Downtown Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Since it was first created in the 1980s, the Portland Design Commission has weighed in on hundreds of buildings across downtown, the Pearl District, and a select few historic and close-in neighborhoods. It's a way of ensuring architectural quality not just in individual buildings, but across the city fabric.
The Design Commission has always had critics. You can't legislate or negotiate good design, they argue: you can only hope to prevent the worst designs. It costs building owners and developers lots of time and many thousands of dollars to go through the process, bringing uncertainty to an already often-risky venture. And can you really judge and arbitrate aesthetics? Isn't one person's eyesore another's masterpiece?
Yet for all these concerns, the Design Commission is arguably a big component of what makes Portland's urban design world-renowned.
"I think this process and the fabric of Portland is in fact our brand," architect and former Design Commission chair Mike McCulloch said in a May 31 City Club talk. "The number of groups that we all have toured around, that come from all over the planet and ask, ‘How did you do this? This is such a wonderful city. How did you get it to be this way?’ Well, it’s through all these difficult negotiation processes, and the connection of planning with individual design, with urban design."
McCulloch was part of a trio that spoke with writer/editor Randy Gragg as part of the City Club talk, which explored both the past and future of the commission. Developer John Russell, another panelist, was instrumental in its founding, while strategic planning consultant, Guenevere Millius, currently serves as chair.
"It has long been said that the city’s design review process can’t mandate great buildings, but it can prevent truly bad ones. But as I survey Portland’s current boom, particularly in the neighborhoods, I’m not so sure the latter is true anymore," Gragg said in his opening remarks. "One only need stroll to the Pearl district to see how well design review can work, where the sum has become greater than its parts. But more recently elsewhere in the city we’re seeing additions I think are subtracting from the city. And never before in history have there been so many building permits released."
Russell talked about the genesis of the Design Commission, which was inspired by the construction of the Congress Center (downtown between Fifth, Sixth, Main and Salmon). The office tower is oppressive at the street level, with no storefronts along busy Sixth Avenue and massive granite slabs at its corners. "We need some ability to get a subjective judgment, not a prescription but a subjective judgment, about how these buildings should work at the ground floor," Russell said. "The ground floor is what separates urban buildings from suburban buildings: they’re a pleasure to walk by."
McCulloch, who was part of the Design Commission from 1996-2007 and spent five years as its chair, said he came to Oregon as an architect "because this kind of discussion was going on, and because it wasn’t a place in which you had to wait forever in a back room somewhere to be given the opportunity to say something about the built environment. We participate here. We talk about it at the neighborhood level. We talk about it between professionals. And we work our planners and politicians pretty hard about how this city is made. I came to Portland to join that. Design review seemed to me to be the perfect place in which to participate in this discussion, and for me as a designer to affect that discussion a little bit."
The biggest change in the Design Commission under McCulloch's watch was the creation of Design Advice Review, which enables architects and their clients to receive guidance earlier in the process. He realized that if the Commission rejected a design, "then the team who had spent all this time and effort was kind of back to square one. What we tried to do was to make the review process work more the way the architectural design process works, which is starting with concepts."
South Waterfront (photo by Brian Libby)
Millius, who serves as the body's current chair, has been on the Commission in times of boom, bust, and boom again. Her first hearing was in 2006, an eight-hour marathon that was common during this time of real-estate speculation. "We were just flattened by the load. One night in 2007 we reviewed a million square feet of real estate," she recalls. "So it was pretty different when the crash came. Things really slowed down. We went from two hearings a month to sometimes one. I remember one month when there was none. And it was frankly difficult to be the stand bearer for quality and permanence when you knew that every project that came in was hanging on by its fingernails. Everyone was having a hard time. "
"What you realize when you’ve been through a boom and a bust and a boom again," Millius added, "is that the pressures don’t really change. Every project is in a hurry to get out of the ground. Every developer-and-architecture wants to get it done as fast as they can. Every developer team really feels like they’ve done everything they can. In some cases they have and in other cases you have to push them a little harder. But the truth is as a design commission we have to pay attention not just to the problems and issues of today. What’s this building going to be like in 50 or 100 years?"
But the point of this City Club talk was supposed to be how to solve its problems, which were alternately described as "heartburn" (by Gragg) and "clogging" (by McCulloch), and to look at its jurisdictions of the future, including possible expansion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given his private-sector experience, Russell was the first to address the Commission's inefficiency. In redeveloping the 200 Market building downtown, he recalled wanting to move a ground floor glass wall out 18 inches for a restaurant. "Design review staff said, 'The rules are that will take us 8 weeks to give you an answer, because we have to write a report, we have to mail it to all the neighbors, we have to wait for them to appeal or not, and then we’ll write another report,'" Russell recalled. "There needs to be some way that some obviously de minimis issue can get resolved by the staff. These are people with master’s degrees or PhDs. They ought to be able to resolve that in a much more expeditious way."
McCulloch also believes that city planning and urban design staff have become separated from the Design Commission discussions. "As chair I was always looking for the Planning staff to come in and say, ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve in the neighborhood,’ and give us some guidelines," he explained. "If you don’t have that context as a commissioner, you have to make it up. You can tell that the applicants are chafing over that, and then the discussions go on and on conversely if you have these really clear objectives and stay within the discussion boundaries, design commission is going to work much better."
