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Who will speak for design review?

by admin on October 29, 2013


Before a building permit is issued, all plans get reviewed for compliance with building codes and local zoning rules, but a select few are also required to undergo something extra called design review. By degrees, the fates of cities are determined in these review sessions.

Every city worth its salt has a panel of design reviewers. These are architects, builders and usually a landscaper who volunteer their time as city representatives to discuss a proposed design with the applicant and possibly request improvements during a public meeting to make sure the design is as good as can be under the circumstances.

If it sounds intrusive, that’s because it is. It adds time and expense to an already burdensome approval process. At some level it is surely a violation of the owner’s right to use their property as they wish.

It is also happens to be the best defense a city has against mediocrity and missed opportunities. Projects will get better because of this process. It’s really just a form of peer review.

Houses are usually exempt from design review (except in historic districts and in extremely fussy cities like Lafayette.) This works because owners of private residences have an emotional connection to their property and can be relied on to be strong advocates for the architectural integrity of their homes.

Developers of commercial properties, on the other hand, tend to focus on the “bottom line” and are much more likely to propose bland and bloated buildings.

As much as I will passionately defend the value of a fully functional and healthy design review process in Benicia, I will also rally to prevent design review from being required on all private single family residences.

Since 2008 I’ve been a design reviewer for Benicia, but for twenty-five years before that I was on the receiving end of such sessions. I know what it’s like to stand on the sidewalk outside various city halls with my clients after such meetings to sort out what just happened, who said this or that, and what our next move should be.

Sometimes the design is praised. Other times the comments seem to sting. When I’ve been on the receiving end of a good design review discussion it felt like I was being challenged to do better. In the end, I always found a way to make the project better, whether it be adjusting a roof line or rearranging the massing of the building to better serve the site and the neighbors. Sometimes my client ended up saving money as a result of this – not always, but sometimes. You’ve got to love it when “win-win” happens.

When I’ve been on the other side of the table, as a design reviewer dishing out the remarks, I’ve always tried to let the applicant retain their autonomy as the project designer. Maybe a weakness has been overlooked. Up until then, it’s likely that the architect and the developer simply reinforced each other’s belief that they had a near flawless concept. In that closed loop, it can be quite valuable for a fresh viewpoint to enter and pierce that smug assurance. I say that as both giver and receiver of such input.

Design review in Benicia had a watershed moment in 2005 when the Design Review Commission was disbanded and morphed into the HPRC (Historic Preservation Review Commission), a highly debatable move that no one seems to remember ever debating. I was told it may have been done in the name of “streamlining” an approval process, or something like that.

It appears that the City Council might soon take a new look at how design review is done in Benicia. It will be just one aspect of a possible reexamination of how commissions work. The latest idea being floated is to split up the design review chores so that the HPRC would handle the review of historic buildings while the Planning Commission would review the non-historic buildings. Sounds perfectly reasonable at a glance, but I’m quite certain it will weaken the quality of buildings being built in town. It will be the worst of both worlds – still requiring the applicant to go through the “hassle” of the procedure but with less benefit for the citizens who live with the result.

Splitting up the architects currently serving as design reviewers in Benicia will diffuse the synergy that occurs from the sharing of ideas. There are valuable insights that result from the back and forth that occurs. In my years of attending these sessions, I’ve seen an extreme viewpoint of one reviewer get moderated by the group. This is quite valuable to all parties involved.

I volunteered to be on the Historic Preservation Review Commission because that’s where design review happens in Benicia. I do the other HPRC duties faithfully, but it’s the design review that is my calling. I’ll be much less interested in putting in all those hours on a commission if I know that half of the design review activities are going to another commission. I’m not alone in this.

There is a limited supply of people living in our little town with the background to do design review. And fewer still who are willing to volunteer to take on this extra chore in their busy professional lives. Don’t drive this small pool away.

Perhaps “floating” design reviewers who can move between commissions to help with specific design review items might make this work. Couldn’t reviewers be “on call” to show up at key meetings on whatever commission to help make good decisions?

There may be obscure wonky reasons that this is hard to arrange. Designing city government is not my strong suit. But I do know that there are real reasons that this is a good idea. Barring this, for heaven’s sake, don’t mess with the current arrangement if it means splitting up the design reviewers. If we’re going to require property owners go through design review (with the a month or two added to the approval timetable and the extra drawings and fees required) we may as well have good design review come out of it.

There are important forces at work here, and it can’t just be about trying to save the city some staff time if it means selling out our city to bad design. Streamlining is fine, but having a sidewalk dining patio on a First Street building (for instance) that isn’t just tacked on but is properly laid out to support the social life of the entire city for decades to come might be more valuable than saving a developer a month of waiting time.

This time around, let’s get it right.


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