Design Review Committee proposed

Dec. 16

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia City Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger has proposed the creation of a Design Review Committee, a seven-member group appointed by the Planning Commission, that would evaluate projects on the basis of their potential impact on “the public realm.”

Greenberger introduced the idea at Tuesday’s monthly Planning Commission meeting, and said the committee, to be made up of design professionals from different disciplines, would be advisory only, existing to support the commission.

His premise is that matters that require zoning changes or variances have been handled in a “disorganized design review” process through the Zoning Board of Adjustment (a body not meant to take on such considerations, he said), for example. Or they have been debated in community meeting halls, “or lots of other places” except where they should be: under the supervision of professional design review specialists.

Such a body, operating through the Planning Commission, would be for “recommendation only,” Greenberger said, with the sole purpose of understanding development at the level in which it impacts the public. In certain circumstances, the Design Committee might be authorized to give approvals where projects have a completed Plan of Design already included in the overall proposal.

Criteria for the would-be committee’s consideration would be limited to projects of more than 100,000 square feet – or if requested zoning variances exceeded limits by, say, 200 percent. Greenberger said that a model could be seen in the Boston Civic Design Commission.

From the BCDC Web site (http://www.cityofboston.gov/bra/BCDC/bcdc.asp): “The BCDC’s purpose … is to provide a forum for the general public and the professional design community to participate in the shaping of the city’s physical form and natural environment.

“Boston is unique in that it establishes a development review process that allows the city’s bureaucracy to work actively with developers not only to minimize the environmental impacts of proposed projects, but also to produce designs that will reinforce the city’s urban form.”

Greenberger stressed several times that the idea is not to create an extra level of bureaucracy, or another hoop for developers to jump through. Rather, he said, it would  streamline the process if done correctly. The committee would meet, in public, perhaps two weeks prior to Planning Commission meetings, and encourage public discussion.

Planning Commissioner Joe Syrnick asked how such a committee would “stop non-organized neighborhoods groups?”

“The intent is that the public would be better served if we communicate the true impact of projects rather than the presumed impact,” replied Greenberger. They would be “best served by people who understand design.”

Commissioner Nilda Ruiz said she was inclined to favor the idea, but wondered if the economic impact of proposed projects might get lost in the shuffle.

Commissioner Andrew Altman, whose other main role with the city is to head the Commerce Department, replied, “We as a commission can’t always sort out what is economically viable.”

All too true, especially these days, Greenberger added. A lot of projects presented to the commission over the past few months possessed an economic viability that might be little to none given the almost nonexistent state of the credit markets to finance big development.

But Greenberger acknowledged that developers might well be nervous about such a committee being “another layer,” even though it’s meant to systematize the process and “ultimately streamline things.” Designers themselves, too, might hesitate at the concept, along with community groups that have fought long and hard for the power they now wield.

“We want them to see this as the space for public airings,” Greenberger said about such neighborhood groups, none of which he referred to by name. “There are a half dozen or so [neighborhood groups] with a pretty sophisticated design review process, but a whole host” of neighborhoods throughout the city that don’t. “As a matter of fairness, this is a way to get to that.”

“Clarity of the process is key,” Altman said. “How this can be helpful and clear, and not another layer.”

Greenberger said he’d seek comments on the matter in January, and propose actual language about the committee in February. If approved, it could be up and running by Spring.

“We’ll develop as much clarity as we can about the purpose of this, and test it out,” he said. “There will be a bit of experimentation.”

Contact the reporter at tom@thomasjwalsh.info.

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