We’re sure you’d agree that the pandemic and work-from-home mandate have, among other things, wreaked havoc on Seattle’s urban fabric; and that the needless procedures and steep waits to secure a permit to develop new projects that would reinvigorate the public realm aren’t helping. 2021 is looking brighter, and as part of our healing and rebuilding efforts we need the City to embrace the imperative need to bolster the local design and construction industries. In an effort to make sense of this, and to enlist constructive ideas in the service of positive change, we reached out to some key folks in the community with a simple query:
What is the best way the City of Seattle and the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections can support the design and construction industries as we emerge from COVID-19?
In addition to soliciting remarks from professionals who toil in allied fields, we also sought the perspective of the Director of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Nathan Torgelson, who graciously agreed to participate. However, after receiving the following contributions, we decided that it would be more valuable to sit down with Nathan for a constructive dialogue, which we will share in a dedicated near-future post. Stay tuned.
David Neiman, Founder of Neiman Taber Architects
I’ve been wading around knee deep in the City bureaucracy for the past twenty years. I’ve seen policy changes come and go. We’ve made some remarkable leaps forward, and some face palm-worthy mistakes, but generally it’s been two steps forward for every one step back. The exception I see to that general trend is in the quantity and complexity of regulation. I noticed this for the first time a few years ago when I was doing a pre-submittal conference at SDCI; the reviewer walked in carrying a printed copy of the land use code, but instead of the single three-ring binder I was used to seeing, she was now carrying two volumes. Ten years ago, a typical townhouse permit set would have had maybe a dozen pages. The same set today is probably two to three times as long. Our drawings are stuffed full of diagrams and exhibits needed to prove compliance with all the new rules we keep passing. They require multiple specialty consultants, each with their own set of plan sheets and specialty reviewers at the building department to pick over their submittals. The amount of time and effort given over to this compliance burden is staggering, and I don’t think we give enough consideration to what this over-regulation costs us.
The rule changes and the complexity seems to be piling up at an increasing rate, and with each passing year it gets harder and harder to understand our regulatory environment. If you’re a specialist like me, who has been marinating in this stuff for decades, it’s a manageable problem. But this complexity represents a significant obstacle for almost everyone else. The knowledge gap between a veteran and a newcomer becomes so vast that it builds in advantages for established players, and makes it hard for new arrivals to get a foothold. In the investment world, cities like this are described as having high barriers to entry. If you are looking for key characteristics of places with the highest levels of income and opportunity inequality, high barriers to entry is probably top of the list.
Paring back our regulatory burdens, keeping our land use and building codes lean and precise, reducing the footprint of government…these are not the current obsessions of progressive American cities. But maybe they should be. When we make it hard to build, the folks we make it hardest on are the little guys. The mom ‘n’ pop developers, homeowners who want to build a rental property, small builders, people starting new businesses. The big outfits can afford to pay the specialty consultants and the lawyers they need to navigate a difficult regulatory environment. And for the few people who can get over the hurdles created by the City, their assets grow in value from the scarcity and rent inflation that restrictive policies create.
So here’s my proposal:
• Once every five years, the land use code should go through a mandatory pruning to identify elements that are difficult, obscure, obsolete, ineffective, or counterproductive. The goal should be to remove as much language as possible from the books so as to create a code that is simpler, more understandable, easier to enforce, and limited in its scope only to that which is essential.
• Every new land use code proposal should be reviewed in terms of its regulatory burden, and what is required to enforce it.
• The SDCI should have a mandate and a mission to advise city council and the executive as to the regulatory burden of their proposals. They should have a mission statement goal to annually reduce the amount of effort required to permit a new construction project.
Our codes are meant to describe a floor, below which one is not allowed to sink. Increasingly, we have come to see them as aspirational documents, describing the ideal outcome we’d prefer. We have confused these two things at our peril, creating a city in which it is needlessly difficult and expensive to build, to the benefit of no one.
Scott Shapiro, Founder and Managing Director of Eagle Rock Ventures LLC
There are many simple things the mayor and city council could do that would cost little or nothing financially (and in many cases would save money and time), but would potentially have political costs.
• Simplify the zoning and building codes.
• Eliminate parking requirements.
• Reduce setbacks.
• Make a less complicated permitting process.
• Reduce permitting timelines.
• Create more certainty in the process.
