Civic Design Review: A Process with No Decision

In San Francisco, design review of major building projects was established in 1932 as part of the city’s charter, according to Jill Manton, the director of programs for the San Francisco Art Commission.

“Clearly there was a desire for excellence and that the city had an obligation to provide well-designed excellence in enduring, lasting buildings,” Manton said. But in San Francisco, design review is required for only public buildings—not private ones.

“We have nothing to say about the private realm,” Manton said. In San Francisco, the only exceptions are pedestrian bridges between buildings. According to Manton, because they extend over public space—the streets—the bridges are subject to design review.

Manton expressed admiration for some aspects of Philadelphia’s design history, noting that Philadelphia led the way in the Percent for Art program. San Francisco did not introduce its own program until ten years after Philadelphia’s. But when asked about the strictly advisory nature of Philadelphia’s new civic design review (CDR) process as detailed in the draft revision of its zoning code, she replied with a question:

“If it’s entirely advisory, then why go through the process?”

A fair question, at that.

“The real basis for it,” said Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, “is to have an organized public discussion about the design of these large and significant projects. It’s a way to gather the thinking of the professional people with expertise on the committee and of members of the public.”

The CDR committee will be composed of six professional designers, planners and architects, and one member of the community in which a substantial new project will be built. For quite some time in Philadelphia, assuaging neighbors has been part of doing renovations as a homeowner, and of doing business as a developer. CDR will replace a carousel of neighborhood meetings by consolidating the review of projects that have large public impact or are out of context with their surroundings.

In some zoning districts, as many as 90 percent of lots are out of compliance with the zoning code. As a result, any change to buildings on such lots—or new buildings on those lots, or consolidation of lots for a larger project—must receive a variance through the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) and sometimes require changes to the code itself. In turn, neighbors with grievances about the project can find reasons to object to ZBA. After all, if a project is out of compliance, it’s out of compliance.

Strictly speaking, developers do not seek the approval of neighborhood groups—they seek assurances that the groups won’t object to their projects. The chair of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association’s zoning committee, Larry Freedman, said NLNA strives to work with developers and homeowners in a genial way. (Full disclosure: this reporter lives in Northern Liberties, but is not active in NLNA.)

“There’s no hammer on it. Our philosophy is to strike relationships with people, which makes a more comfortable relationship for the project, and the project has a better shot of being successful. That has always been our philosophy,” Freedman said.

Freedman’s approach, in many ways, is reflected in Civic Design Review.

“It’s not to slow it down,” Gladstein said, “but to say there are significant projects that are going to have an impact on the community and that they stand to benefit from that review. Other components of the development process could be going on simultaneously with the CDR process. I don’t think that people should work under the assumption that CDR will bring everything to a halt.”

According to the draft revision of the zoning code, CDR can be triggered in three ways:

  • Any building (except industrial buildings in industrial districts) over 100,000 newly built square feet, or that includes over 100 residences, goes to CDR.
  • In a commercial, industrial, or special purpose district that is next to a multi-family or mixed-use residential district, any new building that exceeds 50,000 newly built square feet, has over 50 residences, or is 20 feet taller than the tallest permitted building in those adjacent residential districts, goes to CDR.
  • Any building on a lot that is next to a single-family detached or single-family attached (read: rowhouse) residential districts, that exceeds 25,000 newly built square feet, has over 25 residences, or is 20 feet taller than the tallest permitted building in those single-family districts, goes to CDR.

“We looked at about four or five years worth of development,” Gladstein said. “We don’t think that more than three projects a month—in a good economy—would hit those triggers.”

John Claypool, the executive director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, says that because of how small variances have traditionally been treated—that is to say, having them all examined by the ZBA—the zoning process has not always provided the opportunity to consider more substantial projects in their entirety.

“The quality of design has not been well thought-out,” Claypool said, as a part of the ZBA process. “They never get to look at a holistic project. [CDR] is an opportunity to take a bigger view. We support the idea that there are times that the more thoughtful design will improve the project itself.”

