Project Handbook

Authority

In 1968, The Seattle Design Commission was created by the Seattle City Council. When creating the Design Commission (Ordinance 96897) The City Council gave us broad authority to provide input on projects we review:

The Commission shall serve in an advisory capacity. Its function shall be to advise and assist the City in the development and execution of capital improvement projects. Its role shall be that of recommending such aesthetic, environmental and design principles and policies that it considers appropriate and advantageous in guiding the development of such projects. No City capital improvement project shall be designed, placed under contract for design or constructed without first being referred to the Commission for its review and recommendation.

We use this authority to provide advice and direction to applicants on City-funded capital facilities like parks, community centers, libraries, and fire stations. We also review projects that require permanent or long-term use of a street or alley, such as skybridges and requests to vacate an alley. However, we do not issue or approve permits.

Commission Meetings

We meet on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Our meetings are held in the Boards and Commissions room, located on lower level 2 (L2) of Seattle City Hall at 600 4th Ave, and typically run from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. A typical meeting includes three or four project reviews of 1.5 to 2.5 hours each. Our meetings are open to the public.

When we review a project, the format of the meeting typically includes:

  1. A presentation of the project by the applicant
  2. Comments by City representatives or other government agencies, and public comments
  3. Clarifying questions from the Commission about the presentation
  4. Commission deliberation about the presentation
  5. The Commission action, which can include:
    • A summary of the project
    • Comments on the project’s strengths or challenges, as reflected in its design
    • Recommendations for how to enhance the project's design or program
    • Other recommendations

Following the meeting, we prepare minutes that include a summary of the presentation and our advice to the applicant. We post the meeting minutes for each project on our website within a month of the project review.

Look at our calendar to see upcoming meetings or look at the projects we are currently reviewing.

Getting Started

Download our Project Handbook here to learn more about the Design Commission process and what is expected of project applicants. If your project is subject to a Design Commission review, first contact Commission staff to set up an initial appointment to discuss your project. City-funded projects are sometimes not subject to Design Commission review. Staff can help you determine if your project is subject to Commission review.

We reviews Capital Improvement Program (CIP) projects for City departments. CIP projects are City-funded, built on City property (including City-owned right-of-way), or require a City approval. Typical CIP projects include parks, fire stations, police stations, libraries, and other public facilities.

City departments identify CIP projects as part of the City's yearly budget adoption process. You can browse these projects in the City's most recent CIP budget.

The City's code that established the Design Commission provides broad authority to review CIP projects:

"No City capital improvement project shall be designed, placed under contract for design, or constructed without first being referred to the Commission for its review and recommendation."

We review projects through the following distinct phases:

CIP phase diagram

After the consultant selection phase, we review most CIP projects three times: during the concept design (30% of final design), schematic design (60% of final design), and design development (90% of final design) phases. If the project is complex in size or its mission, we may also review it at the pre-design (15% of final design) phase. In general, the review should occur prior to the end of the specified phase of design.

We vote to approve a project at each phase. Multiple reviews may occur at a given phase if we do not approve the project progressing to the next design phase.

For questions about how engineering, infrastructure, or transportation projects align with this phase schedule, contact Commission staff.

Every presentation throughout each step of the process should include the following to ensure a thorough review:

  • Floor plans, elevations, and sections with dimensions
  • Site circulation diagram
  • Landscape elements
  • Program elements
  • Lighting
  • Sustainability in building and site design
  • Stormwater facilities/infrastructure
  • Pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular facilities
  • A summary of the approach toward equity, as reflected in the Commission's equity policy


The following sections explain in greater detail what the Commission evaluates at each phase of design for CIP projects and what additional materials are expected in the corresponding presentation.

Consultant selection for a CIP project can be crucial to its success. City departments developing a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) or Request for Proposal (RFP) for projects subject to Commission review should involve at least one Commissioner at the initial stages.

