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Proposed Design Review Changes
June 15, 2003

From 6:30 - 7:30 PM on Thursday, June 19, in the Richmond City Council Chambers, the Richmond Planning Commission will have a special meeting to hear a staff presentation on proposed revisions to Richmond's Design Review Process. 

Since being named manager (now director) of the Richmond Planning Department, Barry Cromartie has accomplished much. He has put Planning on track to become a "pay-as-you-go" unit with new cost recovery programs that will eventually free Planning from dependence on the General Fund.

He has published detailed guides to the Planning process and posted them on the City of Richmond website as a resource for community and applicant, alike.

His next project is to "streamline" Design Review by increasing the type and scope of projects that are exempt from review by the Design Review Board. The theory is that this would free up staff and Design Review Board members to do a more thorough job of evaluating major projects. Mr. Cromartie has been shopping for support for this project, and has recently secured the support of fifteen large developers who have done or hope to do business in Richmond. No surprise here, but he may have a more difficult time convincing the residents of Richmond that this is in their best interest.

In theory, the plan makes a lot of sense. But to work, and to serve he community interest, the community must be convinced that the Planning Department will conduct their administrative reviews with community and neighborhood interest as a priority. Here is where the problem lies.

Some believe Mr. Cromartie was hired with explicit instructions to make life easier for developers and project applicants. Over the past year, he has made it abundantly clear where his priorities and loyalties lie:

          The Minutes of the Economic Development Commission meeting of August 22, 2002, record Mr. Cromartie stating: " He [Barry Cromartie] also stated that they [the Planning Department] are going to be working very creatively to develop a sign program that would allow the developers to get what they want and facilitate development, which is the key.

More recently, Mr. Cromartie again emphasized his predilections with several emailed exhortations:

          "We must project a consistent pro-business image and create an environment that reflects a pro-business attitude in all our processes, procedures, and policies...."

          "Good ethics is good economics ....."


          Deal Breaking Potential of Such Requests- The request for funds [to mitigate adverse project impacts] may bust the "bottom line"  for some developers who may simply choose to not to pay. Instead, potential developers may simply leave Richmond, and invest elsewhere.

The Richmond Planning Department has always struggled with which master to serve. Theoretically, the Planning Department works for the people of Richmond, and its priority should be enforcing the General Plan, the Zoning Ordinance, the Design Guidelines and CEQA, in an effort to get the best possible projects for the citizens of Richmond. Recent research confirms that the built environment has a powerful influence on the well-being of those who inhabit it. Good urban design translates into a good quality of life.

On the other hand, a city lives on property taxes and sales taxes. To the extent that any new construction brings new income to the City, the Planning Department has a newly emphasized tendency to see itself primarily as a fund-raising arm of the city treasury, competing with other cities for every developer dollar. There is, as can be seen by the foregoing quotes of the director, a fear that raising the bar would send would be developers to the competition.

Perhaps the move to more efficient design review can work, but it must incorporate some safeguards:

          Neighborhood councils should still have an mandatory opportunity to review and make recommendations on projects before they go to Planning Department administrative design review, and those neighborhood reviews should be weighted heavily.

          The Planning Department must get its priorities straight and convince the community that it represents, first of all, the citizens of Richmond.

          Citizens must have an opportunity to be represented at administrative hearings at a time and place convenient for the citizenry.

          Citizens must retain appeal rights over administrative design review decisions.

          A pilot project should be implemented first to make sure the new system works for the people of Richmond.

          Comprehensive design guidelines need to be adopted that provide a clear roadmap of what is expected in the way of design for new development.

I believe in a circumspect and long-range approach to the Planning Department's mission. The Planning Department should be fair, responsive and efficient, but it should never forget who it works for - the people of Richmond. This year's and next year's tax income will be spent as it comes in, but what is built will be with us for decades and will define the image of Richmond for the rest of our lives. Contrary to popular city staff opinion, most developers are not looking for a handout; they just want to know the ground rules as early as possible, and then get on with it.

I address this important public policy issue not as a "wooly-headed idealist," as my mother used to say, but as an architect and developer, myself, with over 30 years of experience designing and building projects all over the Bay Area -- more experience, I might add, than any city staff member working in this area.