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Project Handbook

Getting Started

Download our Project Handbook to learn more about our process and what is expected of project applicants. If your project is subject to a  review, first contact us to set up an initial appointment to discuss your project. City-funded projects are sometimes not subject to our review. We can help you determine if your project is subject to a 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 (SDC) 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.

Meeting Timeline

If we have identified your project for review, we will set up an initial meeting to discuss your project and the scope of our review. Following this initial meeting, we will schedule a prep meeting with you approximately three weeks before your first meeting. At the prep meeting you will share a draft of your presentation for feedback from staff about its content and structure.

The final draft presentation is due eight days prior to any meeting, submitted in PDF format. The draft presentation will be distributed to Commissioners and linked to the meeting agenda that is posted to the public our website. The presentation will be posted with a DRAFT watermark. While it is understood this is a draft document, the expectation is that it reflects what will be presented at the meeting. The first meeting of your project will occur about two or three months after your initial appointment, subject to our schedule and the scope of the project. The following timeline outlines the materials due prior to every review:

Diagram of SDC meeting timeline

The Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 3.58.020 defines CIP projects under our oversight as buildings, structures, or open spaces that are City-funded, are built on City property (including City-owned right-of-way), or that require a City approval. Typical CIP projects reviewed by us include parks, fire stations, police stations, libraries, and other public facilities. The bulk of our reviews are for City funded capital projects. However, we may review Capital projects proposed by other local or regional public agencies or entities that require a City approval.

City of Seattle departments identify CIP projects as part of the City's yearly budget adoption process. These projects are included in the most recent CIP budget. 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 in its mission, we may also review it at pre-design (15% of final design). CIP's that request 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. We 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 review for more information. This process is designed for the review of capital facilities. For questions about how engineering, infrastructure, or transportation projects align with this phase schedule, contact us.  

In addition to the information requested for all projects found in Section 1 - Getting Started of the Seattle Design Commission Handbook, all presentations throughout each step of the process should include the following information 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 towards the Commission November 2016 policy on equity in the design of public spaces or places
  • An overview of RSJI strategies, including the results of a Racial Equity Toolkit review on the project program, building, or site design.


The following sections detail what we evaluate at each phase of design for CIP projects. We will guide the development of your presentation materials to reflect the various stages of the project review, our interests, 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 these initial stages of project development and design.

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 of Seattle policies affecting the program and site development including Seattle's Sustainable Buildings and Site policy, Seattle's Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) and require a specific response in both the RFQ and RFP on meeting or exceeding the thresholds established in these policies
  • Review of SDC policies including Equity in the Design of Public Space and Places
  • Detail how City WMBE requirements will be met or exceeded

For projects that seek a street or alley vacation, we recommend the participation of a consultant with expertise in Seattle's street and alley vacation review process. Seattle's review process for street and alley vacations 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 to us, 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 CIP before submitting a petition to vacate a right of way. At this initial phase we will do a concurrent review of the pre-design alternatives 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:

  • The project scope, budget, and schedule
  • The project vision, goals, and objectives
  • Alternative design concepts for the project expressed in building, site, landscape, lighting, and other program elements
  • How the project addresses site conditions, constraints, and opportunities
  • How the project reflects the nearby urban context that is expressed in urban form, land use patterns, transportation options, and open space networks, etc.
  • How demographics of the adjacent community is reflected in the program, building, siting, landscape, or other project elements
  • The sustainability goals established for the project, including any assessment of the challenges and opportunities to achieve those goals, including options to implement Seattle's Sustainable Building and Site Policy,
  • The community engagement strategies adopted for the project that reflect Seattle's RSJI program, including initial findings from the RSJI Toolkit evaluation.
  • The goals established to advance equity in the design of the building, site, landscape or other project features that meet the SDC policy on equity in the design of public space
  • 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.

We will evaluate CIP at the concept phase (30%) to provide initial input on the preferred alternative for the program, site, and building. The goal of this initial review is to provide input that will influence or guide the project early in program development and project design phase. 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:

  • The project scope, budget, and schedule
  • The project vision, goals, and objectives
  • Key project elements that include buildings or structures, landscape areas, site improvements, lighting, parking, circulation, and access
  • How the project addresses site conditions, constraints, and opportunities
  • How the project reflects the nearby urban context that is expressed in urban form, land use patterns, transportation options, and open space networks, etc.
  • How demographics of the adjacent community is reflected in the program, building, siting, landscape, or other project elements
  • The sustainability goals established for the project, including any assessment of the challenges and opportunities to achieve those goals, including options to implement Seattle's Sustainable Building and Site Policy
  • The community engagement strategies adopted for the project that reflect Seattle's RSJI program, including initial findings from the RSJI Toolkit evaluation.
  • The goals established to advance equity in the design of the building, site, landscape or other project features that meet the SDC policy on equity in the design of public space

For project seeking a street or alley vacation, we will include our recommendation on the Public Trust analysis phase of the vacation request.

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

At the schematic design (60%) phase, we will evaluate how the CIP program and design has evolved from the initial concept, including program, site, building, landscape, and other project elements. Our review occurs for this phase when project and program elements have been refined and only minor changes to the program and project elements are anticipated. The goal of this phase of review is for us to evaluate the progress of design and program features and to provide input that will continue to influence or guide the project.

