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Design review process under scrutiny


July 11th 2016

Pictured above: Portland Design Commission member Don Vallaster (seated) points at a sample palette of cladding held by Jeffrey Stuhr during a design review of a Lloyd District superblock project.
Second image: Members of the Portland Design Commission (Photos by Sam Tenney/DJC)

When artist Tad Savinar joined the Portland Design Commission three years ago, it met once a month for about four hours. Today the commission meets three times a month, often for more than six hours at a time.

Design review takes too long, sometimes stretching out for months, according to some observers. Now, in response to "public feedback and applicant concerns," the city has hired a consultant - the Seattle office of landscape architecture and urban design firm Walker Macy - to study the entire design review process.

Explosive development has overloaded the system, Savinar said.

"Bankers are driving development, development is driving architecture and design teams, and then they fall in our lap," he said. "Everybody's cranky, but we are doing everything possible to speed up hearings."

A search for answers

The Design Commission reviews only projects planned in design overlay zones, which cover 5 percent of the city. But with construction taking place all over Portland, the city is weighing whether to add design overlay zones, and increase the commission's caseload.

But does the city need more design overlay zones? What would happen if more projects were added to the Design Commission's agendas? Does Portland need to add a design commission? Should more design approvals be given solely by city staffers?

Those questions and more should be answered by the end of the year, Walker Macy principal Mark Hinshaw said. He praised Portland for at least looking for solutions.

"I would not characterize (the design review process) as being broken, but it certainly could lend itself to being done better," he said.

One of the first steps Hinshaw will take will be to study how other cities facing explosive development handle commercial project plans. Two include Denver and Austin, Texas.

"We're looking at other cities - peer cities - going through a similar phenomenon and how they apply techniques of design review," he said. "Many cities like Portland are struggling with the fact they have had a tremendous amount of new development in the last five years that overloads the system and everyone's capability to handle it," he said.

San Francisco, for example, with a population approximately 230,000 greater than Portland, has seven design commissions, covering seven geographical areas of the city.

Portland Design Commission Chairman David Wark worries about creating another design commission to meet the heavy caseload.

"If the design overlay expands, then how can we review that?" he asked. "Do we have two commissions? One of the most inherent issues with that is we had trouble enough finding seven commissioners."

Evaluating the process

Walker Macy will study more than the duration of design review and the possibility of adding design overlay zones. The firm also will look at how the review process relates to zoning codes.

"We're not talking about whether heights should be lowered, but how effective has the design review (process) been," Hinshaw said. "Are people seeing what was hoped for in this process? It's an evaluation of what's recently built and how that stacks up against what the intention was and the process. We're looking at physical results."

The Walker Macy team will look at several recently built projects to see how they proceeded through the design review process, including "controversies and difficulties," he said. Also, a series of roundtable discussions with architects, developers, neighbors and other affected stakeholders will take place during the weeks of July 11 and July 18.

Next, Hinshaw's team will develop a set of issues to address and then present the findings to the Design Commission. Final recommendations will then be refined and shared with the Design Commission, the Planning and Sustainability Commission and the Portland City Council by the end of the year.

Eyeing possible changes

Lora Lillard, urban designer with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, is the city's point person for the Walker Macy study. She said the team will look at possible changes to how some projects are evaluated, including allowing more project approvals by city staffers.

Oregon law requires the city to allow both commission and staff assessments for projects in the design overlay zones, but that is unusual, Lillard said.

"Most other cities don't have that option," she said. "What we are finding is there are different levels of discretion that cities use to evaluate projects within their own version of design overlay."

Lillard said the city is proposing expansion of design overlay zones to include major streets in Portland, but not everyone is happy about it. She hopes Hinshaw's study will give the city more clarity in the direction it takes in that regard.

"We're hearing from some in the community that they want more attention to those areas designated for growth," she said. "Other feedback is: Don't add overlay until we fix the problems that are going on.' "

For the Portland study, the public will have a chance to weigh in through an online survey, Hinshaw said.

"We will have a series of questions, but we haven't developed the questions yet," he said. "Through a variety of forms of analysis we hope in the fall to emerge with a set of recommendations or changes."

Different opinions

But Allusa Architecture principal Bob Schatz, who said he has designed more than 1,200 projects, believes the Design Commission should simply be abolished.

"If you want interesting and creative structures in the city, then you need to not have a design review but encourage developers to do better," he said, "and there are many ways for that to happen."

Many architects feel the same way, Schatz said, but don't speak out about their frustrations.

"I think they (the commission) should know that people are upset with the process," he said. "They all think everyone's fine, but when you talk to people outside of the city (government), for some reason, so many let them tell them what to do."

Myhre Group Architects Chairman Jeff Myhre disagrees. The design review process might need be streamlined, he said, but it's what makes Portland able to maintain high design standards that aren't as evident in other cities.

"We know that architecture is not a solo sport," he said. "Portland does a great job of appointing good people to the Design Commission, and they work really hard to come up with fair and equitable solutions. They value aesthetics and economics and looking at things with an impartial eye."