One month ago, we published a post on this blog called Resuscitating the Built Environment Post-COVID-19; contributors included multiple architects and developers, an elected official, restauranteur, contractor, project manager, lobbyist, educator, and a real estate professional. The remarks proved insightful and shared common themes. As noted in that story, a couple of weeks ago we sat down with Nathan Torgelson, Director of the Seattle Office of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), to hear his response to the post, and to get his seasoned, behind-the-scenes perspective on the topics discussed. We’re so grateful to Nathan for his generosity and candor in speaking with us, and hope you will gain a new perspective about the subjects at hand after reading the following transcript of our conversation.
Were you able to read through our last blog post Resuscitating the Built Environment Post-COVID-19? What was your reaction?
Yes. I fully appreciate and understand that people in the design community are frustrated. I get it. There were a lot of great suggestions in the post, some of which the City has already implemented, such as eliminating parking requirements; others will be more difficult to achieve for political reasons—they have to go through council and the Mayor.
Our elected officials are in a difficult spot—we desperately need housing in this city, and at the same time, people have a hard time with change. I’ve heard from many who have lived here their entire lives who say that compared to ten years ago, they don’t recognize Seattle. And they don’t like it. A lot of people are angry. Elected officials are hearing this on both sides. One of the most compelling ways to talk to people in Seattle about the need for more housing, growth and density is: if they have children, ask them where they think their kids are going to live [in the future] if they want to stay here—if they want to work and live in Seattle, how is this going to happen? I really liked David Neiman’s comments in the blog post, and I totally agree that we should revisit the zoning code every five years, but it’s difficult. Several years ago the Department of Planning and Development (DPD)overhauled the multifamily code, but it took three years due to the politics. I would also love to see the SEPA threshold for commercial uses increase—we’re below what the state allows.
One of the common concerns expressed by those who contributed to that post is the amount of time it takes to obtain a permit from the SDCI; is this also a concern of the department’s? If so, how is it being addressed?
We absolutely need to be issuing permits faster. Staffing is more challenging than it may appear, but in order to hire permanent positions, we have to go to council to get authority to create new positions, even though they are funded by fees. We do have the ability to hire through a budgeting device called contingent budgeting authority, which allows us to hire staff for a two-year maximum period; this provides flexibility because we don’t have to get approval from council, but it’s a little more challenging to hire because most people are seeking permanent employment. Although there’s always turnover in any large organization — people retire, get new jobs, move on — when permanent positions become available, they’re highly competitive. So we’ve used a lot of contingent budgeting authority to hire new staff, which has been great, though there’s a fear that if we hire too many staff, if we have a recession we’ll have to lay them off. Three to four years ago we completely redid our permit fee ordinance, so when we do have the next downturn, which we will (some would argue we’re in it now, but I don’t agree), we’ll be in a better position to not have to lay off as many staff. When we had layoffs in ‘08 or ‘09, the economy came roaring back and our department was far behind in its ability to hire and train new staff. We’ll be ready next time.
For a variety of reasons, a number of our ordinance and structural reviewers for the building permit process have left, so we’re now in the process of interviewing and hiring nine new people in this area, which is where we’ve seen the most significant lag times in the review process.
One thing we’re excited about is a new tool called Bluebeam Revu, which is being piloted at SDCI and will go department-wide for MUPs and building permits. It allows the applicant — usually the architect, engineer and reviewer — to review and amend plans virtually in real-time. A lot of jurisdictions have seen great success with it.
Some other things we’ve done: for our ten pre-approved DADU plans, review happens between two to six weeks. We’ve also added a small business liaison who works closely with the Office of Economic Development; if a potential small business owner is about to sign a lease, they’re encouraged to talk to the liaison in advance so they may best understand how the location will suit their needs, or conversely, if it will require substantial alterations to succeed. We have a similar resource for arts and culture uses; COVID has been such a blow to the arts community—even before the pandemic they were struggling. We’re also trying to be better communicators.
We have always prioritized 100% affordable housing projects—they immediately go to the top of the queue. We’re testing a new initiative, which is staff intensive but proving successful: Last August the Mayor announced six new permanent supportive housing projects, which are100% affordable and have on-site wraparound supportive services, and we’ve been meeting monthly with other City departments, King County, and the sponsoring affordable housing developer and their architects, and we go through every project and problem solve on the spot. This is time intensive, so we can’t do this for every project under review, but it’s been successful. We’ve worked closely with the Mayor’s Office and the Fire Department, as they were short on staff, to get additional permit review staffing, which impacts our work.
Many federal, state and city organizations have eased requirements during COVID-19. As a parent of two, the one that comes to mind is Seattle Public School’s easing up on remote learning for fatigued parents. Is it a reasonable request of the SDCI to lessen permitting requirements?