The trio of current and past commissioners also addressed the intent of design review: it should be goal-oriented, they agreed, and not prescriptive. "A prescriptive design review regulation doesn’t force good buildings as much as it eliminates creativity," Russell said.
"If a development-and-design team does something that is so cool but doesn’t meet the present guidelines—just this total end run—we will all stand up and salute," McCulloch said of his attitude while on the Design Commission. "I think we have to encourage the really creative out-there thinking. To do that, I think we have to reinforce the DAR."
The biggest issue facing the Design Commission, though, may be that in a time of transformation in our neighborhoods its jurisdiction does not extend to some of the Portland neighborhoods where cheap duplexes and apartments are trampling historic single family homes.
"Certainly city planners look at buildings outside design districts to make sure they conform to code, and I think design and development teams are encouraged to talk to neighborhood associations," Millius said, "but I understand that what happens is that it’s a perfunctory visit. It’s an ‘I just had to come talk to you, I don’t have to listen to you” kind of visit. There’s actually a number of neighborhoods that are seeing a boom right now that don’t have design review. And buildings are just going up. People are squawking about it, of course. There’s just no say in the quality of those projects."
Yet to expand the Design Commission's jurisdiction beyond the central city and a few select areas like the Williams-Vancouver corridor or the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood would also require a substantial expansion of volunteer commissioners and city staff, Millius says.
"My commission is doing two six to eight-hour hearings every month and the reading that goes along with that, sometimes a third hearing," she explained. "I know the city staff is busier than they’ve ever been. We are beyond capacity. I think that we would need to look at the entire system and think about how we could build more activism in our architecture community on these question and more citizen activism, more people like me who are not trained architects but have an interest in the fabric of their neighborhoods and protecting them."
Host Randy Gragg played devil's advocate for developers, who face under-appreciated risk in going through the process. "One of the complaints is the amount of effort that it takes to get through design review necessitates a huge expenditure of money. That process is not graduated in a way that yields a certainty that you’re making it through that process. More firm critique at the start of the process would make a lot more sense -- giving the DAR (Design Advice Review) process a lot more teeth."
By the end of the discussion, it came to seem like many criticisms of the Design Commission are solvable: streamline the process and the time it takes; provide more feedback in the conceptual stage. But the unanswered question seemed to be whether and how we might expand design review beyond downtown, the Pearl, Northwest and a few east side neighborhoods. It would require more staff, and many more knowledgeable volunteer commissioners, but it would help the city better keep on top of the current boom in construction, most of which is happening outside of Design Commission jurisdiction.
Yet many of the design-related issues that have citizens most up in arms are about aspects of design that even the Design Commission can't control, like how tall a building is allowed to go in particular neighborhoods, or whether multi-family housing projects should come with a certain amount of on-site parking. In areas like the Williams-Vancouver corridor, for example, apartment and condo buildings are routinely appealed by neighbors because they are more than three stories tall, even though it's something zoning allows. That's something for the city's planners to address, not the Design Commission. Same goes for parking. But McCulloch and Millius both argued that this is all the more reason that city decision-makers should be talking more than they should.
"We’ve had less and less liaison between the people actually deciding what we do with parking and the major moves being decided at the Planning Commission level," Millius said. "We get to enforce happens in design. It’s awkward when there isn’t a lot of talk between these two bodies."
Whatever fine-tuning needs to be done, though, McCulloch is right that design review and the Design Commission have helped make Portland the well-designed city it is. "A building has to be of quality and permanence," Millius added. "It’s not quality and permanence when the economy is good or when the developer isn’t in a hurry. And so we have to keep reminding ourselves of that, that we have this responsibility to be stewards of the public realm."
This is a time when I think a lot of us have been slow to wake up just how much the real estate economy has begun to explode again. And while no one wants to go back to the economically dark days of, say, 2009, dealing with an explosion of new projects around town comes with its own challenges. And while design review can help prevent or diminish architectural eyesores, it may come with its own set of potential problems from inefficiency and red tape to stifling creativity with over-prescriptiveness.
And yet, there's no mistaking that design review is a fundamental part of what makes the fabric of Portland's urban core, as well as districts like the Pearl, the Alphabet District and Sellwood, a collective success story that leaders from other cities continuously come to for inspiration. I think we have to look at expanding the Design Commission's jurisdiction, though, even if it's just a select few additional neighborhoods or transit corridors.
Back at the beginning of the City Club talk, Gragg told a story about the days prior 1999 when Design Commission meetings were held in the Portland Building, in a room that included a large Douglas Fir model of the downtown. "Every developer and architect had to bring a proposed scale model of their building and place it into the Doug fir model. ‘How will your building fit into our city?’" Gragg remembered as the essential question of design review.
If one were to build a new model of the Portland core today, I think it would have to be a much larger model. More than ever, ours is a city of neighborhoods: places like the Hawthorne District, North Mississippi, Alberta, Beaumont-Wilshire and Belmont, where density is starting to coalesce. Nobody is looking to overtax developers or city government and volunteers, but the alternative is to lose the essence of what makes these places special.