This is what greets you when you enter downtown Ballard.
This is what greets you when you enter downtown Ballard. Dan Bertolet

I will make this as brief as possible. We live in a city that is, for the most part, architecturally uninteresting. The current construction boom has only made matters worse. Going up everywhere are some of the blandest buildings imaginable. A part of the problem can be blamed on developers who only see stacks of cash rising from the ground instead of a place that people will live in and have to look at. Another part of the problem is the Design Review Board, which has been around since 1994 and is made up of volunteers appointed by the mayor and City Council. One of the few things you need to be on this board is a "passion for design."

Sponsored
The Stranger has last-minute discounts to PNB, ACT Theatre, Neumos, and On The Boards this weekend. Grab tickets before they're gone!

This week, Dan Bertolet of Sightline, a Seattle-based urban think tank, posted "How Seattle’s Design Review Sabotages Housing Affordability." It has two parts. The main concerns how this board (which operates in seven districts and is composed of people who have "little training from the city," and whose "expertise and experience vary widely") often slows down the building process by nit-picking at design elements for the sake of nit-picking at design elements. In Bertolet's words: "...some members may feel they aren’t doing their job if they don’t find some fault" in the design.

This and other frustration-inducing forms of fussiness add costs and months/years to projects that the city desperately needs to be affordable and completed. One example is "the transit-oriented development at the Capitol Hill light rail station (118 Broadway East)" that includes 168 affordable apartments. In July, the board demanded a second meeting (and such meetings delay a project usually by two months at the "value of two more apartments"—each $270,000) for "reasons that verge on the absurd."

At the top of Bertolet's list:

1) The board wants to pick the color scheme: “I would go with a different color.” “I do think that color is used a lot to spruce up affordable housing.”

2) A lone board member is adamant that a daycare should not be allowed on a commercial street: “I still think it’s a terrible idea to put ground-floor childcare on Broadway… frankly, I can’t support the project with this.”

And so on, and so on. Bertolet recommends that Seattle adopts the professional design processes in Vancouver B.C. and Portland, Oregon.

Along with wasting time and money, Seattle's Design Review Board often only offers bad ideas that cripple the key or revolutionary concepts of projects, as will be the case with the Passive House project on Capitol Hill (the "committee of amateurs" clearly did not understand what the Passivhaus movement in Europe is about), and it authorizes utter horrors like the Urbana Apartments, which is in the heart of Ballard—indeed, it's in the very spot that a Monorail station was supposed to be built many years ago. But just look at that thing (pictured above). Look at how wrong it is in every way. You could not approve a worse building if the Design Review Board was a bunch of beavers.

A lot of resources and energy went into the Urbana. Many lives were devoted to its construction for a long time. Its architects spent years at advanced institutions listening to lectures about form, space, modernism, post-modernism, and what have you. All of those trucks that came and went. All of the wood, stones, and concrete that was extracted from nature. All for what? The center of Ballard, a major neighborhood in a major American city (and all major cities must be centers of high culture, refinement, and sophistication), now has an apartment building that would even be ugly on the outskirts of Marysville.

As a person who makes movies, I can confidently say that the only scene that can be shot in front of that place is a gruesome murder. The victim is dead, the killer has fled the scene, and the detective has to make sense of the crime as she stands (a cup of bad coffee in hand) in front of the Urbana.