Portland wants your opinion on Design Review

Design Overlay Zone Assessment Project

Map of where the Design Overlay Zone is currently applied, and where it is proposed to expand. Click to enlarge.

Next Portland is one of a number of media outlets that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) has invited to join a roundtable discussion about Portland’s Design Review process. The discussion is part of the Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA) Project, which intends to “document and assess how the tools that carry out the (d) overlay affect the outcomes for discretionary and nondiscretionary reviews.”

The project is being led by Walker Macy, who are currently working on developing a consolidated list of issues to address.  In order to help develop this list, Next Portland was invited to the discussion in order to “hear what you and your readers think about the process”.

The DOZA project comes in advance of a move to expand the number of sites with the (d) overlay is applied in Portland. Policy 3.42 of the recently approved 2035 Comprehensive Plan calls for an expanded use of Design Review:

Distinct identities. Maintain and enhance the distinct identities of the Inner Ring Districts and their corridors. Use and expand existing historic preservation and design review tools to accommodate growth in ways that identify and preserve historic resources and enhance the distinctive characteristics of the Inner Ring Districts, especially in areas experiencing significant development.

Most notably, areas of the city not currently subject to the Design Review, including inner Burnside, Belmont, Hawthorne and Division, would see the (d) overlay applied. These areas would likely be subject to a two-track Design Review process, similar to how Design Review works in Northwest (outside the Alphabet Historic District) and along Williams/Vancouver. Developers and architects would have the choice of applying for subjective Design Review, or meeting a set of prescriptive standards. The set of standards that are most commonly applied at present are the Community Design Standards. (See “The Language of Development in Portland” for further explanation). The DOZA project is only looking at Design Review, and will not address the Historic Resource Review process.

Next Portland will be participating in the discussion on Friday, and comments received on this post before Thursday evening will be considered for the discussion. Comments are welcome from readers who have direct experience with the process, and as well as those who have a more general interest in how the city grows. In the coming weeks BPS will also post a questionnaire, providing a more direct way to provide input.

9 thoughts on “Portland wants your opinion on Design Review

  1. Design review is a terrible system of building regulation, but the absence of design review can be worse. The Design Commission often engages in its own form of building design by committee, resulting in compromised if not poorer design than proposed by the applicant. Still, major buildings not subject to design review tend be and look cheaper and less accommodating of community values.

  2. Portland’s design guidelines and design review process have had a positive impact in our city. Nevertheless, design review could stand improvement in terms of ‘predictability’, especially as it expands into new areas.

    Predictability needs to be clarified in terms of 1) process, and 2) consistent application of design guidelines.

    A. The review process should be streamlined. A prescriptive timeline for a ‘start-to-finish’ of the process should be strongly articulated.

    B. The guidelines should be updated and be applied as 1) ‘general citywide’ guidelines, and supplemented with 2) more specific new/updated Central City, district, Corridor, etc… guidelines. There should be no redundancy or conflicting guidelines, or parallel review processes (i.e.– historic preservation review). Moreover, there should be direct referencing to relevant zoning regulations (where possible) to avoid confusion of regulatory prescriptive standards vs. discretionary review guidelines.

    C. A ‘manual’ that prescribes expectations for design review materials, staff reports, public input, design team and staff presentation protocol of design commission meetings should be created and widely distributed to developers, designers and neighborhood advocates. These manual requirements should be applied citywide.

    D. Commission presentations and commission discussion time should be limited. One way to shorten meetings would be to provide materials/ staff reports on-line for review prior to design commission meetings, along with the ability to provide comment on proposals and staff reports electronically.

    E. Finally, a ‘Design Review Academy’ should be established that provides opportunities for formalized training on the guidelines and application process. It should be required for BOP staff and Design Commissioners. It should be available for developers, builders, design consultants, and neighborhood advocates. No more freelancing!

  3. I agree that design review has done more good than bad and I certainly appreciate the time our design commissioners have volunteered for public benefit.

    That said, the process needs to be simplified. The Design Commission should only review new buildings above a certain size. Otherwise, just require a staff-level review with clear, and greatly simplified criteria.

    If it takes more than 15 or 20 pages to relay the design guidelines, it’s not clear enough. The current Central City “fundamental” design guidelines is 150+ pages. The South Waterfront design guidelines are 130+ pages. Community Design Guidelines is 130 pages, not including the 100 page appendix. That’s an absurd and mind-boggling task to go through all these guidelines only to end up with the design commissioners going with their gut impressions.

    I agree with previous comment about ‘Design Review Academy’ that should help bring everyone onto the same page. The Design Commissioners should have better clarity on what they can and should comment on or request changes while allowing some leeway for the project proponents design preferences.