We have used the Mayor’s state of the emergency for any projects that have a COVID link; testing facilities and R&D facilities are exempted from SEPA and a lot of building permit regulations, but they have to meet basic life safety requirements, with electrical review being a huge one. We’ve also exempted Tiny House Villages for the homeless from SEPA review, and under the Mayor’s initiative, we’ve eliminated design review for all 100% affordable housing projects. Councilmember Lewis sponsored legislation that passed last month, which will permanently exempt on-site supportive housing projects. We’re also working with the Mayor’s office on legislation that will lessen the regulations for street front space downtown, which has stringent guidelines regarding what’s acceptable at street level, such as uses that generate a lot pedestrian traffic. Considering how many street level spaces are empty right now, the Mayor is making this a priority, and we have a list of businesses that want to establish a downtown presence, so hopefully the code will ease up and allow this to happen.
Design Review: when COVID first hit we couldn’t have design review meetings because the code dictates that they must be in-person. So we got the council to use emergency legislation powers to allow meetings to be conducted remotely, but this took a few months; the legislation allowed for a six-month period, but of course COVID lasted longer, so then there was another lag time before legislation was reinstated. When the pandemic is over, do we remain virtual? Go back to in-person? Hybrid? The challenge is that most meeting locations are not setup with the kind of technology needed for virtual, so it would be a huge expense to implement.
Small multi-family projects are becoming more challenging to permit simply because they typically have to meet the same threshold of requirements as a large project, but without the financial backing of a large project. It’s expensive! Are there realistic ways to give the smaller projects a lift? It seems as though they should have their own permitting category.
Pre-pandemic, Councilmember Pacheco passed legislation that exempted multi-family projects in urban villages from SEPA if they were 200 units or fewer. The challenge is that if urban villages see a lot of development and reach the threshold growth target set forth in the Comprehensive Plan, then they have go down to the lower SEPA thresholds. The City could explore raising the SEPA threshold for multi-family residential outside of urban villages, as there’s already a precedent inside of urban villages.
The City revamped the design review process about three years ago; the threshold for design review used to be based on the number of units, which didn’t make sense, because when you look at the height, bulk and scale of a building, from a design perspective it doesn’t matter if there are eight units or eighty. But the City could certainly take another look at these thresholds. Between streamlined, administrative, and regular design review, the responses are all over the map. When design review first went virtual last year, we gave a lot of people the option to go administrative, which they accepted, but then at some point it reverted back. We had some developers who were administrative, but then they were told to revert to the board and they begged to remain administrative, and vice versa.
Andrew van Leeuwen: The effectiveness of the review varies between reviewers. Administrative looks efficient until you get into it; the review happens behind closed doors where we’re not privy to the conversation, and instead are relying on a reviewer to relay what was said and asked for. Whereas with full design review we’re in the room and can respond more quickly and efficiently to the comments. Administrative feels like when you’re in the showroom buying a car and the salesman goes into the back room to talk to the guy…
Nathan Torgelson: When you’ve gone through administrative review, do you feel as though it depends on who your planner is? And are you able to meet with them to talk through the issues?
AvL: It depends. We’ve had some great experiences and some that are frustrating depending on who our planner is. In the best case scenario, there is a clear line of communication and we’re able to discuss concerns and options in real time. Then, when the call is over, we can immediately get to work making the changes. Worst case, it takes six to eight weeks to get a response, and then the comments are something like: the concrete at the front wall needs to be board-formed rather than panel-formed. This consumes a one to two-month cycle because the planner doesn’t like the texture of the concrete.
NT: Part of the frustration, too, is that for a while the boards were so busy and there was a finite number of meeting time slots. Now, for better or worse, there are a lot of slots open because fewer projects are going through design review. On the building side, we’re slammed. In January to March 2020 we had $900M worth of projects; this year, $2.1 billion—all responding to the previous energy code, which vested on March 15. And we still have building permit projects coming in.
Many are calling for the elimination of Early Design Guidance, as there seems to be a dissonance between the EDG processes prescription of what design should be, and with what it can be given the constraints of construction costs, the rental market, and proformas. What is your reaction to this? Is EDG too idealistic?
I don’t know what the answer is. The idea is that when the design team comes to the board, they have a design concept and vision, but is it realistic? Has enough investment already been made into the site and the project given the crazy market? Are things pretty well along by the time of EDG?
AvL: It probably varies by architect. An architectural education is demanding, long and arduous, so when a student comes out the other side, they feel as though they’ve done the time to qualify as an architect. The frustration I often hear is that when an architect spends considerable time putting together an EDG packet, they feel confident with what they’re turning in for review. However, more often than not, reviewers end up playing architect and pick apart the design. EDG probably makes sense for out-of-state developers who come to Seattle and hire a fly-by-night architect to move a project through, put up a building, cash their check and get out of town. For architects who take their work seriously, who are local and who care, we’re not going to let a crappy project get built—there’s too much at stake: our reputation, our brand, our architectural stamp. It’s hard to develop a blanket solution. From our perspective, a lot of City resources are spent questioning what we feel we’re already good at.
