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  Taking Care of Developers
November 20, 2004

On November 18, the Richmond Planning Department hosted the third in a series of closed workshops intended to review potential changes in design and planning review intended to reduce the time and effort required to process development applications for commercial, office and industrial development. Those invited to the workshops were limited to staff and members of the Planning Commission, Design Review Board, City Council and selected developers. Attending from the City Council were Mayor Anderson, Butt, Penn and Bates.

The first workshop has already resulted in an ordinance amendment being brought forward and approved by the City Council to reduce the Planning Commission from nine to seven members.

The effort appears to be driven by developer complaints that it takes too long to get projects approved. The poster child for this seems to be the Target project, which had to undergo multiple hearings before finally getting the go-ahead at the City Council level.

In setting the stage for consideration of recommended changes, Planning staff made it clear that the best way to expedite project approvals is for applicants to simply read the directions and follow the process. They even provided a list of examples of specific projects whose applicants had followed the rules and breezed through with no bureaucratic delays and no public opposition.

That seems easy enough and puts the burden on the applicant where part of it certainly belongs. However, staff has also introduced some controversial and sometimes disturbing proposals that go right to the heart of the discretionary approval process.

One such idea is the so called “DCC Process” where an applicant for a high profile project would meet with representatives of the City Council (one version delegated this responsibility to the Mayor) and the City Manager to “provide input and approve project’s concept.” The idea is that if the project is consistent with public policy objectives (has political support), this would be conveyed to Planning Commissioners and Design Review Board members who would, presumably, expedite approval with minimal criticism. In the words of the Planning Department presentation, Planning Commission and Design Review Board members would be “made aware of relationships between project and city priorities.” 

It seems that this approach provides a level of comfort to staff members who don’t like to get between problematic applications and City Council members who are advocates for those same applicants. Planning Commissioners and Design Review Board members did not feel the same intimidation as staff, but they had a different concern. If it is destined that a bad project would ultimately be approved by the City Council on appeal, then Planning Commissioners and Design Review Board members wanted to be able to place as many conditions on it as possible rather than simply rejecting it. When a simple rejection is appealed, potential conditions of approval are often dropped. Knowing the ultimate political fate of a project in advance would enable reviewers to decide whether to reject it outright or take their best shot at improving an otherwise bad concept.

I said that the DCC Process was one of the dumbest ideas I had ever heard because it puts the cart before the horse and essentially pre-designates a project for approval before CEQA review, before technical analysis and before public scrutiny and input. In the end, the DCC Process was panned by almost everyone present, including even a developer’s representative, and it was dropped. Only Planning staff seemed to like it.

I made a distinction between totally private proposals and those involving the Richmond Redevelopment Agency, where the City is not just a regulator but also a project partner. In such cases, I argued that the City Council should be satisfied ahead of time that the project and its design are something the City Council feels comfortable with. Target is a good example. Several members of the City Council were actually in sync with the Design Review Board over some urban design issues that caused the project to undergo multiple hearings. Our own redevelopment staff, however, told the City Council early on that those issues would be sorted out by the Design Review board and that we should not involve ourselves at the front end. This, of course, turned out to be poor advice. If the City Council had insisted on better urban design before committing the powers and resources of the Redevelopment Agency, the project might have been designed differently and sailed through the Design Review Board. 

The next issue taken up by the group was a proposal to expand the exemptions from Design Review for commercial, office and industrial projects. Additions that are “compatible with existing building,” not abutting residentially zoned property and having a floor area of less than 5,000 square feet would be totally exempt from Design Review. Projects between 5,001 and 25,000 square feet that meet certain criteria would undergo “Administrative Design Review,” meaning they would be reviewed by Planning staff. Criteria for qualifying for Administrative Design Review include no variances, compatibility with context, “good architecture” and not on hillsides. 

Staff also suggested consideration of retaining the services of an architect with successful experience in design review to assist the staff. Although staff believed that this would make the process longer and more expensive, those attending the workshop generally agreed that just the opposite would happen.

It is not clear whether the next step will entail bringing these ideas to the full Planning Commission, or another workshop will be scheduled to review suggested changes. Unlike the reduction of membership in the Planning Commission, theses changes would affect the Zoning Ordinance, which has to be reviewed by the Planning Commission before going to the City Council.

One bit of trivia that came out that will interest many people is that the Planning department has a policy of returning all phone calls in 24 hours.