The city’s Department of Licenses and Inspection will be responsible for referring projects to CDR. When that occurs, a developer must notify the so-called “Registered Community Organizations” (RCOs) affected by the development. While developers must notify registered organizations directly, only a Web notice is required for the public.

Rebecca Johnson, the executive director of the Fairmount Community Development Corporation, expressed concern that a Web notice is the only one neighborhood residents might see.

“The hardest part of my job, without a doubt, is letting people know about stuff. The public notice requirement—why wouldn’t you have a sign for civic design review? That’s how people find out [about projects],” Johnson said.

Those RCOs have 21 days to get together and convene a meeting with a developer. Only one meeting is required. “21 days is small,” Johnson said. “You’ve gotta have consensus, and then you have to document it nine days later. You’re talking about volunteers, civically-minded people who are busy.”

Johnson thinks the time frame should be extended to 60 days, and suggested that “maybe you have to have a community meeting within 45.”

Larry Freedman, of Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, is less concerned with the time frame than with the process—and the results. “At the end of the 30 days, what happens?” Freedman asks. “Rarely do things get resolved in 30 days. If somebody wants to adjust their plan, it takes more time. If we’re going to resolve something on a local level and make nice and save time down at the ZBA, we have to get that done.

“The question is, what happens at that point. What is the next stop? That’s the question. Everything’s advisory. Even at the ZBA, we make a recommendation. It’s always up to somebody else. At what point does somebody make a decision and it’s not advisory anymore? Right now it’s ZBA.”

With Civic Design Review, the answers to Freedman’s questions are: at the end of 30 days, the CDR committee convenes to give its thoughts to the Planning Commission, which is the next stop, and any CDR feedback is a nonbinding recommendation—not a decision.

“If something’s of-right,” Gladstein says, “it goes to CDR if it hits those triggers that are in the draft code, and what would happen is just the conversation of CDR [committee] and a set of recommendations to the developer, and that would be it.”

The advisory nature of civic design review has been emphasized repeatedly by Gladstein and others in ZCC meetings and presentations. The draft revision of the code explicitly states that ” . . . failure to incorporate any or all design review recommendations shall not be a factor in review or approval of the project by L&I, the ZBA, the Planning Commission, or City Council.”

According to the administration and procedures section of the code, CDR is intended to focus only on the public impact of a project—such as walkability, street activity, access to light and air, whether it fits in to the surrounding built environment—and not to gauge a project’s aesthetic value. At the same time, the practical effects of CDR do seem evident in another part of the code.

The “Form and Design” subsection of “Development Standards” indicates that developers who go through CDR, and whose plans are recommended even though they deviate from the code (or if the CDR Committee recommends changes that deviate from the code), may choose to follow CDR’s recommendations rather than abiding by the form and design standards. So an end-around may exist for both good—and possibly for bad—designs.

But not for long. ZCC commissioner Greg Pastore told PlanPhilly that he and others have spotted this apparent loophole. He said that the choice—combined with the ability of developers to choose to opt-in to CDR—accidentally created a regulation, and one that could be manipulated.

“As far as I know it’s getting completely rewritten,” Pastore said, calling the accidental loophole something akin to “a logical flaw or grammatical error.” Gladstein confirmed that section was being rewritten, and that the ZCC has received feedback about the loophole.

“We’re rewriting that so that the code regulations requirements in section 603 have to be adhered to,” Gladstein said. Indeed on Tuesday, a new edit of that section was posted on—if adopted in the final code, it could avert an unintended zoning consequence of a type with which Philadelphia has become all too familiar.

And while CDR may not issue binding decisions, it may help Philadelphia developers and communities advocate for high-quality building and design, if, collectively, the city has the political will.

“In theory, the Planning Commission could have done [CDR] all along,” said Claypool, of AIA Philadelphia. “It ceased to take leadership on things. Mayors allowed [City] Council to take leadership. If that can be reoriented and if leaders of the city can see design as an asset for the city then we’re all well-off.”

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