Is it necessary to adopt a new building code every 3 years? Have there been any mechanisms discussed at the SDCI to reduce the size of the code or the frequency of which it is adopted?
We respond to the cycle of the State Building Council, so to make change you’d have to start at the state level. With the energy code, Seattle prides itself on being more progressive, thanks in part to the Mayor’s very ambitious climate goals. I asked staff if we are required to adopt a new code every three years, and they said they don’t think so; it’s likely been a procedural practice that hasn’t been questioned.
On another note, how is Seattle going to solve its housing crisis? What can the SDCI do to help solve Seattle’s homeless state of emergency?
This is a tough one. I’m cautiously optimistic that this new homelessness funding entity that the City and County are pooling their money for will lead to some positive change. A new director was just hired. Homelessness funding has become extremely political, which has created part of the problem. We have been working for three years with the state legislature to try to exempt Tiny House Villages from SEPA review. We have seen individuals appeal SEPA determinations on Tiny House Villages which is a delay tactic. We’ve been lobbying in Olympia for the exemption status, but have been unsuccessful for three years. We have been flexible and extremely creative using existing building codes for shelters My direction to staff is that a given building may not meet the letter of the law for this many people from an occupancy standpoint, but the homeless are safer inside than on the streets.
Many Seattle residents, including architects, developers and builders, aren’t aware that the SDCI generates 100% of its revenue from permit, correction and inspection fees. How did this come to be, and why isn’t the SDCI funded by local taxes like other City agencies?
I don’t know the entire history, but we use to benefit from some general fund dollars. With ever increasing needs and activities in the city that can only be funded from the general fund, elected officials figured out that SDCI could be a more fee-driven department, not unlike Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light, which are supported by enterprise funds and funded by utility taxes paid by residents and business owners. One caveat: our code compliance division is funded by general funds because it’s not related to a specific permit. For someone in the building industry, it’s understandable why you would question it. Neighborhood activists don’t like it either—they think that we’re in the pocket of developers. Another tricky thing is that if you have a project that gets appealed to the hearing examiner (and it only costs about $85 to appeal a project), the applicant to pay for the staff time to prepare and present on your behalf at the hearing. I think that the entire appeal process needs to be changed because it benefits wealthy communities simply because they’re the ones who can afford to engage in this process and hire their own attorneys.
In the spirit of never letting a perfectly good crisis go to waste, what has the SDCI learned as a result of the pandemic?
I really appreciate this question. Leading during the pandemic has been the greatest challenge of my career. It has been a huge learning journey, and it’s been exhausting, but I’m a better person for it. We have 400 employees and 30% (about 150 staff) are persons of color. First and foremost we’ve learned that structural racism is a huge challenge in our organizations, in our city and country, and in the City of Seattle. We have spent a lot of time focusing on this, having difficult and painful conversations with staff. The pandemic has forced us to address this. The events that transpired after George Floyd’s murder, and the rise of Black Lives Matter ripped off the BandAid and forced us to confront our complicity. We’ve heard from our BIPOC employees and applicants and communities—it’s been intense. We’ve looked at the hierarchy within our organization, managers and directors…we have a lot of work to do.
Another thing that has been beneficial include learning to work remotely, which has helped staff and applicants. We will likely continue with a hybrid. Many employees who have been resistant to technology have learned how to work with it. And we’re looking for ways to create more virtual applicant service centers, as we understand that it’s difficult for some people to get downtown, pay for parking etc. And perhaps installing some permitting services in branch libraries. Bluebeam Revu will be important moving forward. We have a lot of permits that are ready to issue, but applicants haven’t picked them up because they don’t want the clock to start ticking—in the past we’ve canceled these after a concise period of time, but we’re not doing that now.
What support does the SDCI need from the architectural community to help become a city that gets things done?
We keep adding regulations and I think the Seattle City Council needs to hear more from the community. They hear from neighborhood activists, but need to hear from those of you in the trenches. Council will probably continue to meet virtually, but if you can get their ear and take them into the field for a show-‘n’-tell of what works and what doesn’t, that could be very useful. A broad coalition is also effective; partnering with developers, any labor unions etc. I love the idea of scrubbing the land use code, but it’s a challenging process. Dan Strauss is chair of the council’s Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee, so you could start there—and Teresa Mosqueda is also on the Land Use Committee and has been engaged on the issue of code reform.
Nathan Torgelson was appointed Director of the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) in January 2016 and leads a staff of 400, with a budget of $85 million. Previously Nathan was Deputy Director of the City’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), worked on community development issues for former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, worked at Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, worked on Seattle’s waterfront project for Seattle Parks and Recreation, and served as the Economic Development Director for four years for the City of Kent.