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Design Review

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.

In 2023, the Growth Management Act (Ch. 36.70A RCW) was amended to include RCW 36.70A.630, which provides a definition of “design review” and establishes that:

  • Only clear and objective development regulations governing the exterior design of a new development are allowed in design review.
  • The standards must have at least one ascertainable guideline, standard, or criterion by which an applicant can determine whether a given design is permissible.
  • The design guidelines may not reduce density, height, bulk, or scale beyond the underlying zone.
  • Design review must be conducted concurrently with consolidated project review and may not include more than one public meeting.
  • Cities and counties planning under the Growth Management Act must comply with the requirements beginning six months after their next periodic update under the GMA .

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

Examples of the Design Review Process

Design Review Processes

Design Review Boards

Examples of Design Elements in Comprehensive Plans

Recommended Resources

Last Modified: February 23, 2024