Note: This article is a follow-up to Friday's "Finding the right path through design review," and also appears in the May-June 2014 print issue of Better Cities & Towns.
Design review is not without its dangers. Here are some of the problems to be avoided:
1) Overreaching or biased review
The task of the reviewer is not to redesign the project but to enhance the design, based on principles of sound design and professional judgment. Design bias, such as preference for a particular architectural style or material can stifle creativity. Subjective judgement is minimized when the review is focused around the community-supported criteria established in a form-based code and findings of fact.
2) Vague Direction
Design review should provide clear and specific direction. Vague phrases like “consistent or compatible” or “in harmony” leave room for subjective interpretation. The town architect, design staff, or head of the design review committee should synthesize and summarize the vague and disparate comments and provide specific and lucid direction at the conclusion of the review, based upon the code standards. Staff can follow up and provide a written synthesis of comments to the applicants.
3) Extra time and expense
A common complaint is that design review is an extra step in the approval process that consumes time and money. If done early in the process, following clear standards in a good form-based code, design review can streamline the approval process so that it results in an approval that entitles the applicant to apply directly for a building permit. When approval from multiple bodies is necessary, joint meetings may allow advisory and approval bodies to combine their public review process, saving everyone time and money.
4) Conflict of interest
The design review process should be free of financial and political influence. A reviewer who has professional or financial interests in the project being reviewed or in another project by the same applicant compromises the integrity of what should be an independent review. In small cities where conflicts are unavoidable, objective third-party talent from outside the city can bring balanced views and a wider perspective to the committee.
Kaizer Rangwala, AICP, CEcD, CNU-A, is the founding principal of Los Angeles-based Rangwala Associates and a member of the board of directors of the Form-Based Codes Institute, which seeks to advance the knowledge and use of form-based codes.