A few weeks ago I wrote about the small Portland firm William Kaven Architecture and its various housing projects. This week I received a follow-up email from co-principal Daniel Kaven expressing some major frustration at the apparently lengthy process of making his firm’s latest design, a multi-family project in North Portland called the North House, a reality.
The City of Portland actually recently approved the Kaven design on North
Albina Vancouver (sorry, I originally wrote the incorrect street - it's in the Albina neighborhood), but it has been appealed by a neighbor near the property. "The proposed development is in a residential zone and therefore should be designed to enhance these existing and predominant features," the appeal argues. "The design is not compatible with the existing structures and neighborhood."
A design review commission hearing this Thursday, August 2 (1900 SW Fourth Ave., Room 2500A) will allow public testimony, and the architects asked me to appeal to the design community to come and support their efforts. It’s not just about the North House, Daniel argues, but the ability of contemporary architecture to get approved in a timely fashion that doesn't let good projects die on the vine.
“The City of Portland has made it excruciatingly difficult to make the most simple changes to its own community-design standards,” he goes on. “I have been sucked into the BDS [Bureau of Development Services] bureaucracy for months now based solely on my attempt to have flat roofs, which exist in order to have more urban space and foster green roof development.”
“The manner in which the City of Portland and neighbors can hold your design hostage has really gotten out of control. There needs to be major changes in the "community design standards" in order to accommodate modern design. Modern housing, which might only slightly deviate from the standards, is slathered in red tape, while awful track housing still gets the green light.”
I present Daniel’s experience not as gospel, because to be honest I hear varying things about city design review and have never been through this process myself. Anyone I’ve ever talked to at the City seems pretty reasonable about crafting a balance between unchecked design freedom and rigid guidelines. But proof is in the project, of course. What do other architects and developers trying to generate contemporary urban infill projects in historic neighborhoods have to say about their experiences?
It seems tempting to cast this, as Daniel has, as evidence of civic growing pains, wherein residents who love their Craftsman bungalows, Tudors and other pitched-roof single family homes see the arrival of contemporary architecture as out of character. I and many others have argued that, done properly, modern buildings and homes fit in easily with historic styles, and the diversity enriches the entire neighborhood. However, with any project there can be a lot of subtle but important details regarding scale and material that can and should be worked out in order to help a modern structure fit into a more historic context or accentuate the pedestrian experience. One of the appeal's other complaints other than the contemporary style had to do with public access and pedestrian integration, which I think may have been better served as a stand-alone argument rather than this "the world is flat" mentality about the place of contemporary architecture.
The city may have certain legitimate concerns about certain details regarding the North House they want to take time to resolve, and quite often the timetables of public and private concerns can be different ones - like two cars on the freeway who belong in the far-left and far-right lanes but have to somehow ride together. But I know William Kaven is not the only architecture firm to express frustration about red-tape. The very term "red tape" is a cliche, after all, because so many people have reached for such shorthand terms over time for government slowness and time-wasting. Does the BDS need more resources to do its job, or are these architects just Kaven to the pressure?