Project Handbook

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.

Please click on the sections above to learn more about the review process for city funded projects and Rights-of-Way (ROW) projects as well as information on other types of projects we review and related citywide and department policies.

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.

We review Capital Improvement Program (CIP) projects. 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. The bulk of our reviews are for City funded capital projects. However, the we may review Capital projects proposed by other local or regional governments when a City approval is required.
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 pre-design (15% of final design). Projects that assume a street or alley vacation are also subject to pre-design (15%) concurrent with an overview of alternatives to the vacation to accomplish the capital program. 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. We may also require the project team to attend a subcommittee either to resolve a condition or project element that is needed to advance to the next phase of review. Please see our policy on Subcommittee reviews for more information.


This process is designed for the review of traditional capital facilities. For questions about how engineering, infrastructure, or transportation projects align with this phase schedule, contact Commission staff.


In addition to the overview of basic project elements needed to begin project review, all presentations throughout each step of the process should include the following to ensure a thorough review:

  • Floor plans, elevations, and sections with dimensions
  • Site circulation diagramLandscape 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
  • An overview of RSJI strategies, including how a Racial Equity Toolkit review impacted the program or building and site design


The following sections explain in greater detail what the we evaluate 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 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 for buildings and site in the project scope
  • Include sufficient design budget with schedule for implementation
  • Review applicable City policies affecting the program and site development including the City's Sustainable Buildings & Sites Policy, and the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative and require a specific response in both the RFQ and RFP on meeting or exceeding the thresholds established in these and other policies
  • How City WMBE requirements will be met or exceeded

For projects that seek a street or alley vacation, it is recommended that you retain a consultant with expertise in Seattle's review process. The street and alley vacation process is discussed in greater detail below.

A pre-design review occurs when we provide input on the multiple alternatives under consideration  for programming and siting. We review the project goals, a roadmap for achieving them, and any opportunities and challenges you have identified. When presenting, you should include a thorough analysis of the project site, the goals for the project, program alternatives, and other relevant information that is being considered as part of the project.


A pre-design (15%) review is required for for capital facilities before submitting a petition to vacate a right of way. We will do a concurrent review of the pre-design for a capital facility and on the vacation request including the feasibility of a no-vacation alternative. Please review the Council vacation policies in Resolution 31809 for more information.


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

  • Overall project scope, budget, schedule
  • Project goals and objectives
  • Design alternatives under consideration
  • Exploration and analysis of site conditions, constraints, and opportunities 
  • Analysis of urban context (urban form, character, uses, transportation and open space networks, etc.)
  • Exploration and analysis of community and interdepartmental involvement and coordination
  • Exploration of sustainability goals, challenges, and opportunities including options designed to implement the City's Sustainable Building and Site Policy, specifically in the area of climate adaptation
  • An overview of your community engagement strategies consistent with the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative, including any initial findings from the Racial Evaluation Toolkit evaluation.
  • 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 will evaluate your preferred alternative for the program, site and building. The evaluation is intended to occur at a time when we can provide comment and direction early on in the design of the project and in the concept for the overall program. As the project progresses through the schematic design and design development phases, the initial concept presented at this review provides a reference point to evaluate later decisions and solutions. 
At the concept design phase, we evaluate and make recommendations on:

  • Overall project scope, budget, schedule
  • Project goals and objectives
  • The preferred design concept including building, site, landscape, lighting, and program elements
  • Analysis of urban context (urban form, character, uses, transportation and open space networks, etc.)
  • Opportunities for interdepartmental involvement and coordination on project design and deliveryInitial sustainability strategy, and the exploration and analysis  of sustainability goals, challenges, and opportunities proposed to implement the City's Sustainable Building and Site Policy, in particular the climate adaption aspect.
  • An overview of your community engagement strategies consistent with the City's Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), including any initial findings from the Racial Evaluation Toolkit evaluation.
  • How your approach meets the Commission policy on equity in the design of public space or facilities
  • Initial ideas for integration of Artwork into the building, site, landscape or program

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


See the October 4, 2018 Green Lake Community Boathouse materials for a good example of concept design presentation.

At the schematic design phase, we will evaluate how the overall design has evolved from the initial concept, including program, site, building, landscape and other project elements. Our review occurs when issues raised by us in the concept review have been resolved and only minor changes to the program and the choice of project elements are anticipated. 

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

  • Progress toward achieving the vision and concept for the project
  • Response to previous recommendations or conditions
  • 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
  • How the project has advanced or refined the sustainability elements of the project 
  • Refinements to sizing and configuration of site program elements,circulation, building uses, scale, massing, and orientation
  • How the character and experiential qualities of buildings, site and overall design have been refined
  • How Art integration into the building, site, landscape or program has been advanced including ongoing work from City's Public Art Advisory Committee 
  • How overall lighting concept has been advanced, including strategies for building and siteAny changes in the program or design due to additional community engagement related to the Commission's equity policy or the City's RSJI program, including any refinements from the Racial Equity Toolkit analysis


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 March 5, 2020 Overlook Walk & Ocean Pavilion for a good example of a schematic design presentation.

In this final phase, we review the integration of all project elements that will be delivered with the final designs and project construction. We will evaluate and provide final direction on project details including program, building and site details including materials and finishes, plant selections, furnishings, and lighting choices. During this phase we will hear about sustainability implementation based on the overall sustainability strategy presented to us at previous reviews, an update on how the art is being integrated into the project, and any remaining efforts to reflect community engagement strategies in the site, building or program.  

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 recommendations
  • Shifts and refinements since the review of the schematic design
  • Final design details of all project elements and spaces including specifics about materials, plantings, site furniture, lighting, signage and Art integration
  • Final approach and implementation of sustainability measures in building and site design

For projects seeking a street or alley vacation, we will include recommendations on any refinements to elements of the public benefit package developed as part of the street and alley vacation process.


See the August 1, 2019 South Park Pump Station 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 petitionReviews 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

Resolution 31809 requires a proposed vacation to be presented to us so that we can provide early input before a petition is submitted to SDOT (Council vacation policy V.C). This initial review provides the proponent with an early evaluation of the project prior to submitting a petition for review including any recommendations about 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 to SDCI on the proposed vacation before an application for early design guidance is submitted.


For CIP, we will provide these recommendations concurrent with a pre-design (15%) 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 will 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


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 our recommendation and may add clarifying comments or conditions of approval.

See the January 18, 2018 Trailside Vacation materials for a good example of a public trust analysis 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. A successful public benefit package should adequately address the impacts related to the loss of the right of way, reflect community expectations based on your approved public engagement plan, and include a long-term or permanent commitment to the public. Council policy IV.A in Resolution 31809 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:

  • 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 or 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 its policy on Equity in the design of public space.


For projects that include the funding of wage or social equity programs, we have developed an approach where they seek input from experts to advise the commission on the merits and approach of the funding proposal. OPCD Directors' Rule 1-2019 provides details on formation of a subcommittee to evaluate such proposals.


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

See the July 6, 2017 1101 8th Ave Alley Vacation materials for a good example of a public benefit presentation.

Skybridges

Similar to 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.

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 (Seattle Streets Illustrated) 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