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Urban Design Program

The Urban Design Studio is a long-term program with a focus on delivering urban design services to customers in the Planning and Development Services Department, to other City departments, and through external public and private partnerships. The initial phase of this project is focused on the development of a design review program known as Urban Design Project Review. This effort includes development of design guidelines, new and revised design standards, municipal code amendments and administrative procedures to be considered through a public hearing and City Council action. 

 

Urban Design Project Review Package

 

Current Status

The Planning Commission recommended City Council consider the Urban Design Project Review package, as revised, on October 18, 2023. The City Council review phase will kick-off with a briefing at the Infrastructure, Planning, and Sustainability Council committee of City Council scheduled for January 24, 2024. 

 

Urban Design Project Review Proposal Summary

Urban Design Project Review Manual (Jan 2024)

 

Planning Commission Recommendation

The Planning Commission’s Final Recommendation package consists of the following documents. These documents reflect the Commission’s consideration of the testimony provided during the public hearing process, subsequent deliberation, and the final October 18, 2023, recommendation. 

Planning Commission Public Hearing

 

Upcoming Meetings and Next Steps 

Planning staff will present the Planning Commission’s recommendations to the Infrastructure, Planning, and Sustainability Committee of the City Council on Wednesday, January 24, 2024.

 

 City Council public meeting and final decisions (TBD)

 

Previous Meetings

Previous meetings, including Planning Commission public meetings, are outlined under the Past Meetings section below. 

 

Summary of Package Items

The City currently regulates the design of new projects through prescriptive Code standards with building permits and without qualitative review. These requirements vary by zoning and building type but are fairly inflexible and do not always reflect the best approach to urban design challenges or support creativity. The proposed UDPR provides an opportunity to find the best way a development project can achieve community urban design goals given its unique context. This includes how required standards are applied as well as exploring thoughtful, more creative solutions. The proposed package includes the creation of the Urban Design Project Review program and amendments to prescriptive Code standards.

 

The Urban Design Project Review package includes:

  • Creation of a new Urban Design Project Review permit process focused on medium- to large-scale projects in Downtown and Mixed-Use Center (see map and description below for more info)
  • Creation of a City-Council appointed Urban Design Board, with a mix of professional experience, community interests related to urban design, and geographic diversity, to assist in review of the largest, most significant projects
  • Creation of an Urban Design Project Review Manual to provide clear and objective design guidance for new projects
  • Modifications to some of the existing Code standards (see further description below).

Urban Design Project Review

This would be a new land use permit considering a project’s relationship with the urban environment, the public realm, connectivity, climate responsiveness, and other urban design concerns. Permits would be required for larger developments located within any of the City’s 16 designated Mixed-Use Centers (see map). The largest developments would be subject to the highest level of review (through the appointed Urban Design Board) while smaller projects would receive administrative review.  Additionally, building size thresholds within Neighborhood Centers would be lower than those of the other Mixed-Use Centers (Downtown, Tacoma Mall and Crossroads Centers). All levels of review will include public notice and opportunities for comment. Board-level reviews will include one public meeting at the Concept Design stage.

 

 It is worth noting, the areas where this review would be required are not those subject to the changes being made with the Home in Tacoma project.

 
Urban Design Project Review Applicability Map

  

Amend Existing Design Code Standards

Amend certain development and design standards within Mixed Use and Downtown Zoning District to improve effectiveness and ensure integration with the new design review process requirements. This includes:   

   

  • Maximum Setbacks: Establish maximum setbacks for residential development within Mixed Use Center (X) districts and establish maximum setbacks for all Downtown districts. 
  • Residential yard space requirements: Revise yard space requirements overall and amend exception/reduction qualifications. 
  • Mixed Use District Building Standards: Reorganize existing standards to better align with Urban Design program priorities and revise standards to improve efficacy. New provisions include residential transition standards.
  • Downtown District Building Standards: Reorganize existing standards to better align with Urban Design program priorities and revise standards to improve efficacy. New provisions include residential transition standards, mass reduction standards for certain developments, and transparency standards.

 

Urban Design Project Review Development 

 

Overview

As the City’s Urban Design Studio, we are working to launch the Urban Design Project Review Program. Similar to many other communities’ programs, Urban Design Project Review in Tacoma will set standards and a process to guide the design quality of the city’s landscape and buildings. The incorporation of “urban design” in the program’s title is meant to communicate the scope and scale of the program’s priorities and differentiates it from a design review program that is focused primarily on building architecture. The goal is to support a built city that is welcoming to all community members and visitors, enhancing our lived experience throughout Tacoma. 

 We understand the importance of design in community building. Throughout the One Tacoma Plan and Tacoma 2025, policy guidance highlights design review as an opportunity to create unique places, promote innovation and quality, and imbue public space with features and amenities that promote the health and wellbeing of residents and visitors.

