July 30, 1991 - From the July, 1991 issue

Design Review Boards: A View From the Inside

Design Review Boards will be institutionalized all around Los Angeles. Tomas J. Holzbog, architect-planner who has served on DRBs in New York, Boston and most recently in Westwood, describes the history of DRBs in Los Angeles, the criteria they cover, how they operate, how much they cost, critiques of design review, and the future of DRBs in Los Angeles.

Within the next few years, many Los Angeles communities will institute Design Review Boards (DRBs) in order to assure better standards of design and to preserve what remains of our natural and built heritage.

DRBs are already having a notably beneficial impact upon the quality of the environment, but design does not come cheap. The planning process is being substantially altered, requiring more time to obtain project approval, increased construction costs and higher consultant fees, particularly for the design portion of a project.

The Advent of DRBs

Although DRBs are relatively new to Los Angeles, they have long been employed effectively on the East Coast and even longer in Europe. In the West, Santa Fe and Santa Barbara have had well-functioning DRBs in place for 50 years. In Santa Barbara, for example, one finds a coherent Spanish colonial style which blends with the landscape while persevering the heritage, using a limited palette of building materials, colors and details.

The first DRBs in the Southland were established in Palos Verdes, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Within the past few years Boards have been formed in Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Westwood and Culver City. Downtown Los Angeles has a recently established equivalent, The Cultural Affairs Commission. While these Boards have been formed in the more sophisticated, economically well-off communities, the concept is just as applicable in less affluent areas.

Criteria and Concepts

The intended purpose of a DRB is to help control and monitor the quality and character of the built environment. By ordinance, a Board is granted advisory approval over building design, landscaping, signage, lighting, and/or any exterior intrusions upon the public domain. Each Board addresses these items with its own set of “Design Guidelines” based upon the community’s preferred objectives. It provides the community a hands-on means to exert influence on the formal and aesthetic impact of new projects. Ideally, the long-term interest of the community are to some measure protected against the economic imperative of the developer.

DRBs are concerned with both formal and factual criteria. Their primary focus is in the realm of aesthetics, requiring value judgments on overall appearance. Relevant formal considerations include: scale, proportion, modulation, massing, articulation, composition, style and color. Surprisingly, the formal judgments made by both lay and professional Board members are relatively uniform, especially when dealing with traditionally familiar forms. The factual criteria pertain to matters of height, bulk, density, open space, shade and shadows impact, and parking, issues which invariably overlap with the Department of Building and Safety plan check.

Commonly used concepts in DRBs include compatibility, appropriateness, coherence, design integrity, harmony, sensitivity, and responsiveness. DRBs also want to assure that developments are user-friendly, a polite neighbor, in context, and in good taste, and that they enhance surroundings and create a sense of belonging.

How DRBs Operate

The nuts and bolts operations of DRBs are generally consistent across communities. Usually they constitute a volunteer citizen advisory committee comprised of five or more local lay residents and professionals (such as architects, landscape architects, planners, lawyers) appointed by the district’s councilman or by the Mayor (as in the case of the Cultural Affairs Commission). Boards function only in an advisory capacity and do not have the ultimate authority of the city council, planning commission or the planning director. Generally they meet once every two weeks in a public hearing to review and provide direction to specific development proposals of an architectural or urban design nature. Items under review customarily focus on residential and/or commercial buildings, landscaping and signage.

Most DRBs recommend that the first meeting for a new project be a request for direction and the second be a submission for approval. A majority vote enables the application to advance to the working drawing phase of the planning approval process. At this stage some boards require the developers to sign a covenant that certifies compliance with the approved design. A few projects may require many review sessions, sometimes taking more than a year before a majority vote is finally granted.

An applicant can attempt to bypass the board and go directly to the Planning Director, even after the first review. However, this route is not advisable because the Director generally follows the recommendation of the DRB.

The Costs of Design Review

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What are the effects on time and cost due to the inclusion of DRBs in the development equation? A two-to six-month increase in time is a safe assumption for scheduling the Board approval process. This will vary depending on the nature of the project, the sensitivity of the community, the makeup of the Review Board and the quality of the architect. The most important thing a developer can do to insure speedy results is to commission a first class architect and landscape architect and be prepared to compensate them appropriately. It should be understood that the job will be closely supervised through the duration of construction. 

Even under the most ideal circumstances, a 20 to 30 percent increase in architects’ fees can be expected. This does not typically include presentation costs for models or perspective drawings.

Consequently, the marginal “low ball” developers, who have always “winged it” with stock plans and an engineer’s stamp, will be forced to use architects for the first time. Furthermore, the developer should be prepared to reduce salable area in exchange for additional open space. Requirements for craftsmanship, quality of finishes and appointments on the exteriors will be of a much higher order. Planting specifications will also be considerably more extensive.

Considering the impact of these more exacting standards, the cost of construction will increase approximately ten percent. This, along with the reductions in height, bulk, and density, represents about a three to four percent increase in overall cost because of the high price of land in California. These calculations do not, however, take into account any profits that are potentially passed back to the owner as compensation for a high quality project. A marked advantage of this procedure is that it helps to “flush out the hacks” in architecture and construction. All parties, including lending institutions, are put on alert for higher standards reflecting increased time and costs.

The Critiques of Design Review

There are many in the Building Industry who view DRB as undemocratic, or as vehicles for misguided attacks on free enterprise. One common argument contends that DRBs are coercive, because they are being misused as decoys to impede development. Additionally, it is argued that they are discriminatory and exclusive because they promote the elitist values of an establishment that can afford to protect its privileged status.

Others maintain that DRBs are unconstitutional, because their discretionary powers inhibit freedom of expression (i.e., you can’t legislate design and taste by committee). And, what assurances are there as to the qualifications and unbiased judgments of selected board members? Finally, according to some, boards are presuming too much power by acting as mini planning commissions. In rare instances, DRBs have created enough hardship and uncertainties for project applications that board members have been held liable for harassment and intimidation. 

No less important, it should be noted that judgment calls by DRBs have become increasingly clouded by the profusion of new and/or bastardized architectural styles. In addition to the established traditional and modern we now see a range of styles encompassing High-Tech, Post-Modern and Deconstructivism cohabiting with an array of eclectic combinations and excesses thereof.

Design professionals often compound this confusion by assuming a lofty stance with self-referential rhetoric that ordinary people cannot understand. Boards are frequently called upon to evaluate standards of excellence where even experts can’t agree. Amid this mish-mash of Hollywood-evoked imagery, with High culture versus Pop culture, how does one make sound judgments about a building that is done in a mongrel vernacular like “Mock Tudor-Elizabethan Stage-Set” or “A Dolled-up Neo-Santa Fe look?”

Nevertheless, the track records of DRB’s indicate that a submission which complies with the spirit or intent of the ordinance in a dedicated search for “the elegant solution,” will be looked upon favorably. More likely it will be given concessions even if it does not fully comply with the letter of the law.

The Future of DRBs

Design control will play a crucial role in our future urban reality. Even though DRBs operate in a contentious atmosphere, where modifications and concessions are made through tedious negotiation and compromise, any improvement in the standard of excellence of a project makes the process worthwhile. It is an act of enduring worth to promote public awareness and raise the sensibility from “junk food” to “gourmet cooking.”

Businesses related to the building industry would be well advised to heed the existence of DRBs and utilize them in a manner which will benefit themselves, the community which they serve, and more important, society at large.

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