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Design overlay zone assessment could change development approval process in early 2017

While there is overall support for Portland’s valued design review process, developments inside the design overlay that go through added review aren’t necessarily producing satisfactory or extraordinary buildings.

That’s one of the preliminary findings of the 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.PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Because of the building boom, projects queueing up for permit approval are bogging down the design overlay zone procedure, meant to ensure infill developments are compatible with the neighborhood and enhance the area.

The preliminary findings of DOZA were presented by Walker Macy — the independent consultant assessing the project — to Portland’s Design Commission last week, outlining potential solutions to the volunteer commission’s overloaded plate.

Lora Lillard, DOZA project manager and urban designer with the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), said the DOZA project is meant to look at the city’s zones affected by the design overlay (including Central City and Gateway) and how to improve the process.

“For the future, there is a rough idea of where these recommendations ultimately go,” Lillard said. “We think they’ll lead us to some changes in the process that could start as early as 2017 without needing anything more than changing the way things are conducted or processed.”

She said they’re also building movement to look at community guidelines, standards in the zoning code and the Central City design guidelines.

The DOZA project has been in effect since May, an independent assessment led by Mark Hinshaw of Seattle-based Walker Macy. Angleo Planning Group is also part of the consultant team.

Walker Macy already presented lessons learned from peer cities, interviews with scores of stakeholders, the design commission, neighborhood folks, civic groups, the public and city staff. The timeline has been extended to make room for more public workshops that are still in the planning phases.

Next, they’re going to look at around 15 specific projects in the city that went through review, and how they came out. It’s one of the aspects taking longer than anticipated.

Hinshaw, a principal and urban designer with Walker Macy, is leading on the design commission DOZA project, recently updated with preliminary findings that include recommendations for updating the process and potential new tools.

“We view this as an evolving process and welcome the opportunity to have it be a little more extended,” Hinshaw said.

Three recurring themes

“There are three big clusters of ideas that seem to be popping out repeatedly over decades of time. One was to have projects respond to their context,” Hinshaw said. “That doesn’t mean always fit in and blend in, but they need to have the design solution recognize stuff happening around them and respond to it with thoughtful considerations of how that context is to be respected.”

The second recurring theme is treatment of the public realm.

“The treatment of the ground floor is critical to making the city work: what it feels like on foot, what you can touch, see, experience, smell,” Hinshaw said. “Space that happens in the public living room is absolutely key to the success of any city — certainly Portland — which has developed a really great reputation for fine street environments.”SUBMITTED: WALKER MACY - Mark Hinshaw is an accredited urban designer from Seattle who has developed plans and projects for a range of policies in cities around the Pacific Northwest.

Hinshaw recommends refocusing the process on this cluster of ideas, giving them equal treatment above other details that aren’t big-picture in terms of neighborhood context.

“Third is quality and a sense of permanence, the long-term existence of projects,” Hinshaw said. “It’s not just looking at things that are a point in time, you want them to endure — to be both enduring and endearing, if you will.”

Devil’s in the details

“In more recent data, you’ve had a really rapid uptick in the sheer volume of projects, tripling in a matter of decades — that’s a huge workload,” Hinshaw said. “It’s potentially choking up the system, delaying projects, taking everything longer amounts of time. People are frustrated, it’s increasing their costs, there are lots of things going on now because you just have a huge amount of development coming through the system.”

He said it’s unusual to see one body looking at everything public, private and all areas, compared to his peer cities research (See “Outlier Portland” by Jules Rogers, Aug. 2).

“We observed over time a shift from the broader picture to details and materials,” Hinshaw said. “Maybe you need to go back and re-weigh the amount of time spent on the three major tenants and make sure all three are really well-handled and well-discussed.”

He also recommended better public notice and a more structured dialogue with neighborhoods. Another is to scale back on the details early on in the design approval process, because architects can’t bring in full construction documents unless they’re forced to make a decision earlier than usual, hoping it will be approved based on previous projects that went through.

Of the completed developments assessed so far, Hinshaw said the design criteria actually has a negative effect on the pedestrian ground floor level, despite good intentions.

“Put together, it’s well-intended ideas producing an awkward end result,” Hinshaw said.

There is a requirement that projects should push back two feet and have a planting area, and another is that the ground level has to be distinct — defined only as different than the rest of the building’s levels.

Also, on the second floor at a certain height the building can push back into the two-foot space, and pedestrian coverage over sidewalks and entrances is encouraged.

“It’s repeatedly happening that there’s nothing on the ground level except a recess that’s shadowed,” Hinshaw said. “A daylight-basement look is starting to show up. Other cities are not seeing this. You have criteria producing this result, and neighbors saying, ‘why would we want that? It’s not interesting to walk along.’”

In DOZA’s preliminary recommendations, big institutions and large skyscrapers would go to Design Review, but much more would go through city staff with a new authority to handle it. The exact criteria has yet to be determined, but Hinshaw estimates “large projects” will probably be the full-block ones.

“There’s smaller-end that seems to be put into the same one-size-fits-all, complying with the same stuff,” Hinshaw said. “Sometimes the small end gets way too much attention and a lot of time and effort are spent on that, and the larger end that really impacts the potential in a community, there isn’t as much attention paid. Maybe you need to shift that degree of emphasis.”

Commission response

Design Commission chair David Wark found the findings very comprehensive.

“A lot of those thing we talked about for years, and it’s good to have them actually in a more analytical format with recommendations, too,” Wark said. “Consolidating and streamlining the Central City design ... Yes, I totally agree.”

Commissioner Julie Livingston said they need to look at more idiosyncratic neighborhoods on the east side and allow them to continue to carry the character of their history forward.

“The one thing that appears on almost every page is the character of our neighborhoods,” said Livingston. “The fact that as we redevelop so rapidly we lose some of that character is a relevant discussion of context ... now I am very concerned about it.”

More detailed, refined recommendations will be ready in January after more discussion, and the city staff expects to move forward with final recommendations to the City Council in April 2017.

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