The Inquirer ran an editorial on Saturday endorsing the concept of the Planning Commission creating a design review board. Alan Greenberger, the Planning Commission's executive director, announced the concept at a recent commission meeting. This is a great step forward for Philadelphia, if we can get it right.
Here's the back story: In Philadelphia when developers apply for a building permit, there is no legislated venue for discussing the proposed building's design. In many cases the Planning Commission is not a mandatory part of the process. At the same time, because of our broken zoning, the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) must hear most projects. Design is not one of the elements that the ZBA is supposed to be dealing with. Yet, often being the only step between a project and its building permit, the ZBA has gone way beyond its purview and dealt with design issues.
Recently Mayor Nutter appointed a highly qualified ZBA, and asked that board to stick to its Charter-mandated role. That means no design review. However, if the zoning board is not dealing with design, who is going to deal with these issues? At what point do qualified professionals help ensure that we are getting high-quality developments? Where do concerned citizens and civic groups go to air concerns about a proposed building's architecture, planning, or amenities?
Philadelphia has seen the impact of its lack of design review over the years. The city is marred with suburban-style development in dense urban areas; rowhouses with front driveways destroying the pedestrian experience; dead, blank walls facing onto busy shopping streets. In short, Philadelphia has gotten building projects that other cities would not tolerate.
Other cities avoid some of these problems through design review. The list of cities with design review includes
It is worth noting that there are key examples of cities that lack design review. These include
Design review takes on vastly different forms. Generally it is a board of experts who review a project's design, as part of the permitting process.
In some cities the design review board hears every single project that requires a permit. In others, only projects of a certain scale or importance. In some cities design review enforces a written set of guidelines. In others it is more subjective. In some cities it is a one-and-done process. In others, developers have to come back at multiple stages. In some cities, the board is made up of mainly architects. In others, a mix of designers, business people, and developers.
I will not delve any deeper into the variations on design review. However, if you are interested, take a look at DVRPC's report Promoting Civic Design Excellence (for full disclosure, I was one of the report's authors). You can download the report here, and the design review section starts on page 55.
Speaking of this report, which was an agenda for the Nutter administration, funded by the William Penn Foundation, the Inquirer made a nice reference to it in Saturday's editorial:
"In a forward-looking report early this year, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission catalogued these faux pas and urged city officials to give design a higher priority, as many other cities are doing. Now, Nutter appears to be delivering on his pledge to make urban design a priority by revitalizing the long-dormant Planning Commission."
Design review is an important step toward Philadelphia gaining a stronger focus on planning and design -- focusing on how the built environment impacts the city in which we live and work. Design review will complement other strong measures that the Nutter administration has taken toward this goal -- including attracting Andy Altman as Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, supporting the zoning code rewrite, and making sound appointments to the Planning Commission.
However, design review is no silver bullet. While the Planning Commission has gotten a stronger voice under Mayor Nutter, it is still not a legislated part of the development review process, in many cases. We are moving toward a stronger, permanent role for planning, but the situation is still somewhat tenuous.
Also, surely developers are fearing design review will be just another road block in an already convoluted and expensive development process. However, there are plenty of cities with design review AND a much more streamlined development process than we have in Philadelphia. The two are not mutually exclusive.
To get this right, the administration will have to focus on fixing the overall development review process. As I mentioned in an earlier post, developers want nothing more than consistency. If design review can be part of a well-choreographed and easily navigable process that adheres to a written schedule, then we may finally be on our way to attracting major development, and ensuring it is of a high quality.