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

  • Progress toward achieving the vision, goals, and objectives for the project.
  • Response to previous recommendations or conditions
  • Shifts and refinements to the overarching design concept
  • Any changes to scope, program, or budget that have resulted in changes to the concept, program, or project elements.
  • 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 Art integration into the building, site, landscape, or program has been advanced including ongoing work from City's Public Art Advisory Committee How the overall lighting concept has been advanced, including strategies for building and site.
  • How ongoing community engagement has influenced program or design details consistent with the SDC equity policy or the City's RSJI program, including any refinements due to the RSJI Racial Equity Toolkit analysis

For projects seeking a street or alley vacation, we will include our recommendations on the Public Benefit analysis phase of the vacation process.

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

In the design development (90%) phase, we review the integration of all CIP 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 details about implementation of the sustainability strategy presented at previous reviews, an update on how the art is 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 makes recommendation 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.
  • How ongoing community engagement has influenced program or design details consistent with the SDC equity policy or the City's RSJI program, including any refinements due to the RSJI Racial Equity Toolkit analysis
  • 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 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 the 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.

we provide this review and their recommendations to the City Council about whether the request to vacate a street, alley, or public place should be approved, and what kind of public benefits should be provided to offset the public loss of the street, alley, or public place.

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

Resolution 31809 requires us to provide early input to a project proponent before a petition is submitted to SDOT (Council vacation policy V.C). This initial review provides the project proponent with an early evaluation of the project prior to submitting a petition for review, including any recommendations about potential public realm impacts due to the loss of the street or alley or public benefit strategies.

In the case of projects subject to Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) Design Review program (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 of the vacation on the rights of way and public realm at or near the project site and how those impacts have been adequately addressed. We will analyze the following public trust functions of the right of way to be vacated, as detailed in Council vacation policies:

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

Information provided to us shall include all items outlined in Section 1 - Getting Start of the Seattle Design Commission Handbook as well as any additional information developed in conjunction with City staff or the applicant team. We will evaluate and then make recommendations on the impacts to the public trust functions of the rights of way impacted by the vacation request. We will vote on this phase of the project and will include recommendations and any conditions of approval.

See the January 18, 2018 Trailside Vacation materials for a good example of a public trust analysis presentation.

We will evaluate a public benefit 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, reflect the demographics of nearby neighborhoods, 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 while Council policy IV.B of Resolution 31809 indicates what qualifies as 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 evaluate how the proposed public benefit package meets our policy on Equity in the design of public space.

When public benefit packages include the funding of wage or social equity programs, OPCD Directors' Rule 1-2019 provides details on formation of a subcommittee to evaluate such proposals. We will vote on whether the public benefit package sufficiently addresses the implications of the loss of the street or alley and may add conditions of approval.

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

Skybridges

We advise the City Council on petitions for new skybridges or for reauthorizing existing skybridges. We develop our recommendation after evaluating the impact of the proposal on the public realm, and a public benefit mitigation package that addresses the effect of the skybridge on the use and function of the abutting public realm. We makes recommendations to the City Council following submittal of an application to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Our recommendations focus on 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 and OPCD Joint Rule on Skybridges
  • The application materials The documents developed by the City's 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
  • Any additional reports or analyses submitted to comply with Seattle Municipal Code section 15.64.

When a request for a new skybridge is proposed, we  evaluate whether the proposed skybridge's urban design impacts on the public realm have been adequately addressed. To do that, we will assess factors that include:

  • Availability of reasonable alternatives to the skybridge;
  • Visual impacts of the skybridge from locations within the right-of-way, including any view corridors;
  • The extent to which the skybridge reduces light and air on the public realm;
  • Changes and effect on pedestrian patterns both at the street level and within any buildings connected because of the skybridge;
  • Implications on existing and proposed landscape;
  • Use of materials in context with surrounding development; and
  • Context of the surrounding built environment.

When the proposal is to re-permit an existing skybridge, we will assess factors related to the context of public realm since the installation of the skybridge that includes:

  • Visual impacts of the structure due to change in the quality of materials or their maintenance and upkeep
  • Changes in the urban context resulting in changes to pedestrian movement or volumes at or near the skybridge.
  • Impacts on the extent and health of landscape at or near the skybridge.  
  • How current standards for accessibility, life safety, and structural integrity affect the use of the skybridge
  • Use of materials in context with surrounding development. 
  • Modifications to the skybridge since its installation that create additional visual impacts.

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 mitigation package is required to offset the impacts to the public realm from either a new skybridge or ongoing impacts from re-permitting an existing skybridge. A public benefit mitigation package must include features that exceed any project elements required by City codes or required to mitigate environmental impacts.

The public benefits should generally be designed to enhance the adjacent and nearby public realm  that are impacted, or continue to be impacted, by the skybridge. Examples of public benefits 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 October 2021 policy on equity in the design of public places or spaces.

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

Seattle Design Commission

Address: 600 4th Avenue, 5th Floor, Seattle, WA, 98124
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 94788, Seattle, WA, 98124-7088
Phone: (206) 684-0435
sdc_administration@seattle.gov

The Seattle Design Commission advises the Mayor, City Council, and City departments on the design of capital improvements and other projects and policies that shape Seattle's public realm.