The Case for Design Review Reform

​A few weeks ago, the Planning Department staff released the new draft Urban Design Guidelines. This was a pretty comprehensive draft, and it’s not quite clear when the final version will be adopted. But it does seem to be a relatively significant effort and gives us an opportunity to talk about the state of design review in San Francisco from our perspective.

On the department website for the new guidelines, under the heading “Current Challenges,” the Department states that “at this time, the location, application, and relationship between existing design guidelines are not readily apparent to planners, the public, or project representatives. Some can be found in area plans in the urban design element of the general plan but they may be relatively unknown and inconsistently or rarely applied. A lack of organizational consistency in their regulatory role or authority maybe unclear, and they span the range from extremely strict to indirect, vague, or simply outdated.”  The staff goes on to explain that over the last couple of decades, at least one set of design guidelines, the Residential Design Guidelines, have been somewhat consistently applied.  Other various guideline documents and attempts at clarifying and reforming the process or providing clear design review guidance have not been so successful.

The 70 page draft currently circulating for public review is filled with details and new approaches, illustrations and examples, a new glossary of terms so that we can all be talking the same language.  It is organized into three general areas (Site Design, Architecture and Public Realm), there’s no question that serious effort went into this document.  Whether it will make any difference at all in how things work in San Francisco is another story because (1) it doesn’t appear to try and consolidate all of the other competing design guidelines staff has created over the years, and (2) doesn’t address what we believe is a serious procedural problem – that ultimate decision-makers (the Planning Commission) are rarely involved in design review at all.  With the exception of mega projects that get the occasional “informational hearing” to keep the Commission informed of design progress, the vast majority of projects are seen by the Commission only once: at the very end when they are asked to approve it.

To their credit, staff is clearly trying to create an “overarching document for design review throughout the City.”  But we need to keep in mind that there are already many different design guidelines that have been developed by Planning staff over the years: guidelines for formula retail design, guidelines for ground floor residential design, guidelines for industrial area design, guidelines for storefront transparency, guidelines for western SOMA design standards, guidelines for window replacement, guide to San Francisco green landscaping ordinance, standards for storefront transparency, guidelines for awnings canopies and marquise, design guide standards for bird safe buildings, and other neighborhood specific guidelines and zoning controls.  The point I am making as that while staff would like this to be an “overarching” and controlling document, it really cannot be because of all these other documents that are out there that still must be consulted.  Our concern is that this process will not result in consolidation or simplification: In one part of the document, staff confirms that “other specific plan area design guidelines or residential design guidelines may also apply depending on the zoning, location, building type, and scale of the project.”

From our perspective, the one big thing missing from this new effort is it does nothing to clarify or improve on the actual process of design review.  There is some reference to explaining how internal Planning Department staff design decisions get made.  The urban design advisory team (the infamous UDAT) is discussed a bit and their role in commenting on and participating in the design review process. But critically, the Planning Commission is nowhere to be found. The guidelines do make the statement that ultimately the Planning Commission must start adopting findings related to design review issues.  But the Planning Commission is still the final stop in the process (i.e. the approval), but has no role up until the moment that the project is placed in front of them for an up or down vote.

This problem is on regular display at the Planning Commission. You don’t have to attend too many planning commission meetings to see what we are talking about: an architect and project team have worked with Planning staff, possibly for years, and come up with a detailed nuanced design, supported by the staff and the developer team.  They arrive with pride on hearing day, only to find that upon presenting the project to the Planning Commission, the Commission doesn’t agree. And so then the mad scramble begins, to try to adjust the project to fit Planning Commission input that is coming in at the 11th hour. This can add weeks and months to a project and, considered objectively, doesn’t seem like the best way to go about things.

No matter how hard planning staff tries to give advice and guidance that results in well-designed projects, ultimately there are two tensions at play. First of course, is the subjectivity of all of this. Architecture is like art, everybody has a different opinion. I often times wonder how difficult it is to be an architect in the city, when every aesthetic or architectural decision you make is questioned by the planning department or the commission.  The other tension is the desire of the city to have the highest quality projects be produced, balanced against the developers need for an economically feasible project. The City is worried about value engineering, and the developer is worried about getting a loan.

These new guidelines give us an opportunity to discuss this important process issue.

It seems the most obvious way to improve the system is to do what other jurisdictions do – include the Planning Commission in early decision making points. Many cities have a design review committee made up of a portion of the Planning Commission. Developers in their design teams are required to go before these design review committees early in the process to get basic feedback from the body that will eventually be considering the project for approval. Why this has never happened in San Francisco is hard to explain. But no matter how many guidelines the staff gives us, until there is a process that includes the Planning Commission early on, developers and staff will continue to have projects that are sent back to the drawing board just at the moment they thought they were getting approved.

The issues discussed in this update are not intended to be legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is established with the recipient.  Readers should consult with legal counsel before relying on any of the information contained herein.  Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP is a full service real estate law firm.  We specialize in land use, development and entitlement law. We also provide a wide range of transactional services, including leasing, acquisitions and sales, formation of limited liability companies and other entities, lending/workout assistance, subdivision and condominium work.