Changes are coming to the notoriously long and expensive design review process that ensures quality new developments in critical neighborhoods.
The City Council voted unanimously to accept the DOZA report Apr. 26, which offers recommendations on how to amend policy, and some administration strategies that are already being implemented. Commissioner Nick Fish was absent.
To streamline the design review process in a study called the design overlay zone assessment (DOZA), the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability worked with the Bureau of Development Services and consultant Walker Macy to get the projects flowing through the permit process.
The uptick in development projects needing approval through the City of Portland's design review has tripled in a decade — and now, the whole process is facing major changes in the zoning overlay area, guidelines, policy and administration.
The council's acceptance is part of the process involved in the legislative process to begin making these recommended changes.
Mayor Ted Wheeler said the DOZA project complements other city work taking place to streamline the overburdened process and quickly add more housing units to the city.
Portland has received national and international acclaim for supporting a high-quality built environment through planning and urban design.
However, during this awkward growth spurt, the city seems to be outgrowing its own policy in development and in the economy. In part, the acclaim is due to its long-standing tradition of design review, which worked well before there were hundreds of projects in the works at the same time.
Susan Anderson, director of the BPS, said the design review needs to deliver and not bring an uneccessary burden on neighbors and developers.
"There are some excellent ideas and options to improve," Anderson said. "Some of the short term actions, BDS and others have already jumped on and others will take a little longer to implement."
Currently, the design overlay applies to 7 percent of the city — it excludes all the single-family residence zones.
About 75 percent of the central city is covered by the design overlay zone, all except the Central Eastside Industrial District.
The DOZA plan implementation includes expanding the overlay to about 38 percent of the city.
"Two town centers, with Portland parks and midway at 122nd and Division, both of those will be new areas subject to the design review system," Sandra Wood said. "Several corridors in the inner ring — Hawthorne, Division Alberta, Killingsworth, some of Lombard, and looking at mixed-use areas outside the Central City and Gateway, this plan increases the overlay to about 38 percent. It's an expansion we were mindful of as we are doing our work."
Sandra Wood, supervising planner on the code development team with the BPS, said Portland's long history of design review stretches back to 1959, and was widely used beginning in 1972 with a downtown plan.
"That has been shaping downtown and extended to the whole city," Wood said. "This assessment is the first time we've looked at the tool in a comprehensive matter, and certainly to this depth."
The final recommendations were informed by the work and feedback of the Design Commission.
Nine key findings
Lora Lillard, project manager with the BPS, said there were nine key findings from the entirety of the assessment, with more detailed findings in the report. The assessment included months of interviews with a variety of stakeholders, and found there is a lot of support for design review and it is valued.
"From what the consultant found, the design overlay doesn't necessarily guarantee good design — it doesn't stand in the way of it, but the results are somewhat mixed," Lillard said. "A lot of factors drive design — finance, talent of designers, cost of materials, commitment of developers — all sorts of things bear on the outcomes."
Lillard said the No. 1 disparity between residents, developers or architects is expectations of outcomes.
"The design committee, developers and applicants see the design overlay — especially design review — as an opportunity for flexibility, innovation, creativity to create these one-off design solutions, whereas the community values projects that fit in and don't necessarily stand out," Lillard said.
The consultant team noted the design criteria needs to be updated as some of it is decades old, the process needs to shift focus toward the big broad issues instead of spending time on small details like materials. Stakeholder's attitudes should adjust to come from all being in the same boat and building a city together — not just one building.
The design commission volunteers have been meeting three times a month instead of twice, and there's been a severe uptick in staff work.
"This is unsustainable," Lillard said. "It's taking longer amounts of time, possibly delays projects, increases costs, affects housing. There's a lot of projects coming through the system."
Mark Hinshaw, principal at Walker Macy, is the lead consultant on the DOZA project. He's seen similar processes in cities all over the country for the past 35 years working in various stakeholder roles including as an urban planner.
Hinshaw's consultant team recommends seven procedures including setting up a chart to exclude smaller projects from design review process altogether, which could reduce the workflow of the city's design team by 20 percent.
"It was weighing everybody down in a horrendous amount of time-consuming efforts to have all these go through the various steps," Hinshaw said. "There are many small projects that are quirky oddballs … people appreciate that kind of handcrafted funky personality that projects the merchant, businesses and reinforces the street as a delightful surprising character to your neighbors."
The consultant team recommends creating a new, clear charter for the commission and giving the chair authority to manage their meetings and keep them moving on time.
It also recommends focusing deliberations on aspects with a clear tie to city's adopted guidelines and not introducing collateral issues.
Another recommendation is to try to realign the process with an architect's design process, so details aren't locked into the developer's budget before the design commission sees it. Instead of the commission asking for everything up front, now the city will be able to work together and course correct along the way.
A simple recommendation is to put better signage on site so the neighbors feel more included — especially renters, who aren't included in snail mail notices.
As a last resort after trying the above recommendation, the consultant team said the city could consider adding another design commission, but Hinshaw doesn't recommend it right away.
As for the tools, some standards are as old as 30 years and need to be brought up to date.
Hinshaw emphasized the importance of the public realm: the first 30 feet of a building on street level and the first 30 feet out from it.
Commissioners and context
The DOZA project, sponsored by Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, is intended to evolve, streamline and improve the design review system to work more efficiently under the increased amounts of construction.
Portland is predicted to grow by an additional 123,000 households by 2035, and the concordant boom in development must serve the needs of an increasingly diverse population. As the City applies the design overlay tool to new areas of the city, it wants to continue to ensure high-quality design during this period of unprecedented growth.
Kara Fioravanti, supervising planner with the design and historic review for the BDS, said this year there were 358 projects that underwent design review. 239 were located in Central City, 25 in Gateway, and 94 throughout the rest of the city. That includes all commercial and residential projects with more than three units.
About 40 percent of the projects outside the Central City and Gateway chose the strict standards track instead of the design advice requests, which allow for more interpretation.
About 35 percent of the design reviews were for new construction total. In the Central City, about 26 percent new construction and Gateway saw 28 percent.
"The way we grow does matter, that's why people come to Portland, we're not saying slap up some housing," Commissioner Fritz said. "We're saying yes you may fit in more density and it can fit into the context of the neighborhood, and affordable housing can be beautiful as well."
Mayor Wheeler said his priority is making sure the city is adding residential units at a rapid pace, and approved of the idea of taking out the smaller projects from the design review.
"I'm most interested in how to speed it up, streamline it and get more supply online," Wheeler said.
The volume Portland-based architects Walker Macy turned into the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is 84 pages and can be viewed here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/636838