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  Design Review Board Confuses Top Richmond Officials
February 9, 2005

There has been an ongoing discussion, most recently at last nightís City Council meeting, about the scope of authority of the Design Review Board (DRB). There are individuals at the highest levels of City government who have argued that the Design Review Board routinely exceeds its authority by suggesting that more than superficial changes be made to an applicantís plans.


In fact, the Design Review Board has broad and subjective powers that include virtually every aspect of a proposed project, including site plans, scale and layout of structures, architectural design, landscaping, floor plans, parking and circulation, site grading, lighting, and more. These powers are conferred, first, by the enabling legislation, Section 15.04.930 of the Richmond Municipal Code, and second, by Design and Development Policy Resolutions.


Subsection 15.04.930.110, Findings/Conditions of Approval, lists the findings that must be made in order to approve a project and provides that the DRB can impose reasonable conditions to achieve a project design for which the required findings can be made:


A. The Design Review Board shall provide a recommendation to the Planning Commission, approve, or conditionally approve, a design review application, if on the basis of the application, plans, materials, and testimony submitted at the public hearing, the Design Review Board finds:

1. The proposed design is suitable for its purpose, is harmonious with and relates properly to, the surrounding neighborhood, contiguous parcels, and the site itself.

2. The location, size, design, and characteristics of the proposed project will be compatible with and will not be detrimental to the public health, safety, or welfare of persons residing in or working in or adjacent to the proposed project.

3. The overall design will be of a quality that will preserve the integrity of, and upgrade, the existing neighborhood.

4. The design of the proposed project is in accordance with the general plan of the City of Richmond and all applicable provisions of the zoning ordinance.

Any projects, for which an EIR has been completed which identifies one or more significant environmental effects of the project and where the Design Review Board is the final discretionary review prior to issuance of building permits may not be approved unless additional findings of fact are made as indicated in CEQA Section 15091.

Any projects, which is expected to generate over one hundred (100) peak-hour vehicle trips and where the Design Review Board is the final discretionary review prior to issuance of building permits, may not be approved unless the Design Review Board makes a finding of consistency with regard to level-of-service (LOS) standards, consistency with adopted action plans for routes of regional significance, and compliance with performance standards for public services.

All findings shall be based upon the factual data presented to the Design Review Board. If all findings cannot be made, the design review application shall be denied with or without prejudice at the Design Review Boardís discretion.

B. The Design Review Board shall have the authority to impose reasonable conditions related to design impacts caused by the project when approving the design review application in order to:

1. Achieve the specific purposes of the zoning district in which the project is to be located, the general purposes of the zoning ordinance, and consistency with the City of Richmondís general plan.

2. Protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of the City of Richmond.

3. Ensure that the design of the proposed project will be compatible with the area surrounding where it will be located.


In addition to the broad powers conveyed by the enabling legislation, the DRB has an obligation to consider the content of specific Design Guidelines adopted pursuant to 15.04.930.070.C:

Design and Development Policy Resolutions. From time to time, the City Council may establish a policy resolution for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the appearance of specific areas within the City of Richmond. These policy resolutions are intended to be used in areas of existing or potential scenic value, of historical note, of architectural merit, or of interest to visitors, and for the purpose of assisting property owners to maintain and enhance the appearance or architectural character of business districts and residential neighborhoods. The development of such policy resolutions shall be the responsibility of the DRB. The resolutions may be suggested by the Planning Commission, the City Council, or by the DRB. Following adoption by the City Council, such policy resolutions shall supplement the design review guidelines and the design criteria for administrative design review and exempt residences and residential additions.


Since 1988, the City Council has adopted several Design and Development Policy Resolutions, including:


  • Landscape Design and Development Guidelines. Adopted July 25, 1988.
  • Design Guidelines, Resolution 30-99
  • Infill Housing, June 5, 2001
  • Ahwahnee Principles, April 10, 2001


Although I have suggested it several times, the Planning Department has not made these Design Guidelines available on its website, and they are not well known by the general public. For the convenience of the public, they are all attached to this email as PDF files.


Another misplaced accusation made by City officials who should know better is that for projects that are important economically to the City, the DRB causes inexcusable delays by making applicants return to meeting after meeting. In fact, for projects that require Planning Commission action, which is most large projects, such as Point Richmond Shores Ė Terminal 1, the DRB gets only a single bite at the apple. Section 15.04.930.120.C states:


The Design Review Board shall provide a recommendation to the Planning Commission on an application that requires both Design Review Board and Planning Commission approval. The Design Review Board shall provide the recommendation to the Planning Commission through the Planning Department staff immediately following a single Design Review Board hearing on the application. Final action on the application including an appealable decision shall be conducted by the Planning Commission.


The thing developers complain most about in Richmondís processing of project applications is the lack of certainty. Developers will all tell you that all they ask is a clear idea what the City wants; then they will design project to meet those objectives. In Richmond, there is no comprehensive set of Design Guidelines that have enough specifics to provide that guidance. The existing guidelines have some excellent content, but they broad and conceptual, leading to much subjective interpretation. Developing such guidelines that have the endorsement and support of the community should be the Planning Departmentís highest priority rather than trying to gut public participation and turn hard working and highly qualified DRB and Planning Commission volunteers into the municipal equivalent of Stepford wives.


Developers are encouraged to work up designs in a virtual vacuum and then thrown to the wolves after a considerable investment of time and money. This is fair neither to DRB and Planning Commission members nor to applicants. Nor is it fair to similarly hard-working Planning staff members who have the unenviable assignment of ushering these projects through the process. Insiders tell me that they are scared to death of the political intrigue that haunts the halls of the Planning Department while they try to tiptoe through a minefield devoid of a clear pathway.


Yes, the system may be badly broken, but it is not due to process and it is not due to the volunteers who serve the public good in the DRB and Planning Commission. It is broken because the leadership has misplaced priorities and a misplaced concept of how the system should work.