CPTC: Design Review - 11/12/2020

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Workshop hosted by the Massachusetts Citizen Planner Training Collaborative.

Ken Buckland gives the presentation. He wrote a design review handbook for agencies that subsidize affordable housing. He's assisted by Jeff Owen of the North Middlesex Council of Government.

Design review can be used to improve the quality of development, improve the public realm, and ensure that the character of districts is maintained. Design review addresses things like the architectural features of buildings, material choices, colors, roof style, building height, and the symmetry and style of windows and doors.

The design review process should offer feedback and observations. Having a good relationship with developers will help the process. It's also important for reviewers and developers to have a common vocabulary. An architectural dictionary can be helpful.

Design review can be used for a wide range of objectives including historic preservation, encouraging specific building styles, and improving urban amenities and form. Historic preservation is probably the most common form of design review. The US secretary of the interior publishes guidelines and standards for historic preservation.

Design review takes place within the envelope allowed by zoning.

Some review processes focus on roofs. This includes roof pitch, the structure of gables (i.e., the "hats" on the buildings), and the overall shape of the roofline.

Design review does not consider a building's use.

Design review can encourage consistency. For example, ensuring the presence of common architectural features, facade elements, materials, the street wall, types and position of lighting, and the pedestrian scale. It can also encourage variation between buildings.

Design review takes place within the context of a district. Creation of districts is one of the first steps in establishing a design review process.

Landmark preservation is another form of design review. The landmark helps define the context of the district. New buildings should fit into that context, and shouldn't detract from the landmark.

Design review can regulate access to parking or waterfront areas.

Urban amenities are often used in exchange for bonuses and incentives. These can include plaques, civic spaces, pedestrian amenities, streetscape improvements, and pocket parks.

Design review can focus on excessive differences or similarities. The presenter talks about a community where every residential building has a distinct architectural style. The substantial differences are a theme.

The next part of the presentation focuses on the legal basis for design review. In the early 1800s, aesthetics were viewed as a matter of "luxury and waste". Courts sympathized with some regulations, but generally wanted them tied to public safety, health, and welfare. In the late 1800s, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled a Newton ordinance invalid because it required homes to be "handsome".

Planning and zoning advanced as a practice in the 1920s. The Massachusetts house considered a bill to "beautify" and "harmonize" development. The SJC said that aesthetics were secondary to public health and welfare. The court felt that property owners should not be forced to give up their rights for the pursuit of aesthetic goals.

Amber v Euclid was a supreme court case that found zoning to be a valid use of police powers. It asserted those powers should be used toward furthering the public welfare.

Berman vs. Parker was a supreme court case from 1956. It dealt with using eminent domain to seize blighted properties, and compensate the land owners.

In later years, the US supreme court accepted aesthetics as a reason to undertake urban renewal projects. Over time, aesthetic standards became accepted, provided that such standards were clear and reasonable.

Architecture is like speech. It can only be regulated in a content-neutral manner.

Identifying districts is a key consideration when developing a design review process. While the goal is to establish geographic boundaries, you'll want to think about what makes the district cohesive, what materials are used, how buildings are sited, and what kind of landscaping is around the streets.

Design districts are a little like form-based codes, in the sense that they describe the progression of buildings from (say) a dense urban center to sparser areas located away from the center. Consider whether continuity or diversity is more important. Design review should be applied to specific areas, and not to a community as a whole.

Focus groups and visual preference surveys are good tools for obtaining public input and identifying areas of concern. Study existing conditions and learn the terminology of design.

Design guidelines (and the design review process) should have a clear purpose statement.

Incentives are a useful way to get public benefit.

Design standards should be specific. Specificity reduces the opportunity for abuse and impartiality by the review board. Unclear or vague standards may be challenged and struck down by courts. Detailed standards provide sufficient guidance to the review board, and allow for the possibility of administrative review.

Be cognizant of the language used in standards, particularly when using "may" or "shall". The former is advisory but the latter indicates a requirement.

Within a design review district, there should be common relationships between sites and structures.

Design review is not always appropriate for single-family homes. Historic districts are an exception to this rule, as their value comes from the ability to preserve what's in the district.

Reed v Gilbert is a supreme court case involving sign regulations, where the court ruled that such regulations have to be content neutral. Architectural expression in building design is a form of speech, so it's likely that Reed v. Gilbert will have implications for design review processes.

The permitting process and sequence of meetings is important. Reviewers should conduct site visits to understand the context of surrounding land and buildings.

A common objection to design review is the introduction of uncertainty into the permitting process.

In Falmouth, a group of residents were interested in design, and started submitting comments to permit hearings. After a while, the feedback from this group was considered valuable enough to establish an official design review committee. This is an example of an informal group evolving into an official body.

Decisions should explain any findings that were made during the design review process. An explanation of findings (i.e., how the board arrived at its decisions) will generally make a decision more defensible. Detailed decisions help to establish precedent, which in turn makes the process more predictable.

Design review duties can be assigned to planning boards, or to a separate committee.

Design review should provide suggestions and feedback. The review committee should not attempt to design the project.

Visual tools are helpful. These could be elaborate computer-generated graphics, or simple drawings and sketches.

Designers and developers should participate in the creation of design review standards.

Decisions should be objective and not based on the preferences of individual committee members. Personal taste can be part of the process, but shouldn't dominate it.

To summarize what's been discussed: it's important to study the districts. An interactive public process is an appropriate way to develop design standards. Architecture is an expressive form, and standards need some degree of flexibility to achieve a good result. Test standards with developers, and understand how they'll impact the development process.

Question: Do you know of communities that have successfully implemented a design review process?

Any community with a 40R district will have some kind of design review. The best standards happen when you work with developers and good designers.

Question: How should design review be integrated with site plan review?

Consider building facades, rooflines, and how the site meets the public realm.

Question: I live in a small town (Acton?), and it wouldn't be practical for us to have a dedicated group for design review. Sometime, we provide developers with addresses of buildings that we like and say "try to do something like this". Is that a reasonable approach?

Yes, providing examples of what you'd like to see is helpful. Some design review processes require the designer or developer to take photographs of the surrounding area, and explain how they'll incorporate those elements into their project.

Comment: There's a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, and it can be difficult to get that balance right. You don't want guidelines that are too prescriptive, but you also don't want guidelines that are too vague. It can be helpful to look at what other communities have done.

Comment: It's possible to have several sets of design guidelines. For example, one for single-family homes, one for commercial centers, and one for downtowns. Downtown guidelines are likely to vary according to a community's size. For example, a downtown might be a little village or a tall business center.

Question: How does design review fit in with chapter 43D expedited permitting?

It fits in rather easily -- just add steps for review of design elements, building forms, and architecture. The risk is that a hold up in one step of the permitting process can compress the schedule of other steps.

Question: Where should a community put its design regulations?

Design regulations can be placed in a Zoning Bylaw, in town bylaws, or in rules and regulations. Note that the threshold for changing design regulations varies with these different options.