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Originally published Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

Public needs to stay involved when development is reviewed

Seattle is developing faster than expected, according to a Seattle Times report on residential growth ["In Seattle, growth is off the charts,"...

Special to The Times

Seattle is developing faster than expected, according to a Seattle Times report on residential growth ["In Seattle, growth is off the charts," page one, June 18].

As a result, public design reviews are essential in preventing this exponential growth from damaging the city's rich sense of place.

These reviews, which ensure that new developments fit their neighborhoods, kick in when projects are a certain size and in certain zones.

The process vastly improves the city's design quality, but sometimes designs get changed out of the public eye. Known as a redo, this happened to an Opus development scheduled for 1221 Madison St., across from my First Hill condominium.

I asked Seattle city planners about projects revised without public input, learning that about 25 percent of projects are redone after the final design review, some in minor ways, or in the Opus case, much more significantly. Only when a project's legal status changes — about 10 percent of the time — does it return for public review.

I realize designs must shift as they develop, but major redos without additional community participation violate public trust. Most troubling in the Opus case, the drawings disappeared from the city's files during the redo. Once they reappeared, building permits had been issued.

Ideally, design review begins early on, during public meetings attended by the applicant, concerned citizens, a staff planner and a five-member council-appointed board. City design guidelines and, in some cases, neighborhood-specific ones, structure the review.

When the design is refined, sometimes after several meetings, the board recommends to the city that the project proceed. Often the board places conditions on its recommendation, specifying additional elements that must be added or improved before building permits are issued.

The public review of 1221 Madison St. began June 14, 2006, when the proposed building included 139,000 square feet of medical offices, 10,000 square feet of retail, 400 parking spaces and 46 apartments. Opus requested a conditional use permit for the medical offices since zoning allowed only 10,000 square feet, given the building's proximity to Swedish Hospital.

My neighbors and I attended four meetings, and submitted more than 40 letters and petitions protesting the project. We were repeatedly reminded that we could only discuss the design, not the conditional use, which the city would decide.

Nevertheless, many residents persistently argued that the medical offices created too much bulk and traffic, effectively expanding Swedish Hospital. But we praised the design, especially its details, materials and window arrangement.

In an amazing turnaround at the fifth and final meeting, Aug. 1, 2007, Opus eliminated all medical offices, instead proposing 243 apartments, including five live-work units, and just 107 parking spaces.

Opus' responsiveness delighted residents and board members alike, confirming the value of public participation.

But then Opus developed an in-house design quite different from the one presented Aug. 1, and minus items we specifically discussed as strengths.

For example, we applauded the live-work units, which had dramatic two-story windows enlivening the residential street. The board even stipulated as a condition of issuing building permits that the plan should clearly indicate work versus living area. The redone design eliminates those units, substituting one-story apartments with small, average-looking windows.

We also applauded a predominantly brick west facade that boldly wrapped the corner and continued for 18 feet on an asymmetrical precast concrete south facade. In the redone design, the brick no longer wraps the corner, and the asymmetry is gone.

Also gone is the lively pattern of handsomely proportioned windows, replaced by a more static, clumsy pattern. Gone too is the landscaped garden in a 16-foot setback at the north property line. Instead, a 15-foot setback is partially filled with Dumpsters.

Such significant changes to a building design without public input violate the purpose of the design review. As Seattle undergoes exponential growth, the integrity of this very valuable public scrutiny must be protected by:

(1) telling the public about rules for revising projects, and

(2) having more stringent requirements about bringing those projects back for public scrutiny.

Sharon Egretta Sutton is a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Washington, a fellow in the American Institute of Architects and the community representative on the Area 7 Design Review Board.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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