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  Design Review: A "Good Idea" Runs Amok   (2000)

Suppose the Police drove up and ordered you to paint your house beige. Wouldn't you wonder what repressive Communist regime had suddenly taken over? Or suppose your neighbor suddenly demanded that you remove a window from your house because he didn't like it--and the Police supported his outrageous demand. Wouldn't you wonder what nightmarish dictatorship you'd suddenly been transported into?

With only minor exaggeration, we have that kind of dictatorship already right here in the U.S.A., and it goes under the modest Orwellian name of "Design Review."

The idea sounds noble: set up a panel of "experts" who will save our neighborhoods from schlocky remodels and new dwellings which don't fit the ""character'' of the existing buildings.

But what we've ended up with is ignoble--panels with the power to decimate your design choices and impose their own design opinions--or even worse, those of your neighbors-- on you.

While not all communities have design review, it is a creeping trend with no organized opposition. And the courts have been wary of challenging the review boards' powers, even when they conflict with one of the sacrosanct pillars of our society, property rights.

The fundamental problem with design review is that all design is subjective and ultimately a cultural and aesthetic value judgment. How many times has a new building been decried as a shameful disgrace--consider the Transamerica Building--only to be lauded as a bold landmark a few years later? Under design review, there won't be any more bold designs, because the principles of design review are simple:

1.   Make all new building and remodels look like everything around them, even if the surrounding structures have little architectural merit.

2.   Placate all critics by any means necessary, no matter how off-the-wall the objections may be.

3.   Prove the panels' own unerring design sense by endlessly tweaking every submitted plan--all at the owner's expense, of course.

With these guidelines, you are practically guaranteed to get mediocre buildings and a horrendously unfair process.

One of the big problems (which few design review supporters are willing to concede publicly) is that the system creates a series of moving targets that are basically impossible for the owner to hit.

So you've changed your plan to placate one neighbor? Ah well, now the other one doesn't like it; application rejected, resubmit next month (with another fat processing fee, of course). Finally got the approval of that one blow-hard commissioner who thinks he's the next Frank Lloyd Wright? Oh, he resigned last month--and the new commissioner hates your design with all her heart and soul. Back to the drawing board--at your expense, natch.

You'd think there would be a process which allows you, the applicant, to question the right of your neighbor or the review members to judge your design tastes--but there isn't. Review panels are free to lacerate architects and owners at will, denigrating them publicly and demanding expensive and architecturally dubious changes, month after month.

They might as well require applicants to prostrate themselves three times and call the panel members ""bwana.''

Sure, you can eventually appeal the review committee's rejection of your plan to the city council-- but how many city councils do you know which will countermand another city panel, especially one which they themselves have appointed? Not many.

Some of the stories I have heard first-hand are so outrageous that they are almost beyond belief.

In San Francisco, any neighbor with a few dollars can file a petition to kill off your project, costing you thousands each month in interest payments and thousands more to marshall experts to counter their absurd accusations.

In one North Beach instance, a neighbor almost killed a remodel/addition because he claimed that it would adversely affect a rose bush on his adjoining property. The applicant had to hire experts at a cost of hundreds of dollars to prove that the project would not kill the neighbor's rose bush.

The delay cost the owner thousands in time lost and mortgage payments (those interest payments keep clicking every month), for each protest required months of additional meetings--and of course the panel only meets monthly.

With such a system--a protest costs the opponent nothing, but a delay costs the owner a fortune-- then wily neighbors have caught on; they can keep the lot next to them empty forever by simply protesting long and hard enough that any potential project is killed by the cost burdens of time and resubmittal fees.

In the tony East Bay burg of Piedmont, you only get three chances to win approval--basically just enough to warm up the opposition--and then you have to pay a resubmittal fee of thousands of dollars.

With constant redesign costs going to architects and engineers, it doesn't take long to spend any proposed project to death.

The inequity of a system which treats each and every critic as equally worthy of merit, no matter how absurd, is very obvious to the applicants; after all, it's their rights to use their property and design their own home which are being strangled.

Another problem which design review members will admit to privately but never publicly is that the busybody types who often seek and obtain appointment to these powerful boards can hold the process hostage.

Reasonable architects are often drowned out or cowed by an opinionated know-nothing colleague on the committee; after all, who wants the stress of fighting with fellow panel members all the time? It's unpleasant; better to abstain or not defend a project you know is perfectly acceptable.

It can even be argued that the system allows a not-so-subtle racism to enter the "we'll tell you what's appropriate design" picture; for instance, bright color schemes favored by many Asian cultures are routinely banned in many new subdivisions. Beige is the safe color, and bland exteriors that please no one are the safe designs.

The big question supporters of design review never answer is: what kind of architectural heritage are we creating by this process of ""design by committee'' and the suppression of diverse designs and colors? Certainly not a heritage which will match the diversity that already exists in our cities and neighborhoods.

It's obvious where design review ultimately leads: bland, bland, bland. The only way to please every critic is to smooth off any boldness, any edge, any originality in a design.

Sadly, there is no organized opposition to this debilitating encroachment of group-think over property rights and design creativity. Architects need to get approvals to get paid, so they are under pressure to kow-tow to every absurd whim that comes before the design review boards. Owners just want their project to get approved, and they know what protest gets them: rejection and skyhigh costs.

So everyone goes meekly to the slaughter of design and individual rights.

It's more than sad. It's a pathetic statement on the high cost of disagreeing with the status quo.

The only thing we can safely predict about the reigning Design Police is that what they cherish as "good design" now will be revealed as cheap and trendy in the future.

If good design were so easily defined, we'd have a lot of it than we do now. Unfortunately, design review isn't helping. It's only robbing us all of our rights and removing all the flavor from the stew.

(published in the S.F. Examiner, June 21, 2000)

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