19 May 2017

IN THE KNOW

Effective design review in historic commercial districts
posted by Joe Lawniczak, Downtown Design Specialist

As most of us who deal with downtown and community development know, it is the historic character of the central commercial district that sets one neighborhood or community apart from others. That visual appearance and character affects what people think about the entire area, and can aid in business recruitment and retention, and make it attractive for people to invest, spend time, or even live in the district. Preserving that character, however, doesn’t happen on its own. Communities of all sizes have enacted local tools to aid in protecting this irreplaceable asset. Things like historic preservation ordinances, landmark or preservation commissions, financial incentives, design guidelines, and design review are all common and effective tools.

Design guidelines and design review are key steps in assuring that building renovations, new construction and signage fit within the context of the district. Most property owners want to do the right thing, but simply don’t know the best way to achieve it. Similarly, not all architects or contractors have experience with historic renovations, so the design review process can be an educational tool as well. It is typically a historic preservation commission or a similar entity (such as a Main Street Design Committee) that does the actual design review, basing their decisions on design guidelines adopted by the village or city.

Effective board practices

Review boards should regularly take a step back and ask themselves how they are viewed by the community. Do people see them as open-minded, fair yet firm, knowledgeable, helpful, timely, responsive, consistent, a partner in the review process? If so, the board is on the right track. Or are they viewed as a headache, the “design police,” inconsistent, obstructive, or on the flipside, as a pushover and a waste of time?

The line between being too lenient and too stringent is a fine one. A design review board that is too lenient may jeopardize the historic integrity of a building and lose the respect of applicants and the community. On the flip side, a board that is too stringent and unwilling to compromise when appropriate may become known as a negative step in the permit process. As a result, potential developers and investors may choose to invest elsewhere, or property owners will choose to do nothing to improve their building, simply to avoid the “headache” of dealing with the review board. Both situations can be counterproductive to downtown revitalization.

All review board members must be diplomatic. The decisions they make affect what people can and cannot do with their personal property. Members must be able to compromise when appropriate, yet stand firm when needed, all the while treating applicants with respect—but at the same time, they also need to remember that they are dealing with irreplaceable buildings, and each building in a district relates to the others within it.

When meeting with an applicant, a review board must never automatically disregard the applicant’s ideas. Listen to them, and if their proposal is still inappropriate, politely explain why it wouldn’t be the best strategy, recommend alternatives, and make them part of the discussion. Arriving at a final approved plan that incorporates even one or two of an applicant’s own ideas[EG1] , and not just pushed onto them by the board, will go a long way in getting them to do the right thing.

Any permit process takes far too long in the minds of property owners, developers and contractors. Anything that can be done to minimize the time it takes to go through the approval channels should be seriously considered. Meeting on an as-needed basis instead of a set monthly date is one easy way to speed up the process. Also, one of the biggest frustrations applicants have is not being informed beforehand of what they need to bring to a meeting or what steps they need to take in advance, so clear and proactive communication is crucial.

Compromise: when and why

There will be times when compromises need to be made. These compromises must be determined on a case-by-case basis, so it is important to have members who can make that determination. Often, design review boards must choose their battles. Many downtown property owners don’t have large building improvement budgets, so a good board can help them determine what parts of their proposal might be the most important to do now. Or because of their limited budget, they may be proposing a cheap and quick, but inappropriate, fix instead of a proper repair. Again, a good board will be able to guide them skillfully through this challenge.

Most of all, the board must be able to determine what compromises can be made without jeopardizing the building’s historic or structural integrity. Some questions that should always be asked include:

  • Is the proposed improvement truly an improvement, even if it’s not perfect?
  • Does it avoid destroying or covering up historic elements?
  • Can it be allowed without setting unwanted precedents?
  • Is it better than doing nothing at all?
  • Is the owner doing great work on other parts of the building?
  • Do existing conditions affect what can or cannot be done?
  • Could the proposed work be viewed as a temporary solution, with a more appropriate fix to be done later?

A review board must always avoid interjecting its personal preferences on an applicant. All decisions should be based on the established guidelines—period. For example, most design review experts advise boards NOT to regulate paint colors in their guidelines. Instead of dictating specific paint colors, boards are advised to recommend historic color palettes from various paint manufacturers, and encourage them to use colors that complement the historic building elements. In most cases, this will prevent the use of garish or bright colors, without seeming overly restrictive to the applicant.

Although retaining and repairing existing historic elements is priority number one whenever it’s possible, in many cases the original elements were removed long ago. In these cases, modern replacements are not always bad, as long as they fit with the original size, scale, proportions, etc. But a board should never allow materials that are inferior to, or less durable than, the originals. For example, replacing wood windows with vinyl, or covering a brick wall with fake stucco, would not be acceptable replacements. A review board should always insist on quality first and foremost.

Documentation

It’s a fact of life that not all applications will be approved. When a project is NOT approved, it is important to provide written documentation to the applicant as to why. Each portion of a project that doesn’t adhere to the guidelines should be itemized. Just indicating “not approved” does nothing to help the applicant to produce appropriate plans the next time. If the review board is uncomfortable giving specific ideas, then referring the applicant to specific sections of the design guidelines usually works. Anytime a compromise is made, it should be well documented. Explaining exactly why something was allowed in a given situation will help to avoid setting unwanted precedents.

Design guidelines should be living documents, and should be reviewed every couple of years to make sure they still meet the goals of the community. Documentation from previous applications often helps when determining if changes need to be made to the guidelines. For example, if a review board is forced to make a judgment call because something proposed in an application was not covered in the guidelines, then this issue should be added to the guidelines during the next revision.

The practices outlined above, along with treating the applicant with respect, walking the line between too stringent and too lenient, and acting as a resource instead of an obstruction, will almost always result in an effective design review process and a community that buys into preservation instead of fighting against it.

 

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