 

Project Advisory Group

The Design Review Project Advisory Group was chartered by the Planning Commission in 2019 and reconvened in early 2022 with new Urban Design Studio staff.  The PAG was the primary source of stakeholder co-creation t in the development of the preliminary draft Urban Design Project Review proposal. Group participation included those representing design professionals, community nonprofits, and affordable housing and for-profit developers.

 

Urban Design Open House and Survey 

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to the Urban Design Review survey this August-September 2022. The feedback received was instrumental in the development of the draft project proposal.

 

Let’s Connect

Urban Design Studio staff welcome invitations from community groups who are interested in hosting a virtual conversation on the proposed Urban Design Project Review program. We would appreciate the opportunity to provide a project update and hear ideas about how to make this program successful.

 

Sign up to receive project updates or email comments and questions to: designreview@cityoftacoma.org

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Is the Urban Design Project Review project part of Home In Tacoma?

While both the Urban Design Project Review program and Home In Tacoma projects relate to the design of buildings and our urban environment, the Urban Design Project Review program project is focused on larger projects located in areas planned to experience the greatest amount of future development and growth such as the Downtown and Mixed Use Centers whereas Home In Tacoma will address smaller scale residential design throughout the City.

 

The Urban Design Project Review program has an expected program launch of early 2024 and the Home In Tacoma project is expected to run through at least late-2023.

 

Again, the Urban Design Project Review project DOES NOT address small scale residential design or most of the Missing Middle type of housing. The Home In Tacoma Project is considering these types of new residential standards as part of that project’s phase 2. More information about that project, including ways to participate, can be found here.

Why is Urban Design Important?

Urban Design influences how people experience cities and how people function in them.  Streets, plazas, parks and the buildings that frame them make up our environment. Urban design focusses how all these parts of the city work together to improve how and where we live, get around, work and recreate. Good urban design also connects us to the natural systems we all depend on.

Who makes Urban Design happen?

High quality urban design is the result of many decisions, forces and factors. Design Review is one way the City can ensure the cumulative effect of individual developments contribute to good urban design. With a Design Review process, the City can consider how development supports our Comprehensive Plan goals, community identity and creates distinctive sense of place and belonging that is responsive to local culture, values, and context.

What is Urban Design Project Review?

Urban Design Project Review is a process that works to improve the function, fit, and integration of new developments with the existing urban context and natural features surrounding them. The City uses this process to approve projects of certain types in designated areas. Using this process, proposed projects are evaluated for consistency with the City’s design objectives. Those design objectives can be met by building in accordance with either prescriptive standards or more flexible guidelines.

What does the City regulate around design?

The City’s Land Use Regulatory Code currently has regulations related to design. Generally, these Design Standards affect how sites are developed and how buildings look. Design Standards regulate aspects such as where parking can be located or how a proposed building orients toward the street.

 

While Design Standards can do a good job of prescribing measurable minimums and preventing poor design outcomes, they are inherently limited by their one-size-fits-all approach and cannot easily account for context or unique site complexities. Design Review on the other hand establishes a set of design guidelines and objectives, which can accommodate a variety of alternative approaches to meet these objectives.

 

There are many other City regulations that also affect design, even if they are not specifically listed as design requirements. For example, the City’s current rules about requiring a certain number of parking spaces with a new building create many other design results. This may include whether trees are retained on a site, how difficult it is to walk to from a bus stop to the front door, and even how much the pavement heats up the neighborhood in the summertime.

Does Urban Design Project Review regulate building height and zoning?

 No, other standards, regulates things like a building’s use or height or the required amount of parking. The City’s Land Use Regulatory Code has many complex regulations about design. These are separate from building codes that are focused on safety, fire protection, and so forth. Design standards in the City’s Land Use Regulatory Code include details like maximum building heights, required placement of buildings on parcels, required yard space, bicycle parking, and how much of the front of a building with shopfronts along a street must have windows--the list is very long.

What is the plan for Tacoma's Urban Design Project Review Program?

We have established a timeline now through the end of 2023 to finalize and review the program features and tools. This includes work to organize an Urban Design Board, and complete the Urban Design Guidelines and Design Standards (both new and revised). 

We will be meeting with our Technical Advisory Committee and Project Advisory Group and work with the Planning Commission to draft proposed recommendations for Tacoma City Council Consideration.

Public engagement will include presentations to community groups and public comment to the Planning Commission and City Council as they review the proposal package.

What is the Design Review Project Advisory Group?

In response to Planning Commission direction, the City nominated a slate of community members with relevant professional expertise and diverse perspectives as the Project Advisory Group (PAG) in 2019 to work through the development of much of the detailed guidance material and procedures proposed for the Design Review Program. Reconvened in February 2022, after a one-year hiatus, additional PAG members now represent affordable housing and multi-unit development interests as stakeholders. The PAG is scheduled to continue working with staff and consultants through the Spring Quarter of 2022, at which time a proposal will be forwarded to the Planning Commission for consideration and public review.

 

Additional Project Information 

 

Past Meetings

Planning Commission

(For agendas and other materials, visit cityoftacoma.org/PlanningCommissionAgendas.)

