Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Speaking out for design review

Baltimore City has the audacity to require design review of all major building projects and development plans. The design review consists of a site plan review with staff of the Planning Department and an architectural and urban design review that in smaller projects can also be performed by staff or for larger ones will have to be presented in front of an expert panel of architects, urban designers and landscape architects (UDARP).
Designers (left) being quizzed by panel (right). Photo: Daily Record
The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel’s goal is to achieve the highest quality for the planned and built environment of Baltimore City by providing the Planning Commission and the Department of Planning with design review expertise in the areas of urban design, architecture, and landscape design for all proposed master planning efforts and significant development projects. The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel advises the Department of Planning, the Planning Commission and other City agencies on matters of urban design, architecture and landscape architecture and are professional staff of the Department of Planning. (UDARP website)
For some this level of scrutiny is too much. Bad enough, some developers think, that we have to hire a licensed  architect and engineer to obtain a construction permit, we now also have to pay for an elaborate presentation to this design review panel, and as a result, we may have to pay to revise the design and pay for enhancements to the project as well. Indeed, UDARP can become expensive, especially if a project doesn't pass for poor design.

Developers who tell their architects to "cut out the frills" or who hire cut-rate architects which are unqualified or not paid enough to produce good design, are the most likely ones to be sent back to the drawing board by the review panel.  Rumor has it that those run-of the mill developers with little design ambition apparently complain directly to the Mayor about the process. They may be especially hopeful when there is a new administration that wants to make it easier to develop and invest in Baltimore. A layperson may even feel sympathy for a developer who complains about this cost, after all, taste (or design) is in the eyes of the beholder, isn't it?

But this isn't just about taste. It is about public interest. Non-designers often don't understand that even in art there are criteria that help to judge whether something is a good or bad. That is true for movies, theater productions, books, sculptures or paintings. But for architecture and development it is even more so because they occur in the public domain and there are additionally functional considerations in play, especially as they relate to the exterior and the relationship to the public space.
The Panel is comprised of six individuals who bring expertise in various aspects of architectural, urban, and landscape design. Members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Director of Planning. (UDARP website)
I have attended UDARP meetings as a presenter and as audience and must say that design review in Baltimore has never been better than it is now. A very qualified review panel now rarely pontificates or spouts personal opinion and, instead, performs a very valuable service to the public in scrutinizing how a proposed building or development will perform in the public space in which it will sit (most urban buildings are placed along public streets).
UDRAP had much to sau about 1 Light Street (Photo: BBJ)

Some UDARP members are uncertain about how the new administration will see their future. In trying to read the tea leaves, folks in the development community, the design profession and on UDARP itself are speculating whether the Mayor's inclination for art would prevail or her assumed developer friendliness. Whether her perceived high expectations will rather ratchet design standards higher or whether her desire to grow and invest in Baltimore would lower the bar. In volatile times small things like a cancelled UDARP meeting (this week) can stir rumors and fear. Tom Stosur, the Planning Director and in charge of UDARP, is not aware of any change that may be afoot. "No one has approached me about any imminent changes, so as far as I know we will continue as usual" he responded upon inquiry.

The Mayor is said to be fairly intolerant when it comes to incompetence or mediocrity and to have high expectations of herself and others. This city needs high expectations for itself and for others who want do business here. A race to the bottom always ensues a vicious cycle, just as an expectation of excellence will begin a virtuous cycle. Architectural design is no exception.

In January of 2015 I wrote about Design Review - Hurdle, Safeguard or a Step towards Excellence?Back then I wrote: "It seems that criteria and metrics can work especially well in the realm of urban design where criteria can be derived seamlessly from regulations, guidelines and masterplans that address setbacks, massing, orientation, uses, parking and the like. Criteria should be performance-based so they are not a template for design and still avoid undesirable outcomes such as blocked views, an uninspiring public realm, overpowering scale clashes, poor place making or lack of landscaping, etc."

Baltimore's design review has been in place in one form or another since 1964, originally under what is now the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and since 1997 under Planning.

Not all cities have a thorough design review such as Baltimore's, but some type of review is common, especially for larger projects. I was a design reviewer for Baltimore County for ten years where projects were smaller and the review more technical. Either way, projects become better through review, in part, because the expectation of a peer review will heighten the effort from the start, in part because a constructive dialogue about the best solutions often stimulates creativity and inspiration. At the review of large projects such as Sagamore's Port Covington, with its internationally known architects, the panel was not intimidated but created a constructive back and forth in which high level design and public interest was pushed further without designers becoming defensive.
The Public Design Commission is New York City’s design review agency, with jurisdiction over permanent structures, parks and open spaces, streetscapes, signage, and art proposed on or over City-owned property.
The Commission is an advocate for excellence and innovation in the public realm, ensuring the viability and quality of public programs and services throughout the city for years to come.(website)
As for the owners and developers who have to foot the bill: Better solutions create value and better projects will ensure a quality setting which makes a better city. In other words, everybody will be better off by not taking the path of least resistance or of the smallest common denominator, but instead aim for the best possible solution. Design is one form of problem solving. 

UDARP could get a catchier different name and it could benefit from a staff prepared framework documentation given to the reviewers in advance. Otherwise, Mayor Pugh better leave the current review process intact. The next budget year begins July 1. UDARP members should hear soon about their re-appointment. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related article on this blog:
Baltimore Design Review Rocks (2015)

Links:
Philadelphia Design Review
Finding the right path through design review (Better Towns and Cities)

Current UDARP members:

Gary A. Bowden, FAIA
Architect Emeritus, Retired from Maryland firm, Retired Professor/Critic from University of Maryland- School of Architecture

Richard Burns, AIA
Registered Architect, Practicing architect in Maryland

David Haresign, FAIA
Registered Architect, Partner in District of Columbia firm

David A. Rubin, ASLA, FAAR
Registered Landscape Architect, Principal in Philadelphia Landscape design firm

Pavlina Ilieva, AIA
Registered Architect, Program Director/Lecturer at Morgan State University - School of Architecture and Planning, Principal in Baltimore Architecture firm .