• Reduce costs (e.g., City reviewers, permit fees, capacity fees).
• Eliminate mandatory inclusionary zoning (and make it an incentive).
• Allow more types of uses in all zones (e.g., micro-housing in low-rise zones, housing in industrial zones).
• Allow any type of housing in historical exclusive residential single-family zones (instead of one 3,600-sf house on a lot, allow for three 1,200-sf townhouses).
• Expand and adjust the MFTE program so the area median income requirements are reasonable and incentive to developers to always include MFTE units in their projects (the City should set a goal of 100% participation—they don’t even have a stated goal today).
There is so much the mayor and city council could do if they were willing to make the right public policy decisions for their constituents, instead of the right political decisions for their individual careers.
Andrew Lewis, Seattle City Council Member, District 7
While I am not able to speak for the department, I can say that one of the best ways for the Seattle City Council to guide city construction and development policy as we emerge from COVID-19 is by simultaneously supporting family-wage job growth in building trade industries, and encouraging the use of innovative, sustainable building materials and practices. I look forward to working with community, experts in the field, and my colleagues to position Seattle as a leader in sustainable built infrastructure, and to ensure that the people and families who have, and continue to literally build our community may continue to find jobs and homes here as well.
Ethan Stowell, Founder & CEO of Ethan Stowell Restaurants
The City of Seattle makes getting a permit incredibly frustrating. It takes forever and it would be hugely helpful if they would cut the processing time in half—at least.
Jill Kurfirst, Founder of Real Project Management Services
We have seen the pace of reviews by the SDCI slow to a crawl; my suggestions are:
1. Payments: SDCI needs to update its allowable methods of payment for major expenses, such as MUP or MHA fees, which frequently exceed credit card charge limits; and the SDCI payment system doesn’t accept partial payments on multiple cards, or over several days (maxing-out and paying off the same card). The alternative is to send a check via snail mail to a PO box that City staff only check periodically. For one of my projects it took a month for the City to acknowledge receiving a check.
2. MUP Publishing: A significant number of days are lost before publishing on every project no matter what day the supervisor approves the Report. The fact that they only publish on Mondays and Thursdays I believe is a legacy from when notices were only published in newspapers. This should be challenged and revised to daily publication.
3. MUP Appeal to Final Reviews: Weeks are sometimes lost between the end of the appeal period and when the project administrator is notified by the hearing examiner that there were no appeals filed to push the project forward to final review (even when we nudge them for an update). This is painful. Once SDCI revised its payment due date for MUP to fall before publishing instead of before issuance (like the old days), they should have commensurately sped up their administration of final steps, but the opposite happened. SDCI takes your money and then their part of the process moves like a glacier.
4. Final Reviews: What is the purpose of this exercise? Seattle’s entitlement process is laborious and slow enough without tacking on this Final Review. Nothing, literally nothing has changed from the last time these same reviewers saw these same documents and toggled the same approval switch in the system from when they gave their 100% approval before publishing could happen. This is a complete waste of time, and if a reviewer happens to be on vacation or out sick it can add weeks for no rational reason.
Todd Nelson, V.P. at Kirtley-Cole General Contractor
I just sat through a DRB webex for a project we will be constructing on Capitol Hill, and the deliberations portion would have made you sick. I had to listen to self-absorbed so-called pundits make unfounded derogatory comments about the architect’s design for 45 minutes, but never once was the architect invited to comment; we were muted the entire time as required by the meeting format. So rather than efficiently reach a compromise on some design revision ideas, we have to make another appointment, resubmit, and wait to hear if the DRB will grace us with their acceptance of our proposal. This DRB process and the control they have is one of the many reasons why the cost of construction development in Seattle is extreme, and in-turn, unaffordable.
Patrick Foley, Co-Founder/Principal of Lake Union Partners
Given how long permitting timelines were pre-COVID, it’s been even more challenging during COVID, and I think it’s reasonable to assume things will not soon be changing for the better. Things don’t get easier or less restrictive, they almost always become more constraining and costly. We have had success with ADR during Covid, however this is only because we have been fortunate to work with planners who are very reasonable, and who hit their review deadlines. The planners we have been working with don’t seem to have an agenda outside of the established Design Guidelines. This is not the case for many applicants. If the DR process within SDCI provided more certainty by focusing on Design Guidelines rather than subjective points of view, and by removing or relaxing some of the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes with various planners, then more housing (affordable + market rate) would be built at a lower cost. Sometimes I don’t think the City has empathy for the cost of time, and its negative impact on the feasibility of projects. More cost almost always means higher rent.
