Project Handbook

Download our Project Handbook to learn more about the Design Commission process and what is expected of project applicants.

Authority

In 1968, The Seattle Design Commission was created by the Seattle City Council. When creating the Design Commission (SMC 3.58) 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 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. Staff will also guide the development of your presentation materials to reflect the various stages of the project review, commissioner interest, and issues raised in previous reviews.

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 our 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
  • For projects seeking a street or alley vacation, it is recommended that you retain a consultant with expertise in the street or alley vacation process. Expertise is generally gained through previous vacation submittals The vacation process is discussed in greater detail below.

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. Pre-design review is required for projects seeking a street or alley vacation. A pre-design review must occur before submitting a petition to vacate a right of way. Please review the Council vacation policies in Resolution 31809 for more information.


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
  • For project seeking a street or alley vacation, any initial guidance related to the proposed vacation 


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 do 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
  • For projects seeking a street or alley vacation, the commission will include its recommendations on the Public Trust analysis phase of the vacation process. Information on this review is discussed below. 


See the May 4, 2017 Lake City 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


For projects seeking a street or alley vacation, the commission will include its recommendations on the Public Benefit analysis phase of the vacation process. Information on this review is discussed below.

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
  • Any refinements to elements of the public benefit package developed as part of the street and alley vacation process.


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

Street & Alley Vacations

Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) Section 3.58.080.D requires us to advise the Council on street, alley or public place vacations. We provide its advice in two distinct phases: Public Trust Analysis and Public Benefit Analysis.

The goal of these reviews is to provide clear recommendations to the 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.

For CIP projects that request a vacation:

Timelne for CIP projects requesting a vacation

For projects subject to Design Review that request a vacation:

Timelne for projects subject to Design Review

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

  • City Council's street and alley vacation policies adopted In May 2018 by Resolution 31809
  • The documents in the vacation petition
  • Reviews by City departments and other agencies with interest in the project
  • The documents in the application for Commission review and any presentation materials
  • Permitting documents submitted to Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections, including street- or alley-related impact analyses, environmental review documents, design review materials, and any relevant reports
  • Public comment

Council vacation policy V.C requires a proposed vacation to be presented to us so that we can provide early input before a petition is submitted to SDOT. This initial review provides the proponent with an early evaluation of the project and any commissioner recommendations related to addressing potential public realm impacts or public benefit strategies.

In the case of projects subject to Design Review (23.41.022), we will provide written recommendations on the proposed vacations to the Design Review Board before the board holds any early design guidance meetings. This code section also requires that our initial recommendations be included with the EDG application.

For CIP, we will provide recommendations concurrent with a predesign review of the proposal. For additional information on the pre-design phase of CIP review, see the section above related to CIP.

After a valid petition is submitted to SDOT and has been circulated to City agencies for comment, we will hold a meeting to evaluate the impacts that the vacation has on the rights of way and public realm at or near the project site. During this initial step in the vacation review process, we determine how the vacation affects the functions of the remaining streets or alleys near the project and if impacts to the public trust functions of the right of way have been adequately addressed. The public trust functions that we will analyze, as detailed in Council vacation policies, are:

  • Circulation
  • Access
  • Utilities
  • Free Speech
  • Public Assembly
  • Open Space
  • Light and Air
  • Views
  • Land use and Urban Form


Depending on the nature and scope of the vacation request, we may also consider vacations of undeveloped streets, subsurface vacations, aerial vacations, property exchanges and any alternatives to the vacation process including issuance of street use permits.

Your presentation should include all items outlined in the Getting Started section in the project handbook as well as any additional information developed in conjunction with City staff or the applicant team. The goal is to provide clear and concise project information for us to evaluate and then make recommendations on the impacts to the public trust functions of the rights of way impacted by the vacation request.

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

See the January 18, 2018 Trailside 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. This second phase in our review is to ensure that adequate public benefits are provided to offset the loss to the public of the public trust functions related to the vacation. A successful public benefit package should adequately address the impacts related to the loss of the right of way, reflect community expectations and include a long-term or permanent commitment to the public. Council policy IV.A sets forth these expectations in greater detail.

Council policy IV.B sets forth an extended list of qualifying public benefits. The public benefits may occur on the right-of-way surrounding the project, or nearby the vacation site, and may include:

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

  • Physical public benefits including
  • Publicly accessible plazas or open spaces that are created or enhanced
  • Streetscape enhancements beyond code requirements including widened sidewalks, stairway, additional vegetation, lighting, etc.
  • Public Art
  • Spaces that support City goals for race and social equity like affordable housing r job creation
  • Preserving landmark buildings
  • Implementing an element from ad Adopted neighborhood plan of City plan affecting development or transportation
  • Programmatic public benefits that provide long-term funding commitments addressing systemic inequities experienced by the public
  • Accepting real property
  • Payment of funds when it is not practicable to provide tangible physical public benefits


We will also require you to address our equity policy in the design of public benefits.

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

See the January 21, 2016 1201 2nd Ave Vacation materials for a good example of a public benefit presentation.

Skybridges

Similar to street and alley vacations, the Commission advises City Council on petitions for new skybridges or for reauthorizing existing skybridges. Following the process for street or alley vacations, the Commission develops their recommendation based on the merit of the proposal and the public benefit. The Commission makes their recommendations following submittal of an application to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

The goal of the Commission's 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.  The Commission relies 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 our 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 we have completed this phase of the review, we will vote on our recommendation 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 as a result of the skybridge. Similar to street or alley vacations, the public benefit package must go beyond any project elements that are 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 our 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