During the selection process, we will recommend that you:

  • Include preliminary design goals and objectives in the project scope
  • Include sufficient design budgets and realistic schedules
  • Invite submissions from a broad range of firms, including newly-established and minority- and women-owned firms
  • Solicit firms with a record of, or potential for, design excellence
  • Assess the firm's design expertise and values, its managerial competence, and its enthusiasm for the project

A pre-design review occurs when you explore multiple alternatives for programming and siting. We review the project goals, a roadmap for achieving them, and any opportunities and challenges you have identified. The presentation should include a thorough analysis of the project site and any relevant codes, plans, or design guidelines. You should outline your plan for community engagement and discuss how the project supports the goals of the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI).

At the pre-design stage, we evaluate and make recommendations on:

  • Overall project scope, budget, schedule
  • Goals and objectives
  • Design alternatives under consideration
  • Exploration and analysis of site conditions, constraints, and opportunities
  • Exploration and analysis of community and interdepartmental involvement and coordination
  • Exploration of sustainability goals, challenges, and opportunities including options designed to meet the City's Sustainable Building and Site Policy
  • Analysis of urban context (urban form, character, uses, transportation and open space networks, etc.)
  • How your approach on equity is reflected in the design of public space or facilities


See the October 15, 2015 Portage Bay Park materials for a good example of a pre-design presentation.

At the concept design phase, we evaluate the organization and function of the building and/or site. The review occurs when you have selected a preferred alternative and there is still time to change the project concept. At the concept design review, you should document the intended character and experiential qualities of the design. As the project progresses through the schematic design and design development phases, the initial concept presented at this review provides a reference point. If we did not review the project at pre-design, you should address the items listed under Pre-Design during this phase.

At the concept design phase, we evaluate and make recommendations on:

  • The preferred overarching design concept
  • Scope and program
  • Design response to site conditions, constraints, and opportunities
  • Synthesis of and design response to community input
  • Integration with the urban fabric
  • Sizing and configuration of site program elements, building uses, circulation, scale, massing, and orientation
  • Character of buildings and spaces
  • Initial ideas for employing materials, plants, lighting, and artwork
  • Development of approach towards sustainability, including options in site and building design that meet or exceed the City's Sustainable Building and Site Policy


See the December 1, 2016 Greenwood Phinney Park Development materials for a good example of concept design presentation.

At the schematic design phase, it should be clear how the design has evolved from the initial concept. The review occurs when you anticipate only minor changes to the program and the choice of project elements. At this point, the elements and details will be under design, and you will present the proposed choices for materials, plant palettes, site furnishings, and lighting. You will have worked with the artist and should present how the art is being integrated with the building and/or site concept.

At the schematic design phase, we evaluate and make recommendations on:

  • Progress toward achieving the vision and concept for the project
  • Response to previous Commission recommendations
  • Shifts and refinements to the overarching design concept
  • Any changes to scope and program
  • Resolution of issues with and refined design response to site conditions, constraints, and opportunities
  • Any refinements of preferred approaches to sustainability, including initial analysis on meeting or exceeding project goals
  • Refined integration with the urban fabric
  • Refinements to sizing and configuration of site program elements and circulation
  • Refinements to sizing and configuration of building uses, scale, massing, and orientation
  • Character and experiential qualities of buildings and spaces
  • Art integration based on art concept design
  • Lighting concept

Any changes in the program or design due to additional community engagement related to the Commission's equity policy or the City's RSJI program

See the April 3, 2014 Waterfront - Union St materials for a good example of a schematic design presentation.

Design Development review occurs when you have refined the schematic design, resolved most issues, and selected design details, materials, and finishes.

In this final phase, we review the integration of all aspects of the project. We expect to see final materials and finishes, plant selections, furnishings, and lighting. At this point you will have decided on all sustainability features, and engineers on your team may present key systems and technologies of the overall sustainability strategy, including stormwater management, on-site energy generation, geothermal heating, or rainwater harvesting.