Roger Valdez, Director at Seattle For Growth
If we believe that the cost of housing is a measure of the supply and demand for it, we have our answer. With demand down, vacancies up, and more uncertainty, now is a favorable time for housing consumers. However, this environment means the risk for new housing development is higher. The accumulation of regulations ranging from seemingly small things — like setbacks for power lines, requiring garbage rooms on every floor, redundant water and drainage infrastructure — to fees from the MHA program make housing more costly, and thus more expensive for consumers before COVID-19.
Now is the time for the City and regulators at SDCI to step back from these requirements. Demand for housing will increase as we move into recovery. Risk created by eviction bans and accretion of regulation will create a lag in meeting that demand, which will result in higher prices for consumers. To reduce risk and incentivize new housing development, we need to see significant rollbacks in regulation. Several years ago we offered a comprehensive list of these kinds of items with little response. The City is at an important crossroads; we can jump at the chance now to get ahead of a surge in demand, while things have slowed down, or we can let it wash over the market and create price pressures that impact those with fewer dollars. In other words, reduce regulations now ahead of future demand in order to prevent big surges in price.
Jeff Pelletier, Owner, Board & Vellum
As the region starts to emerge from COVID-19, it is clear that our housing emergency has grown far worse. Seattle has been in a state of emergency since November 2015, and yet we have only seen the hassles to permit new housing, and the cost of building that housing increase. This pandemic has not had an equal impact on all members of our community, and so many of our neighbors have found their way into homelessness. A true crisis requires cutting through the bureaucracy and streamlining the process, yet we have seen the complete opposite of this. Projects get stalled for months sitting in the queue, or corrections come back from the City referencing incorrect codes. Meanwhile, the cost of everything goes up, the impact of which is passed on to the eventual resident. Well-intentioned efforts have hampered the ability to build in this city, and we hear from numerous developers and home-owners considering adding a unit or two to their property, that the cost and hassle of working in this city doesn’t make sense. It is no surprise that the trend of our work is heading outside the urban core, where unfortunately there isn’t the infrastructure to support significant housing. It is time to treat this emergency like an actual one and expedite the process to permit residential projects in Seattle.
Matt Aalfs, Principal, BUILDINGWORK
Due to COVID there are so many empty spaces in existing buildings throughout downtown and in the neighborhood commercial cores of the City. Building owners, tenants, developers, and architects will face challenges in designing and permitting for new tenants in existing buildings. Buildings or areas in buildings that have previously been permitted as office or retail may need to become residential, and vice versa. The City and SDCI could help by allowing for some flexibility in land use code requirements for use and occupancy, in order to help get buildings re-occupied. For example, flexibility on uses in the ground floor of mixed-use buildings would help.
As it was before COVID, the biggest risk or unknown for any project is how long it will take to complete the MUP process and/or the building permit process. The lack or consistency and clarity on permit review times has been a long-standing challenge. This issue will remain front and center as building owners and architects will be trying to move quickly to bring vacant buildings back into service.
Most of our projects are also significantly impacted by slowness from SDOT regarding street use permits and right-of-way improvements, and from SCL regarding transformer vaults and electrical service upgrades. We have noticed additional challenges during COVID as City agencies are working from home. Improvements in responsiveness for SDOT and SCL would be a big help.
Tim Carter, Principal, CONE ARCHITECTURE
As we emerge from the pandemic and get back to a new-normal, I would like to see two things happen right away:
No more permit intake appointments. Projects would be accepted when the application is ready. I currently have projects in my office that could be submitted next week, but when checking for available SDCI appointments, the first is four months from today. This lag not only delays projects from being realized, but it also unnecessarily increases costs, and will drive up rents as project owners are forced to hold properties for longer and pass those burdens down to the end user.
