For anyone living or working in Seattle, there was an extraordinary bill recently passed by the City regarding the built environment, and whether you’re in the design and construction industries or not, it matters greatly to you.
Thanks to Seattle City Council Bill 120587 (effective on June 23, 2023), multi-family residential buildings up to 200 units are now exempt from the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) and Design Review process, provided that they meet the criteria for Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). The legal summary may be found here.
For developers and architects, this bill eliminates a long list of bureaucracy, red tape, and unnecessary work for multi-family projects, including the Master Use Permit (MUP), Early Community Outreach (ECO), Early Design Guidance (EDG), and the Design Review Process (DR). It allows design teams to focus their time and efforts on the quality of projects, the technicalities of construction documents, and achieving proformas that will allow projects to become reality.
For the City, it’s a signal that they are trusting design professionals to uphold standards of responsible design in the built-environment. Further, it honors the State’s professional licensure process by acknowledging that when an architect achieves licensure, they should be trusted to design buildings. The confidence the City is entrusting to the design community does not go unnoticed, and its architects are up to the task.
For builders and sub-contractors, there is less paperwork preventing them from doing what they do best: constructing buildings. Most importantly, for the public, this measure positions the city for greater equality, better affordability, and a real opportunity to address the housing crisis in our built-environment.
This legislation represents significant progress on so many fronts. Over the last two decades, layer upon layer of reviews and process were added to the permitting of a muti-family building, to the extent that any project, even a small apartment, took years to permit. We at BUILD have spoken out about the fact that these processes, which were meant to improve the quality of our city, had the exact opposite effect. There is very little energy left for maximizing design quality when there are so many layers and checkboxes to get through, and which have the net effect of diminishing attention to design.
These layers included the steps mentioned above—the MUP, ECO, EDG, and DR, to name a few (yes, there were others). These steps, and the professional time required to complete them, added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the design and permitting costs of a multi-family project, and significantly more holding costs for the development group waiting to slog through these processes. If a project could financially pencil out, despite these cost- adds (many did not), the process held several repercussions: more time in permitting means less housing stock released to the market; more professional bandwidth means those costs are (eventually) passed on to the end-user (the tenant); all the time and energy put toward process rather than design is pretty darn evident in our built environment; and a complicated process means fewer mom-‘n’-pop developers can get in the game and survive. In short, it was a project-crushing process.
Pushing back against this overreaching permit process was a campaign that BUILD has been waging for years, and we had many insightful conversations with important people on the topic. Today, we’re proud to recognize and thank a handful of individuals and groups who worked and persevered to get this legislation passed, and we are likely (unintentionally) omitting many more souls who deserve acknowledgement than those we’re able to name.
Most notably is the bill’s sponsor, Seattle City Councilmember Dan Strauss, for his vision and determination—and every one of his fellow Councilmembers who voted unanimously for the bill’s passage. We’d also like to thank the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, particularly Nathan Torgelson and his team who undoubtedly worked tirelessly to coordinate and support this legislation. At the State level, Senators Salomon, Liias, Kuderer, Lovelett, Mullet and Pedersen, each of whom played a role in their sponsorship of Senate Bill 5412, which aims to reduce local governments’ land use permitting workloads.
These are all fine people who spend much of their time in the trenches hearing all about things going wrong; we are here to give them thanks from the bottom of our hearts.
In making these changes statute, these individuals and groups did something meaningful and courageous in the name of a better, more livable city.
From the team at BUILD LLC, thank you.