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  Changing the Development Review Process
January 2, 2005

On January 22, 2005, in the City Council Chamber, 9:00 AM to 11:00 AM, the Richmond Planning Department will host another Planning Retreat to present proposed changes to limit public participation in the discretionary review of proposed development projects. The changes generally include increasing the size and scope of projects exempt from Design Review. These exemptions will divert the projects to administrative review (meaning Planning staff review only) or exempt them from discretionary review altogether. Previous workshops were discussed in E-FORUM Taking Care of Developers, November 20, 2004.


I am not opposed to streamlining the project review process. In fact, I have been a vocal advocate of it for years. I have provided voluminous information to both the Planning Department and Building Regulations Department about best practices in other cities for permit streamlining. As an architect, I participate in project reviews by public agencies all over California and beyond, and I have experienced a lot of what works and doesn’t work.


What bothers me about the ongoing Planning Department effort to “streamline” is that it seems to be totally driven by complaints from persons seeking permits rather than community representatives who have an interest in public participation in the review process. None of the workshops, which were all during the day, were attended by neighborhood representatives.


I will give the Planning Department a lot of credit for an ongoing effort to make information about proposed projects available to the public. The Planning website has a growing, but still incomplete, amount of information regarding active permits for projects.


If you go to http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/~planning/hearings/index.html, you can access PDF files with Design Review and Planning Commission Agendas (see below for the current Design Review agendas). Although the records are not entirely up to date, you can then click on an agenda item and bring up a PDF file with the staff report, including graphics of the proposed project. At the time of this writing, they were running behind, with Design Review staff reports posted for only the November 10 meeting and missing for the next four meetings.


Design Review Board Agendas (PDF Documents)
NEW! - Click the project number on the agenda for the staff report

  • Wednesday, November 10, 2004 - Agenda (with staff reports!)
  • Wednesday, November 24, 2004 - Agenda
  • Wednesday, December 8, 2004 - Agenda
  • Wednesday, December 22, 2004 - Canceled
  • Wednesday, January 12, 2005 - (agenda posted 1/10)


You can also go to http://www.ci.richmond.ca.us/~planning/applications/index.html and search for applications sorted by New Files by Neighborhood Council, Active Files, Active Files by Neighborhood Council, All Files, and Major Projects. In the first three categories, each application has an accessible PDF file with the graphics submitted by the applicant describing the project.


Some of the critical items missing from the streamlining effort at this time include:


  • Ability of the City’s SAP system to track time and expense of Planning staff in application processing. This is still being done imperfectly by jerry-rigged departmental systems.
  • Development of guidelines to provide applicants with a clear vision of what is expected in project and building design. Most developers will conform to city requirements without protest, but they want clear expectations up front. Guidelines also provide a basis of review by the Planning Commission and Design Review Board, making the process less subjective. People have expressed concern that the Planning Department simply processes applications, does no planning and has established no vision for the future of Richmond.
  • Updating of the General Plan and Zoning Ordinance, which is now over 10 years old and based on a process that began 15 years ago.
  • Planning staff with experience in architecture as well as planning. Most project reviews involve building design issues rather than more broad planning issues, yet most, if not all, staff is hired with degrees and experience in planning rather than architecture.
  • More use of consulting experts in areas related to characteristics of complex projects and projects with special issues. Planning staff, Design Review Board members and Planning Commission members should not be expected to be fully competent to provide in-house technical review of complex and special projects and match wits with the applicant’s own team of specialty consultants. For example, when reviewing the Target project, the Planning Department should have hired, at the applicant’s expense, an expert on integrating big box stores into urban contexts in a way that least damages, or even enhances, the pedestrian-friendly function of the street. Such an expert would know what has worked in other cities and how far Target could be pushed without losing them. They would also know how to sell good urban design concepts to Target. Another example is historic preservation. The Planning Department has no one professionally experienced in historic preservation, yet this is frequently an important issue in Richmond projects. The use of special expertise can reduce the number of times an applicant may have to return to the Design Review Board and Planning Commission and can increase the applicant’s confidence in a fair and efficient process.
  • A proactive effort to inform and encourage neighborhoods to find out about and comment on projects at the earliest possible time.


Permit streamlining is a good thing, but it should not be done at the expense of the public’s right to participate and the City’s ability to get the best projects possible. It should focus on more than simply exempting larger and larger projects from the process.