Streamline the process of delivering affordable housing in Seattle. In the two years since city-wide MHA zoning went into effect, we have seen an overall increase in the time it takes to permit projects. This runs counter to what we are striving to do as a community: deliver more housing options for those in need more quickly. For example, recent multifamily projects have continually faced late or unexpected rounds of corrections, only to respond to SOH items. My direct interactions with SOH have been helpful, but they are clearly understaffed. I see no reason why when the MHA option is vetted through the MUP, the paperwork required to implement MHA during the building permit reviews cannot be resolved at the same time we are navigating the myriad other required reviews. More SOH staff and a plainly stated SDCI Tip for navigating the MHA process would be a good starting point. Coupled with this is a request for SDCI planners to play a more active role in the common housing goal, and treat the mission on equal footing with adherence to the Design Guidelines. A project which can deliver maximum housing units for a site in a thoughtful manner should be allowed to advance MHA goals, rather than be directed to “mitigate height, bulk and scale concerns at the zone transition”, i.e., build fewer units in the service of broader, more ambiguous Design Guidelines.
Jim Graham, Principal at Graham Baba Architects
The SDCI needs to speed up the permitting process; the time it takes to get a permit is a huge issue for projects right now—frankly, this has been the case for a number of years, but it has increased over the past year. Larger projects do not suffer as much as smaller efforts. The notion that a residential permit will take ten months to be issued is a burden on many clients and contractors.
Another issue is the fast track permitting of any exterior seating solutions for restaurants, which should include changes to the code related to sidewalk café permits and streatery. We have a client who for over two years has been trying to get a permit for a straight forward streatery for ten additional exterior seats; still no permit.
David Hasenstab & Trevina Wang, Seattle Mom ‘n’ Pop Developers
A single point contact for permits rather than a continuous rotating cast of people could help expedite permitting. This works well in other jurisdictions, but other jurisdictions are also highly supportive and motivated for projects and actually want them to happen.
The Seattle tenant rental rules are like building permit rules; well-intentioned guidelines that respond to a prior problem, but cumulatively onerous and occasionally counterproductive. No rule has upset owners more than first come first serve, which in my opinion has reduced the number of mom ‘n’ pop owners. The City already has equal opportunity housing rules that prohibit discrimination based on roughly 20 criteria, including race, gender and disability. Still, renters seeking a suitable rental don’t always meet a level playing field; as such, they seek assistance from the City or County, who work as intermediary between them and appropriate property owners. In an effort to expose rental providers engaged in exclusionary practices, the agency could present them with two options, with one being from a protected class; if the owner selects the other choice, odds are that they are discriminating against the marginalized group. This practice could be called out via random audits by the governing agency, rather than by adding another well-intended but counterproductive rule that drives small landlords out of the market.
Patreese Martin, Principal at Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Use the current public health crisis to engage local developers, design and construction voices to rapidly realign the programs’ objectives with our evolving reality. The current granular one-by-one design review process isn’t serving us as well as it should, contributing to a disjointed public realm and some unfortunate unintended consequences. What will move us toward a vibrant, community-focused, sustainable and inclusive Seattle at the pace demanded?
I would also like to see ramped-up investment in bold, well-designed, pedestrian-focused public spaces, including parks, streetscapes, and consistent alternative transportation amenities. The pandemic has shown us what a city with fewer cars might be like, with experimentation in hybrid programming within the public realm. What does that tell us and how do we encourage a bolder spirit of invention?
Dear Seattle City Councilmembers,
I am concerned that the recent updates to the Seattle Energy Code are targeting levels of performance that are reducing our ability as a City to equitably and affordably house those in need.
If we wanted to do our part to avert climate change, we would ensure that single-family home energy codes (which serve the wealthiest among us) are just as stringent, if not more so, than apartment codes; we would impose congestion pricing fees and charge more to register large fuel inefficient vehicles; we would support a carbon tax; we would ban coal energy; and we would require offsets on flights in and out of the state or port.
Here are two reasons I believe we haven’t tackled these impactful issues:
1. It’s easier to do things that are hidden from public view and don’t require political courage. It’s hard to be a mayor or councilmember proposing congestion pricing; it’s far easier to recommend hidden regulatory changes that few understand, which are passed on to consumers without anyone noticing. But congestion pricing is the right thing to do in a city where nearly 60% of emissions come from vehicles, and most of the energy powering its buildings is already low carbon.
2. Our biases make it easier to reinforce historic inequities. Seattle is full of liberals who like to believe that no human is illegal—except for the one who will live in the proposed apartment building that will change the character of their neighborhood. Expensive building and energy code requirements have provided politically correct reasons to keep people out of our neighborhoods. The reason these increased barriers to housing affordability have met with so little resistance is that, like preserving neighborhood character, embracing more energy efficient buildings puts a veneer of presentability on a very ugly human emotion: “I don’t want poor people living near me.”
