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A Bid to Streamline Design Review

Daily Journal of Commerce

May 29th 2014

Pictured Above: ZGF Architects principal Paddy Tillett is a member of the Portland Urban Design Panel, which wants to help improve the city design review process. (Sam Tenney/DJC)

With a substantial backlog of projects awaiting Portland Design Commission approval, some industry professionals say the city's design review process needs to be streamlined.

Most importantly, they say, it needs to happen quicker. Too often, by the time a project goes before the Design Commission, it's so far along that extensive revisions can be a significant setback, said Paddy Tillett, a ZGF Architects principal and Portland Urban Design Panel member.

"These reviews are happening much too late in the process," he said. "If design review happens too late, it becomes a critique of what has been designed rather than how to create a good design."

Tillett and other Urban Design Panel members believe it's important that the city have a public design review process to shape development, but worry that it's becoming too cumbersome. The panel members, including representatives of the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects, want to alleviate this by becoming intermediary advisers in the process.

A City Club of Portland Friday Forum - "Portland Architecture: How Good is Good Enough?" on Friday will address the issue. Current and former Design Commission members will address ways to improve design review and better involve the public. Speakers will include Design Commission Chairwoman Guenevere Millius, president of Parachute Strategies; and past design commissioners Michael McCulloch, a Portland architect, and John Russell, founder of Russell Development Co. Randy Gragg, director of the University of Oregon's John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies, will moderate the discussion.

"It occurred to me that this is a matter of civic importance that we understand what the Design Commission does and why it is important," Tillett said. "Design review is something a lot of people outside of the design community don't know about, yet they have opinions... about how our city looks."

The Urban Design Panel, meanwhile, aims to enhance the quality of Portland's urban environment and support efforts by city staffers and the Design Commission to raise design awareness, he said.

Panel members recently pitched to the Design Commission the idea of them becoming voluntary resources for architects seeking early feedback on designs. This would help identify problems that could potentially drag out the city design review process, said Bob Boileau, a Myhre Group Architects principal and Urban Design Panel member.

"We're going to get plans sooner (than the Design Commission)," he said. "If there's anything we can do to speed up the process, (we will)."

Millius said she is appreciative of the panel's willingness to offer early feedback on designs, but also aware of potential pitfalls. She is worried that architects will assume that a positive critique from the Urban Design Panel will spell an equally favorable response from the Design Commission. Another drawback is that seeking out feedback from the Urban Design Panel is voluntary.

"Are only the really talented (teams) going to bring their projects to the Urban Design Panel?" Millius asked. "You just hope that teams that need the most help would seek it."

City staffers report being busier than ever handling requests for design approval, leading to a backlog, she said. Design commissioners also have been asked to review increasingly large and complex projects featuring new materials or construction methods.

"We have much more developed design guidelines and much more things to consider," Millius said. "We're engaged in a sort of deeper conversation for better or worse."

Urban Design Panel member John Spencer, of Spencer Consultants, served on the Design Commission in the 1990s. He said the current commission could save time by limiting their critiques to how a project can meet city design guidelines.

"Now the (design advice request) process has gotten more and more detailed," he said. "You have to ask yourself: Are we getting better projects than we were? It's certainly taking more time and money."

The Design Commission recently started using a timer to limit architects' presentations to 20 minutes, and that has already helped accelerate reviews, Millius said. She also tries to focus the discussion if it veers off topic.

The idea is to ensure that meetings don't drag on so long that commissioners aren't able to offer valuable feedback.

"It's hard to maintain your focus and your ability to care about anybody's feelings except your own to go home," Millius said. "We're constantly thinking about how we can we deliver the same quality review with less time."

Following the City Club discussion, the Urban Design Panel plans to host a workshop with past and present Design Commission members to discuss possible next steps toward process refinement.

"We hope that as a consequence of that City Club conversation we may have a meeting subsequently about how (design commissioners) might change their process to respond to the circumstances they have today," Tillett said.

If you go

What: "Portland Architecture: How Good is Good Enough?"

When: Friday, from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. (doors open at 11:30 a.m.)

Where: The Sentinel hotel, 614 S.W. 11th Ave., Portland

More information: 503-228-7231, or www.pdxcityclub.com