October 18, 2023 - Recommendation

September 20, 2023 - Public Hearing Debrief

August 16, 2023 - Public Hearing

July 19, 2023 - Release for Public Review

June 7, 2023 

March 15, 2023

January 18, 2023

December 7, 2022

October 19, 2022

September 21, 2022, 5 PM - PC/PAG Workshop 

July 6, 2022

May 18, 2022

April 6, 2022 

March 2, 2022

March 4, 2020

September 18, 2019 

 

City Council

(For agendas and other materials, visit cityoftacoma.legistar.com.)

Infrastructure, Planning & Sustainability (IPS) Committee

January 22, 2023

June 8, 2022

May 11, 2022 – rescheduled to June 8, 2022

 

 

Project Advisory Group 

August 31, 2023 

February 02, 2023 

November 03, 2022

September 21, 2022 - PC/PAG Workshop

August 11, 2022 

July 21, 2022

July 07, 2022

June 30, 2022

May 19, 2022

May 5, 2022 

April 21, 2022 (cancelled)

April 7, 2022 

March 17, 2022

March 3, 2022

February 17, 2022

April 2, 2020

March 31, 2020

February 18, 2020

September 17, 2019  

August 6, 2019 

 

Other Groups & Organizations

Tacoma Permit Advisory Group

October 18, 2023* 

*At this meeting, a Design Review Subcommittee was tasked to work with staff on a range of implementation issues. 

September 20, 2023 

August 16, 2023 

June 15, 2022

May 5, 2022

April 20, 2022

 

Sustainable Tacoma Commission

June 16, 2022

 

Neighborhood Councils

 

Community Council of Tacoma (CCOT)

April 28, 2022

 

North End Neighborhood Council

March 7, 2022 

September 9, 2019 

 

Northeast Neighborhood Council

August 8, 2019 

 

South End Neighborhood Council

September 16, 2019

 

Background & Project Timeline

Background

Design review with a set of design standards or guidelines has proven to be an effective community development tool.  The City of Tacoma understands the role of design review in community building: throughout the One Tacoma Plan and Tacoma 2025, policy guidance highlights design review as opportunity to create unique places, promote innovation and quality, and imbue public space with features and amenities that promote the health and vitality of residents and visitors.

 

In 2016, the City contracted with Makers Architecture and Urban Design to examine a number of “design review” options that Tacoma could undertake. The analysis is based on Tacoma’s current regulatory framework, recent development trends, comments from stakeholders (including staff, public officials, architects and others from the development industry, and other community members), and a review of other communities’ design review programs.

 

This Design Review Analysis Manual is organized into six sections to consider and discuss fundamental questions that must be considered in establishing a design review process:

  1. Design guidelines content, organization and format;
  2. Applicability: What projects must undergo design review;
  3. Project review responsibilities: Who conducts the design review for different types of projects;
  4. Public involvement: Opportunities for citizen review and input;
  5. Design Review Board (DRB) review process and procedures (if a DRB is established);
  6. Design review program administration costs. 

Review the full Design Review Analysis Manual for the report and background information.

 

2023

Over the year, City staff worked with the Project Advisory Group (PAG), with periodic guidance from Planning Commission, and the City Council Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee, to develop the draft Urban Design Project Review program proposal.

  

The program proposal includes Urban Design Project Review requirements and procedures, program administration, and the establishment of an Urban Design Board. The proposal package also includes a series of Code amendments to development and design standards for Mixed Use Centers and Downtown districts.

  

2022

The Urban Design Studio staff re-established relationships on Design Review with a Project Advisory Group, Planning Commission and City Council. Work continued with input from diverse city staff perspectives to refine and complete the draft design guidance documents, including an emphasis on addressing the City’s adopted Climate Adaptation Strategy.

 

2021

Staff worked briefly with Consultant and Project Advisory Group to further develop draft design guidance documents in the first part of the year. Planning Commission and Infrastructure Planning and Sustainability Committee of the City Council reviewed progress on incomplete, draft guidance documents.  Project went on hold with loss of initial staff. In late 2021, new lead staff came on board. 

 

2020

Project team worked with advisory groups (Project Advisory Group, TAC, Planning Commission), resulting in an Interim Summary Report (available for review below in the documents section). It provides the findings from Phase I of the program development and the background information that informed the remaining development through to implementation. 

 

2019 

Consultants were brought on to develop a work plan and initiate the program development. Staff worked with stakeholder committees and conducted public outreach in the summer and fall. 

 

2018 

Staff was hired to bring additional expertise to the project.

 

2017

Project budget was approved by the City Council.

 

2016

The Design Review Analysis Manual was completed to identify the key components and options for a design review program.

 

 

UDS Logo

Staff Contacts

Stephen Antupit - Senior Planner

(253) 381-5195

Email

 

Carl Metz - Senior Planner 

(253) 290-3946

Email

 

Kristin Bauer - Intern 

(253) 532-0824

Email



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