The artist's work will be well underway at this phase, and we will review its integration within the project. We will consider if the architecture has contributed to the integration of the art in the overall design. 

At the design development phase, we evaluate and make recommendations on:

  • A summary of how the design achieves the vision and concept for the project
  • Response to previous Commission recommendations
  • Shifts and refinements to the schematic design
  • Final design details of all project elements and spaces
  • Choice of site furnishings and lighting
  • Materials, colors, and finishes
  • Art integration
  • Final approach and implementation of sustainability measures in building and site design


See the January 21, 2016 North Precinct materials for a good example of a design development presentation.

Street & Alley Vacations

We provide recommendations to City Council on a petition to vacate a street or an alley. The Commission develops their recommendations in two distinct phases: Urban Design Merit and Public Benefit.

We forward our recommendations to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) as part of the Vacation Petition process. The goal of our review is to provide clear recommendations to SDOT and City Council about whether the request to vacate a street or alley should be approved and what kind of public benefits should be provided to offset the public loss of the street or alley.


We rely on a variety of documents and information, including:

  • City Council's street and alley vacation policies adopted by Resolution 30702, including any amendments
  • The documents in the vacation petition
  • The documents in the application for Commission review and any presentation materials
  • Permitting documents submitted to Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI), including street- or alley-related impact analyses or reports


For further information please review the summary of existing codes and policies that guide us in our review of proposals to vacate an existing street or alley.

During the Urban Design Merit phase, we determine if and how the vacation affects the remaining streets or alleys near the project and if any impacts to the public trust functions have been adequately addressed. The City's streets and alleys are held in public trust for the public. The public trust functions include vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian circulation; access; utilities; light, air, and open space; and views.

We will also consider how the vacation affects adjacent land uses, including whether the loss of the street or alley results in development on a lot that is out of scale compared to development in the immediate area or alters development patterns that predominate in the immediate area.

Your urban design merit presentation should include all items outlined in the Getting Started section of the project handbook as well as:

  • Neighborhood circulation (pedestrians, bicycles, transit, and vehicles) with and without vacation
  • Building and site circulation with and without vacation
  • Programming elements with and without vacation
  • Open space with and without vacation
  • Utility plans with and without vacation


Once the Commission has completed this phase of the review, they will vote on its recommendation and may add clarifying comments or conditions of approval.



See the May 4, 2017 1101 8th Ave Alley Vacation materials for a good example of an urban design merit presentation.

When you request a vacation, you must develop a proposal that provides public benefits that offset the public loss of the street or alley. Public benefits should be proportional to the benefits gained by the applicant because of the vacation, including added property value or development potential. These benefits must go beyond any project elements required by City codes or required to mitigate project impacts. The development and its economic impacts are not public benefits.

The public benefits may occur on the right-of-way surrounding the project, or nearby the vacation site, and may include:

  • Publicly accessible plazas or open spaces that are created or enhanced
  • Sidewalks wider than required by regulations
  • Pedestrian connections
  • Enhanced landscaping
  • Street elements including seating, lighting, or art
  • View easements or corridors
  • Wayfinding improvements


We will also require you to provide a summary of the approach towards equity, as reflected in our equity policy, in the design of public benefits.

See the February 19, 2015 Denny Substation materials for a good example of a public benefit presentation.

