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Staffers contract out for help creating policy that won't slow down the building boom

The City of Portland contracted with Seattle-based Walker Macy to complete its Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA), a project intended to research the direction the City should take to improve its design process, to prepare for the proposed design overlay zone expansion.

The city is under pressure to streamline development approval policy and zoning in large part because of the building boom — and growing queue of architects and developers waiting for their projects to be heard and approved.

“It’s definitely partially that (boom): the design commission is completely overloaded,” said Sandra Wood, supervising planner at the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

“They’re meeting several times a month now for six-hour meetings, and of course they’re volunteers so we’re sensitive to that,” said Wood. “We’re hoping when the design overlay gets expanded, the development that results from design review won’t be hindered and the process adds value to the buildings that are subjected to the design review.”

JOSEPH GALLIVAN - NV, a high-rise in the Pearl District slated for August completion, went through Design Advice and Design Review in front of the citys Design Commission. It is in the Central Employment zone, the Design Overlay zone and the Central City Plan District.

DOZA’s directive is an independent, comprehensive assessment of the city’s design overlay zone. Its goals are:

  • Document and assess the city’s structure of administration, regulations, guidelines and enforcement of the design process;

  • Assess the quality of the development outcomes including variations by location, type and framework for discretionary or nondiscretionary;

  • Identify and evaluate options for practically and effectively expanding quickly-growing corridors;

  • Recommend changes to the city administration to increase effectiveness and efficiency, meeting the goals outlined in the city’s comprehensive 2035 plan.

    “We’re trying to find out from DOZA which portions of the program and working and which aren’t working,” Wood said. “We’re doing that through a series of interviews of people who have experience with this, looking at other cities to see what other cities are doing with design review.”

    The city’s original request anticipated the cost for services to be $150,000.

    The contractor’s objectives

    Walker Macy, the contractor awarded the DOZA project in early May, is a landscape architecture firm specializing in sustainable urban design. Mark Hinshaw is an architect, urban planner and principal with Walker Macy on the DOZA project.

    SUBMITTED - Mark Hinshaw, principal architect with Walker Macy, is also a city planner and a journalist.

    “We’re looking at several other cities that are comparable by type of city and type of developments and seeing what tools they’re using related to design review,” Hinshaw said. “Every city we’ve talked about have all seen a huge amount of redevelopment. Portland is not unique in that.”

    Hinshaw gives the examples of Austin, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle, “because it’s had a similar system for a while.”

    “Portland is one of the hot cities in the country getting a tremendous amount of development, and that always causes angst,” Hinshaw said. “Whenever you change that rapidly and that major, people get distressed: it’s too much, too fast.”

    Hinshaw’s second task alongside researching other cities’ processes is understanding how Portland’s current design approval system works.

    “We have so many dimensions to it, we need to make sure we know what the base is,” Hinshaw said. “The next phase involves talking to a lot of different people in the city who represent neighborhoods, communities, development interests, design, financing ... just interviewing lots of people.”

    “We want to find out from them what’s working and what’s not,” Hinshaw said. “What do you think works well about it? What do you think needs fixing?”

    Another aspect of the DOZA project is evaluating several dozen developments all around the city and watching how they turn out.

    “Just to appraise them, so to speak,” Hinshaw said. “To audit them, make a determination of the end result: was that a good one, did it accomplish what people hoped it would accomplish, or not? Was there a default or a deficit or a mistake?”

    He plans to look at developments along Division, Hawthorne, Williams and St. Johns, “anywhere where there’s significant amounts of new development,” Hinshaw said.

    Overall, he plans to answer questions like what should be required for developers to submit, how long should that take and what are the criteria, the steps, the reviews and the meetings involved.

    “We decided to hire a consultant for this project because we wanted an impartial and objective look at this,” Wood said. “We at BPS write the guidelines but at BDS they implement the guidelines. We’re stakeholders.”

    Current design policy

    The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) develops Portland’s zoning code and design overlay zone policies, which the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) implements.

    In a separate project, the Mixed-Use Zones project, the BPS is proposing an expansion of the Design Overlay Zone, which currently applies to most of Central City and the Gateway Regional Center.

    “We’ve been revamping our (mixed-use zones) plan and rewriting it,” Wood said. “Part of that rewrite is the project growth strategy until 2035 — that’s the year we’re planning for, there are several implementation effects going along with that.”

    It affects developments when applying for permits and approval, a process currently carried out by a two-track system of discretionary design review (which goes in front of the city’s Design Commission, often multiple times) or non-discretionary standards, which can be approved directly by city staff.

    “Design overlay is administered through nondiscretionary standards. In Gateway they don’t have that option, they have to apply for land use that is discretionary and have to meet guidelines,” Wood said. “The discretionary guidelines, you can meet them in a variety of ways.”

    JULES ROGERS - Recent studies show construction in Portland is at an all-time high. Shown: The Grove Hotel is being redeveloped near the Chinatown Gate, a block from the U.S. Bancorp Tower.

    Wood said city staff had been thinking about reviewing the design processes for awhile “because the design review overlay has been in effect for a long time, and it seemed like it was time to do comprehensive review to ensure the system and process actually worked as efficiently as possible.”

    Smaller projects, such as changing signage, updating a bike rack or small street front improvements can be approved by city staff, whereas renovations or new buildings need to be seen and reviewed by more levels of city staff and commissions.

    “Our consultant is going out to look at specific sites: ones that went through discretionary review, standards, or don’t have review at all,” Wood said.

    “We’re trying to ascertain — if you think of it as a lab — we’re trying to keep the variables kind of fixed, if you will,” Wood said. “Presumably, the project that went through discretionary review is the most creative, innovative and meets the standards the best.”

    “Toward the end of the year, we’re supposed to have a report that goes to the Design Commission, Planning Commission and City Council that will suggest improvements and changes to make the system better, how to improve the review system,” Hinshaw said. He expects to come up with 10-20 recommendations for the city to debate or adopt.

    Driving Development Demand

    While project DOZA is in the early stages, Hinshaw’s research already goes deeper than just city planning.

    “From my observations of cities around the country, this is an a-typical, unusual time because there are several things that have happened that have not happened before,” Hinshaw said. “One is that as people leave college, they are not doing the previous pattern of getting married and having kids … they are not following the pattern of the last 50 years … in less than 10 years, we’ve shifted that cycle of life by seven or eight years.”

    Weighed down by student debt, the number of post-college people living with their parents or not buying cars is higher than in past generations, and when they do look for homes they want small apartments rather than family homes or even shareable two-bedrooms. They want to spend more time outside, and want to live in a cool place with public transit and bike lanes.

    With the millennial trend alongside baby boomers who are downsizing, the two largest generations are fueling demand for the same thing for the first time: to live in a small place in the city near interesting goods and services — mainly food.

    “Statistically that’s half the country: boomers and millennials are the two largest generations — talk about a powerful economic driver,” Hinshaw said.


    DOZA Timeline

  • Phase 1: Research (June 2016) – Analyze the current set of regulations and processes in the (d) overlay and how they fit together. Research best practices from other cities, including discretionary design review and the application of nondiscretionary design standards.

  • Phase 2: Assessment (July – September 2016) – Conduct a three-part assessment, including focus groups, surveys and site analysis, resulting in a consolidated list of issues to address.

  • Phase 3: Preliminary Recommendations and Workshop (October – November 2016) – Outline a set of preliminary recommendations to address each of the issues in Phase 2 and solicit public feedback.

  • Phase 4: Final Recommendations (December 2016) – Refine the proposal based on public input and present the final set of recommendations to Design Commission, Planning and Sustainability Commission and City Council.

    Source: City of Portland

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