April 30, 1990 - From the April, 1990 issue

In Defense of Design Review Boards: To Protect Quality of Life

In response to Kurt Meyer’s criticism of the design review process, Bill Christopher has submitted a defense of design review boards. As an architect with the firm of Arechaederra/Hong/Treiman Architects and an active member of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, Christopher highlights the potential for design review boards to create a cohesive urban design in Los Angeles. 

As a planner and an Architect, it is difficult to travel the streets of our City without experiencing a sense of lost opportunity. So much of the built environment stands as a monument to the fast buck and the least costly method of construction. Does not the Community have the right, or indeed an obligation, to implement some form of development standard that will protect against encroaching blight in the form of projects that continue to detract from the urban fabric? I think the answer is yes.

The chosen tool to implement that Community standard is the much maligned Design Review process. Design Review, in concept, need not be the “worst thing that ever happened to architecture in Los Angeles” as postulated by some, or even the second coming of Fascism as postulated by others. Design Review functions in many adjacent jurisdictions with relatively even handed, beneficial results. In fact, most areas in Southern California where the built environment evidences a measure of order and civility, reflect the presence of a strict design review process or comprehensive C,C&R's which constrain the design process.

The urban environment of the City of Los Angeles, on the other hand, reflects the chaos of the market left to its own devices. It is my belief that design review, if properly applied, will bring some order to the present chaos, not add to it.

As an Architect, I’m sensitive to the issue of censorship as it’s applied to design. However, all artists ultimately come up against the question of a Community Standard.

Somewhere, however poorly defined, there is a limit as to what can and should be permitted to be erected in somebody’s neighborhood. It demonstrates the quote from Justice Potter Stewart in dealing with obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” (Which in architectural terms looks a lot like the typical version of the mini-mall.)

Like all other artists, architects enjoy the freedom to create and theorize in any form they choose.

And my elitist architect viewpoint says that, based on my artistic training and education and consummate design skills, I know what’s good for any community I design for and don’t try to tell me any differently.

While the design profession does not relish the idea of outside interference in the process, they, like all other artists, have to acknowledge the political realities of the world. To suggest that “Design” is somehow exempt from the normal political forces at work in the city is ludicrous. Since political realities already regulate use, height and bulk under planning and zoning rules, the issues of color and texture are extensions of the same regulatory authority.

The profession must ultimately recognize that the community (and the DRB) is an extension of the client entity and designers must be prepared to present the concept to the surrounding community in the same manner that they present it to the client.

Still, that runs counter to my elitist homeowner position which dictates that the “Community” has a God given right to arbitrate what does and (in many cases) what does not get built in my backyard.

How do we take these mildly divergent views of the cityscape and impose some form of legal overview?

The Planning Department Task Force on Design Review has attempted to define some middle ground for the implementation of the process.

The Task Force has held that design review can only be successfully employed when a specific plan has been created with an integral Urban Design Element which delineates specific characteristics that provide the important elements of community identity.

Then, and only then, will a Design Review Board (DRB) be empowered to make subjective judgments as to a project’s ability to assimilate with and promote those characteristics.


That level of criteria will, theoretically, provide designers with enough clues as to the intent of the plan and provide the community with reassurance that the result will actually turn out to be in the interest of the neighborhood as a whole. It will also remove the element of a crapshoot present in the existing condition.

In Westwood, to use the example in vogue, there are presently no guidelines, other than a required finding of “compatibility”.  While that’s how the present law is structured and we must proceed on that basis for the time being, it does not serve the community well in the long run.

Much more detailed criteria must be developed and probably implemented for more than one sub-area within the confines of the Westwood plan area.

The other important element in creating Design Review situations is to avoid legal language which requires the Board to find the project “in conformance with the Specific Plan”.

That occurs in several ordinances that are on the books and inevitably leads to the Board arguing about code provisions that have nothing to do with the merits of the design.

Distancing them from the discussion of code compliance will allow the Boards to function in the role they are created to fill, namely to interpret the design guidelines and allow some flexibility in the system to screen out the bad design and actually promote creative solutions that may or may not meet the letter of the individual criteria.

While I wholeheartedly agree that the planning process in Los Angeles still suffers from a myriad of ailments, it is light years better now than it was just five years ago. We have, in those five years (post AB283), made strides to integrate the many elements of the city.

We still have a lot further to go, through a very painful process and it won’t happen overnight. Even if all of the necessary resources were to appear miraculously, the herculean task of sorting and compiling data, choosing the right paths to follow, holding hearings and implementing the changes would take a minimum of seven more years.

But even before we can effectively begin to do some of these things, we have a series of decisions to make about our future city form that will predetermine the course of events to follow.

First, we have to decide how we are going to grow (not IF) from a citywide perspective and where. The Growth Management program now underway is the first shot at taking the city as a whole and making some hard choices. Then we have to establish a new set of ground rules by changing the basic code language to allow us to more effectively manage the growth that will occur.

That effort is also in the early stages. Once these pieces have been put in place, over the next two years, then, and only then can we go out and rationally plan the individual communities.

To Recap:

Kurt Meyer: The City Council and Planning Department have failed to use the existing planning and land use/zoning laws… Citizen groups use DRB’s to carry out their hidden agenda, to stop development at any cost… Aesthetics is not the politician’s arena… Some true travesties have been built, but they should not have been allowed in the neighborhoods because of their negative impact…

Bill Christopher: Does not the Community have the right to implement development standards to protect against projects that detract from the urban fabric?... To suggest that “Design” is somehow exempt from the normal political forces at work in the city is ludicrous… Design review will bring some order to the present chaos, not add to it… Allow some flexibility to screen out the bad design…


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