Skybridges

Like street and alley vacations, we advise City Council on petitions for new skybridges or for reauthorizing existing skybridges. Following the process for street or alley vacations, we develop our recommendation based on the merit of the proposal and the public benefit. We make our recommendations following submittal of an application to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

The goal of our review is to provide clear recommendations to SDOT and City Council about whether the request to approve or retain a skybridge is warranted, given its impacts on the adjacent or nearby rights-of-way, and what kind of public benefits should be provided to offset the impacts of the skybridge on the adjacent rights of way.
We rely on a variety of documents and information, including:

  • SDOT's Director's Rule and Client Assistance memos
  • The  application materials
  • The documents developed by the Skybridge Review Committee, including their final report
  • Permitting documents submitted to SDOT or Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI) including street- or alley-related impact analyses or reports

As part of its review and recommendations, we first consider the merit of either installing or retaining the existing skybridge. We consider the following standards found in SMC 15.64:

  • Adequacy of horizontal and vertical clearance
  • View blockage
  • Interruption or interference with existing streetscape or other street amenities
  • Impacts due to reduction of natural light
  • Reduction of and effect on pedestrian activity at street level
  • Number of pedestrians that currently use the skybridge
  • Effect on commerce and enjoyment of neighboring land uses
  • Availability of reasonable alternatives
  • Effect on traffic and pedestrian safety
  • Accessibility for the elderly and handicapped


In addition, when evaluating requests to reauthorize an existing skybridge, we will also consider:

  • Changed conditions in the vicinity since original installation
  • Any changes to existing public benefit mitigation elements provided under the original City Council ordinance that authorized the skybridge
  • Any known conflicts with existing or proposed utilities, street lighting, traffic control devices, or other upcoming transportation projects


Once the Commission has completed this phase of the review, they will vote and may add clarifying comments or conditions of approval in its final report to SDOT and City Council.

A public benefit package is required to offset the impacts to the right of way because of the skybridge. Like street or alley vacations, the public benefit package must exceed any project elements that are either required by City codes or required to mitigate project impacts.

The public benefits should generally be designed to enhance the adjacent and nearby rights-of-way that are impacted by the skybridge. Consistent with public benefits provided under a street or alley vacation, such public benefits can include:

  • Creation or enhancement of publicly accessible plazas or open spaces
  • Sidewalks wider than required by regulations
  • Pedestrian connections
  • Enhanced landscaping
  • Street elements including seating, lighting, or art
  • View easements or corridors
  • Wayfinding improvements


We will also require you to provide a summary of the approach towards equity, as reflected in the Commission's equity policy, in the design of public benefits.

We will vote on its recommendation and may add clarifying comments or conditions of approval.

Light Rail Review Panel

We provide oversight and support for the City’s Light Rail Review Panel (LRRP). The LRRP was formed in 1999 to provide design advice to Sound Transit as it develops its stations and site designs for its Central, University, North, and East Link light rail programs. We also provide staff support to the LRRP.

The following representatives make up the LRRP:

  • All 10 members of the Seattle Design Commission
  • 3 members of the Seattle Planning Commission
  • 1 member of the Seattle Arts Commission

Similar to the Design Commission, the LRRP provides advice to Sound Transit on all phases of station and site design, from original concept through final design details. Like us, the LRRP is not a regulatory body; its authority was established as part of the 1998 Memorandum of Agreement between the City and Sound Transit (City Council Ordinance 122400).

LRRP meetings also occur on the first or third Thursday of every month.

Other Permits

We advise the Seattle Department of Transportation on permits that request the long-term use of a right-of-way. These term permits allow a variety of features to be located in the right-of-way, including:

  • Transportation devices
  • Private structures
  • Commemorative plaques
  • Pay toilets
  • Memorials
  • Bus shelters
  • Wayfinding signs
  • Community bulletin boards

The City’s Right-of-Way Improvements Manual has more information.

We consider a variety of factors in our recommendation, including the extent to which the proposed object:

  • Affects the public character of the streetscape
  • Enhances the right-of-way and pedestrian activity
  • Should be considered a public amenity
  • Can be easily removed if the permit is not renewed

Major Projects

We also play an important role in the review of major transportation projects, representing the City’s interest and commitment to projects with exemplary urban design. Through its history, we have been involved in reviewing projects like:

  • State Route 520
  • Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement
  • Central Waterfront Plan
  • Link Light Rail
  • Monorail
  • Washington State Ferries - Colman Dock