This page provides an overview of design review programs for cities and counties in Washington State, including their uses and legality, local examples, and other resources.
Design review is the local government practice of examining public and private projects for their aesthetic, architectural, or urban design quality and compatibility with nearby development. Design review focuses on the appearance of new construction, site planning, and such concerns as landscaping, signage, and other aesthetic issues. Design review typically involves reviewing development projects for their consistency with a community's adopted standards or criteria addressing community character and aesthetic quality.
Design review is common for commercial and multifamily development, downtown development, development in historic districts, and for projects within certain transportation corridors. In many communities, design review is conducted by an appointed design review board of volunteers that include architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and other design professionals as well as general citizen representatives. Some communities have administrative design review that is handled by city staff, typically planning or urban design staff.
In addition, a design element is an optional element of a comprehensive plan (WAC 365-196-445). Many communities have included urban or community design elements in their comprehensive plans.
Jurisdictions use a variety of names for their design elements, including "guidelines," "standards," and "criteria." Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, design “standards” and “criteria” are typically mandatory elements that must be present in order for the project to approved, while “guidelines” are typically used to present suggested design elements that are not necessarily mandatory.
Some jurisdictions have created design review boards to evaluate projects. Members often have design backgrounds in architecture, urban design and planning. Other jurisdictions rely on staff/administrative review to evaluate designs. A third option is a “hybrid” process, in which some project designs are approved administratively, while others are approved by a design review board.
Image credit: City of Redmond
Why Design Review?
There are many reasons why communities enact design review programs. Design review can help to enhance desirable pedestrian characteristics and the aesthetic quality of the streetscape and avoid monotony in new construction. Design review is sometimes used to create an identity or a special physical character in an area of new development. In some older established communities, the interest is in ensuring the compatibility of new development with existing character.
Creating Design Standards/Guidelines
Since design standards/guidelines are often created to preserve or enhance the character of a community, the creation of the guidelines is typically the result of a public input or planning process. One way that jurisdictions have done this is by utilizing Visual Preference Surveys and design illustrations to spark public conversation and quantify what design elements are important to residents.
Finding and Creating Illustrations of Good Design
Illustrations of successful examples of development projects can be helpful in encouraging good design. The American Planning Association maintains an Image Library accessible to members. Diagrams and illustrations can also be helpful if included as a part of the code provision and standards/guidelines.
Digital visualizations tools like SketchUp or Streetmix can be used to create images that can illustrate the effects of design standards/guidelines on new buildings and development sites. Streetmix is free and SketchUp offers a free version.
Image credit: Streetmix
Visual Preference Surveys
The Visual Preference Survey (VPS) was developed by architect Anton Nelessen and is an effective tool for educating and involving community members in land use planning. The process involves members of the community in ranking images of a community or region, including photographs of streets, houses, stores, office buildings, parks, open space, and other key civic features. The results of the VPS are useful in developing land use plans and transportation planning projects. Below are some examples.
- Bellevue Eastgate/I90 Land Use & Transportation Project - Visual Preference Survey Summary Report (2011)
- Clark County Highway 99 Sub-Area Plan - Visual Preference Survey: Synopsis of Community (2007)
- Institute for Public Administration: Visual Preference Survey Overview Presentation
- Mukilteo Downtown Business District Subarea Plan: Visual Preference Survey Results (2008)
Evaluating Design Review Standards and Procedures
Periodic review can help to make the design review process more efficient and ensure that specific design outcomes are being achieved. Communities with more established design review often go through processes of evaluating and updating their standards and procedures.
The examples below rely on a combination of case studies from other cities, public input, and analysis of past projects to recommend changes to the design review process and standards:
- Seattle Design Review Evaluation:
- Portland (OR) Design Overlay Zone Assessment (2017)
Legality of Design Review and Selected Court Decisions
Until 1993, there were no Washington appellate cases ruling on the validity of design review ordinances. That year, the Washington State Court of Appeals decided in Anderson v. Issaquah (1993) that Issaquah's design review regulations were invalid due to vagueness.
However, the issue of how far a city may go in regulating design is far from settled, and it is important for communities to develop meaningful design standards. In light of the Issaquah case, MRSC strongly advises cities, towns, and counties to review their proposed design review programs and criteria with their attorney's office.
The following are selected court decisions addressing design review:
- Anderson v. Issaquah (1993) – The court ruled that Issaquah's design review regulations were invalid due to vagueness. It found the guidelines deficient because they did not give meaningful guidance to the applicant or the design review board. The court affirmed the legitimacy of design review by stating that aesthetic standards are an appropriate component of land use governance.
- Swoboda v. Town of La Conner (1999) – In a challenge to the constitutionality of the town's historic preservation ordinance, the court determined that the ordinance contained ascertainable standards to protect against arbitrary and discretionary enforcement and defined prohibited or required conduct with sufficient definiteness, and therefore was not unconstitutional as applied. The town's preservation ordinance involves design review within the historic district.
Examples of Multifamily and Commercial Design Standards/Guidelines
The following are examples of general design review manuals and standards/guidelines for commercial, mixed-use, and multifamily development, including some code provisions and design review processes.