Please examine the work you are doing through an equity lens and ask yourselves if the energy savings you are working toward are fair across the population, or whether we are we piling new inequities on top of old ones simply because it is the path of least resistance.
Liz Dunn, Founder of Dunn & Hobbes
Over the past year, my greatest frustration has been due to the slowness and clumsiness with which the City has responded to the dire need for outdoor dining and pedestrian-centered circulation in our streets. The lack of nimbleness compared to other cities around the country has been disheartening. My team started inquiring about curbside dining and street closures in April and May 2020, and we were finally able to obtain a permit in August after far too many hours spent navigating endless red tape. Even so, while City leadership trumpeted the new Temporary Outdoor Permit policy, our restaurants continued to struggle with the loss of a summer’s worth of revenue.
Moving forward, the City needs to show more agility in its approach to how we use the public right-of-way, and swiftly and firmly solve challenges and assuage naysayers. The livelihood of small business is at stake. And the vitality that street dining has brought to the city is something we should emphatically embrace; retain the new policy in perpetuity (current permits are valid through 10/31/21), but with finessed implementation. More, the City needs to radically change its approach to roadblocks and signage signaling these pedestrian areas; off-putting Street Closed barriers should be eliminated, and positively worded Pedestrian & Dining Zone signage introduced. It’s (past) time for the City to follow the lead of other world-class cities in their approaches to — and prioritization of — engendering stimulating, positive, pedestrian-centered public realms.
Rick Mohler, FAIA, Associate Professor, University of Washington
I’m not embedded enough in the process to know what SDCI can specifically do to reduce Seattle’s permitting times. However, I remember starting to complain about the lengthening permitting process in the early to mid-nineties as the city’s post-Boeing-bust-boom gained momentum and development followed suit. Permitting has certainly not improved since then, but what has changed is that there is far more at stake, and it entails more than bolstering the local design and construction industries.
Seattle has had some of the country’s fastest rising housing costs for the past decade, and as the 18th largest city in the country, we have the third largest population of people experiencing homelessness behind New York and Los Angeles. We need more housing and we need it now.
Design and preservation review boards play a role in the lengthy permitting process as they view projects through the myopic lens of aesthetics without taking the broader social and environmental context into account. This is not to suggest that aesthetics are irrelevant. Rather, they stand among many relevant issues, including a combined climate and housing crisis. As a result, groups such as Seattle for Everyone are lobbying city council to include housing and environmental advocates on design review boards, in addition to architects and landscape architects, to temper the current focus on aesthetics and move projects forward more quickly. Councilmember Strauss has put forward a proposal to eliminate Design Review entirely for permanently supportive housing, and this will likely pass.
I’m currently teaching a UW research design studio and seminar in collaboration with the Housing Development Consortium focused on ultra-efficient affordable housing using an open source platform. The concept is to leverage off-site, modular construction, energy efficiency, and standardization to build affordable housing more quickly and at lower cost. One goal of standardization is to reduce permitting times, as building designs would not be “one-offs,” but rather open source and replicable.
This raises a host of dilemmas for architects ranging from a building’s potential lack of response to context, to the role of the architect in the design and construction process itself. While architects will likely resist this trend, we will be equally unlikely to stop it. As we speak, vertically integrated start-ups such Blokable and Katerra are striving to make this model a reality. So, I suppose that I’ve turned the question around to ask not what SDCI can do, but what will we as architects be willing to do to transform the production of housing from the single, one-off enterprise that it is today. We’ve been educated and trained to believe that our sole responsibility is to champion design quality and response to context. We now face the challenge of having to balance this mandate with others, such as addressing the existential threat of climate change and the social equity crisis of housing affordability. Will we rise to face it?
Glossary of Acronyms
ADR: Administrative Design Review
ASC: Applicant Service Center
DADU: Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit
DR: Design Review
DRB: Design Review Board
MHA: Mandatory Housing Affordability
MFTE: Multi-Family Tax Exemption
MUP: Master Use Permit
SCL: Seattle City Light
SDCI: Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections
SDOT: Seattle Department of Transportation
SOH: Seattle Office of Housing