update its review process. In an initiative that took effect on July 1st, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) and the Department of Neighborhoods announced the Early Community Outreach Guidelines for Design Review, which requires that all projects going through design review will need to conduct community outreach earlier in the process, before the EDG meetings take place.

One of the primary motivations behind the implementation of the new Early Community Outreach Guidelines was that the previous design review process did not adequately allow for the public to give their input on in-the-works projects, according to Liza Rutzick, program manager with SDCI. “The public forum that Design Review offered limits the discussion to design review issues, and we’ve observed repeatedly that the community wants to talk about issues that aren’t design-related. There hasn’t really been a forum for that to happen, so we saw that as a very strong need to fulfill.”

The purpose the community outreach plan, according to the city’s web site, is to identify the methods a project applicant will use to establish a dialogue with nearby communities in order to share information about the project, better understand the local context and hear community interests and concerns related to the project through a combination of printed, digital and in-person outreach methods.

Another of the motivating factors behind the new community outreach guidelines—which has been in the works for several years and was adopted by the city as an ordinance in fall of 2017—was to strengthen the lines of communication between the city and project teams, an especially important dynamic given the pace at which the city is changing, according to Rutzick. “The city is changing and growing so much, having a direct line of communication and dialogue between the developers and the community seemed more important than ever,” she said. “Typically, the outreach that we do as a requirement of land use code is pretty rigid, [and] there are a lot of voices and participation that [doesn’t get heard] through our code-prescribed outreach.”

While the overall premise of the community outreach requirements are sound in principle, there are some who fear that the new initiative will add a hurdle unnecessarily early in the design review process. According to Joel Wilbur, principal at Seattle-based firm Caron Architecture, the new initiative doesn’t account for projects that are still in their early conceptual stages. “First and foremost, we really do believe that community outreach is important; it’s the context for how we do our projects, whether in the immediate neighborhood or surrounding region, [but] the challenge we are seeing today with this initiative is [its] placement in the [design review] process,” he said. “It’s so far at the beginning that I don’t think everyone will understand the developer’s project, or the developer might have no idea what they’re planning to do [with the project], yet.”

Through the revision to the design review process, the city hopes that projects will be more heavily informed by—rather than just responded to by—members of the community
“We would hope that [one of] the immediate-term impacts is that the community is learning about projects at the very earliest stage of the project, before the team has even come in for their EDG meeting,” Rutzick said. “We hope that projects will be informed by what they hear from the community. [The applicant] may or may not follow what they’ve heard from the community; but the hope is that it will strengthen the ultimate programming and design of the project.”

Ultimately, the hope is that the new community outreach initiative will strengthen the ability of historically underrepresented populations to participate in the design review process. “We wanted to figure out a way to broaden the participation across more community members, [such as] people of color, people who might not speak English as their first language and people in a low-income bracket,” she said. “We’re hoping that applicant teams working with the Department of Neighborhoods and looking at the Equity Areas will help broaden that participation.”

In terms of the execution of the new community outreach efforts, Wilbur fears that the extensive amount of required outreach will be occurring too soon in the planning process for said dialogue to actually be effective. “It’s not that the outreach is not important, but it’s a bit the cart before the horse. I fear that people are going to start to see this announcement as junk mail and just disregard it…and when they do get to a project down the road in design review, the community will [still] feel that they were never informed to begin with,” he said.

True to this sentiment, initial feedback has been mixed, according to Rutzick. “There’s been mixed response to the Early Outreach. I think at the beginning, it will seem more daunting. But after a few projects have gone through it and people get more used to the process, I’m hoping that it will feel like a more natural and productive part of the permitting process,” she said. “I think some applicants are fearful that it will add more time or money to the permitting process; there are some applicants who already do this work and have seen that it benefits their projects overall—that was really where we got our inspiration from in terms of putting this together.”

The extensive amount of multifamily development activity, in particular, occurring throughout the city means that there is a potential community members might feel inundated by this information before the design review process has even begun, thinks Wilbur. “The other piece that we’re seeing, and this is partially because we do a lot of townhomes as well, is the wide breadth of projects that will be required to participate in this initiative with the dozens and dozens of townhomes going up,” he said.

Ultimately, given the growth currently occurring in Seattle, infrastructural changes to the city’s design review process are not inherently harmful, but rather a necessary consequence of a city experiencing growing pains. “I think people either love or hate the whole design review process, but every jurisdiction has a process that they have to go through. The challenge I see right now is the additional layers of the process that create more work for the staff; it’s not relieving the pressure on the city to process these projects,” he said. “The [community outreach requirement] just adds more work to a system that is already swamped today.”