    In the end, the design review process should focus on preventing bad development from happening and making sure everything that comes out of the process is ‘good’ or better. If the project’s already ‘good’, they probably shouldn’t mess with it. It’s a waste of time and energy, which ultimately translates into higher development costs without a substantial public benefit.

  4. I can’t really tell from the map above, but I would be very happy to have Design Review expanded to my neighborhood. A number of new apartment buildings have gone up on SE Burnside and SE Ankeny that look really cheap/ugly.

  5. Great comments Don, totally agree that the process needs more clarity and consistency. Overall it is a good process that can and should drive better design so long as it’s not circular or overly subjective. I think your suggestions would go a long way toward that end.

  6. The Design Review process in Portland is currently undergoing review by an outside consultant because of concerns that the process takes too long for applicants and for reviewers.

    The process takes too long because the Commissioners are doing something they should not be doing. Individual reviewers on the Commission are asserting their personal preferences into the review process and asking for specific revisions to building designs. Commissioners are requiring the applicant to re-appear for additional reviews in order to accommodate their requested revisions. Projects are even asked to change the program/use of the building to satisfy Commissioner’s requests. In addition, projects have been asked to redesign a specific element, such as a utility meter screen, a specific dimension from the face of cladding to the window, or a specific spacing of a metal panel profile. Approval is held up until the Commissioners are satisfied that their design ideas have been incorporated. Commissioners call this conditional approval. Many examples of this behavior are available in the meeting minutes of reviews. This level of detailed design control was never intended by the authors of the Central City Fundamental Design Guidelines. In fact, when the Portland Design Guidelines were first written in the 1970s, the authors explicitly intended to avoid the political implications of this personal preference approach to design review. The Design Guideline language is available here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/?c=31611
    It specifically states:

    “It is not the City’s intent to prescribe any specific design solution through the design guideline.”

    Unfortunately, it appears to be the Commissioners’ and the Planning Department’s intent to disregard this direction and instead to prescribe specific design solutions. They have just published: Best Practices: A Guide To The City Of Portland Design Review Process, available here: https://www.nextportland.com/2016/05/18/best-practices-guide-city-portland-design-review-process/.

    The Best Practices guide is intended to provide prescriptive design direction on a number of issues, with the intent to make the direction enforceable in Type III reviews. The Best Practices Guide says “This document will be updated periodically as it strives to convey to applicants the most up-to-date leanings of the current Commission membership.” By “leanings” read “preferences”. Preferences is most obvious in the ‘Quality and Permanence’ section of the Best Practices Guide. The guide might as well say, “The current Commissioners prefer these materials:” The “leanings” of the Commissioners were reportedly written by the Commissioners, and were published under the guise of the Bureau of Development Services staff, but personal preferences they remain. Using this precedent, what is to prevent subsequent commissioners from codifying their preferences, which will result in a highly personal review process? What preferences might other commissioners enforce in the future?

    By the way, there is nothing in the zoning code giving either staff or Commissioners the authority to enforce preferences. Per 33.710.050.D, the Design Commission powers and duties include “providing advice on design matters to the Hearings Officer, Planning Commission, Historic Landmarks Commission, Portland Development Commission, and City Council.” It does not say they may give design advice directly to architects.

    “The Commission powers and duties include:
    1. Recommending the establishment, amendment, or removal of a design district to the Planning Commission and City Council, except Historic Districts and Conservation Districts;
    2. Developing design guidelines for adoption by City Council for all design districts except Historic Districts and Conservation Districts;
    3. Reviewing major developments within design districts, except those projects involving or located within the following:
    a) Historic Districts;
    b) Conservation Districts;
    c) Historic Landmarks; and
    d) Conservation Landmarks
    4. Reviewing other land use requests assigned to the Design Commission; and
    5. Providing advice on design matters to the Hearings Officer, Planning Commission, Historic Landmarks Commission, Portland Development Commission, and City Council.”
    (from https://www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/article/168799)

    In summary, the Commissioners’ expanding authority and their Best Practices Guide is not supported by the documents that describe their responsibilities. Commissioners should not have the ability to enforce their personal preferences concerning the work product of the design and development community and the Best Practices Guide can be eliminated. Remember you will not hear complaints from architects and developers because there is too much to lose by a business alienating the Design Commission.

    Design Review should continue, but in the way it was originally intended to function. Does a project meet the Guidelines or does it not? No more “just add this detail and we will approve your project.”

    A review of this entire process by an outside consultant is welcomed.

  7. Thanks to everyone who provided such thoughtful comments. The comments proved very useful for informing the discussion this morning. Next Portland will follow the DOZA process and provide updates as it progresses.

  8. This is exciting. I only wish design review were already in place so we wouldn’t have so many Sackoff monstrosities littered about.

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