- Gig Harbor
- Municipal Code Ch. 17.99 – Comprehensive guidelines outlines specific requirements need for administrative approval and general requirements used by design review board to assess projects
- Municipal Code Ch. 17.98 – Process for using design manual
- Municipal Code Ch. 18.75 – Residential Design Standards
- Municipal Code Ch. 18.78 – Commercial Design Standards
- Design Guidelines for Pedestrian-Oriented Business Districts (2018) – Establishes design guidelines used by design review board to evaluate projects
- Zoning Code Ch. 92 – Applies design regulations to development in design districts including downtown and other business districts
- Lake Stevens Design Guidelines (2019) – Provides both flexible and mandatory guidelines supplementing development standards
- Municipal Code Ch. 18.100 – Design Review
- Municipal Code Ch. 18.110 – Basic Commercial Design Criteria
- Redmond Zoning Code Article III – Design Standards
Examples of Downtown and Subarea Development Design Standards/Guidelines
Quite a few cities have developed specific design standards/guidelines for their downtowns and subareas. Many of the standards focus on integrating transportation option into the designs. Below are some examples.
- Bellingham City Center Design Standards (2014) – Includes specific guidelines for historic properties. All standards must be met in order for the project to be approved.
- Bonney Lake Downtown Design Standards (2007) – Downtown design standards apply to all new construction and some remodels; includes both mandatory and voluntary design elements
- Burien Municipal Code Ch. 19.47 – Downtown design standards
- Kent Midway Design Guidelines (2011) – Guidelines for new transit-oriented development around Sound Transit light rail stations. Menu of design options defines the minimum conditions for approval.
- Kirkland Design Guidelines for Totem Lake Neighborhood (2020)
- Mount Vernon Downtown Design Recommendations (2009) – Example of a completely voluntary design guide for constructing, remodeling, and maintaining buildings in the downtown corridor.
- Seattle Design Guidelines – Neighborhood guidelines are listed by district
- Walla Walla Municipal Code Ch. 20.178 – Design standards for downtown Walla Walla
Examples of Single-Family and Duplex Design Standards/Guidelines
Single-family and duplex design standards/guidelines are not very common and generally focus on specific situations, such as development on very small lots, neo-traditional development, garage design, steep slopes or unique lot conditions, or transitional areas adjacent to more intensive uses. Below are some examples.
- Gig Harbor Municipal Code Sec. 17.99.490 – Single-family duplex and housing standards
- Sumner Single-Family/Duplex Design and Development Guidelines (2013) – Detailed mandatory and voluntary guidelines address many topics, such as roof design and garage setbacks
- Tumwater Citywide Design Guidelines Chapter 6: Single Family Residences (2016)
- Wenatchee Residential Design Guidelines (2020)
Examples of the Design Review Process
Design Review Processes
- Gig Harbor Design Review Process – Applicants have the option of seeking administrative approval or review by the design review board
- Kirkland Design Review Process Brochure (2014) – New buildings greater than one story, large additions, and façade renovations are reviewed by the design review board. All others are subject to administrative review.
- Tumwater Design Review Process – Describes the administrative design review process.
Design Review Boards
- Bellingham Design Review Board – Purpose of board, typical decisions, and membership information
- Kirkland Design Review Board – Includes rules of procedure and design review process brochure
- Langley Design Review Board – Small city example
Examples of Design Elements in Comprehensive Plans
- Bellevue Comprehensive Plan: Urban Design and the Arts (2015) – Visual plan integrating art and design elements, identifies streets and areas that are key to neighborhood identity
- Bellingham Comprehensive Plan: Community Design Chapter (2016)
- Bothell Comprehensive Plan: Urban Design Element (2015)
- Clark County Comprehensive Plan Ch. 11: Community Design Element (2015) – Example of how county has integrated design elements into comprehensive plan
- Edmonds Comprehensive Plan: Community Culture and Urban Design Element (page 119, 2020)
- Kennewick Comprehensive Plan: Urban Design Element (page 57, 2017)
- Oak Harbor Comprehensive Plan: Ch. 4 Urban Design Element (2019)
- Shoreline Comprehensive Plan: Community Design Goals and Policies and Community Design Supporting Analysis (2012)
- MRSC: Historic Preservation
- Puget Sound Regional Council Featured Tool: Design Guidelines – Tools to promote housing affordability – General introduction to design guidelines for affordable housing; includes case studies from Washington cities
- Portland (OR) Design Guidelines – Links to many different design guideline documents
- San Francisco (CA) Urban Design Guidelines Webpage – Landing page that provides an overview of guidelines and design review process. Their Urban Design Guidelines (2018) make good use of visuals and diagrams to demonstrate each guideline
- New York City Active Design Guidelines (2010) – Combines urban design principles with strategies for encouraging active lifestyles
- Jim Leggitt/Drawing Shortcuts: Visualizing an Urban Master Plan with SketchUp (2016) – Interesting example of how to use SketchUp and hand drawing to create design visualizations