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Design Review As We Know It To Bite The Dust

Despite clear-cut opposition by Richmond residents, the long-awaited draft ordinance that merges the Design Review Board with the Planning Commission is on the City Council agenda for July 29.


Click here for the agenda item request, the staff report and the proposed amendment.


For some history on this item, see:



This is another public policy initiative brought to you by the Viramontes Five, whose mission has clearly emerged to limit public participation in local government, reduce the influence of neighborhoods and advance the interests of big business, developers and industry.


The initial justification, as articulated by Maria Viramontes, was to address complaints that the Design Review process is “cumbersome, confusing and time consuming” (Staff Report for Agenda Item G-2, July 29, 2008).


From the February, 2007, E-FORUM:


Viramontes’ proposal for merging the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission is strangely “retro.” In the 1970s, the city of Richmond had no design review process, but in response to repeated complaints about blocking views with new homes, a zoning overlay district called “controlled development” was implemented for Point Richmond only. Under this process, the Planning Commission started doing design reviews of projects in Point Richmond.


Within a few years a couple of things happened. Other neighborhoods in Richmond felt shortchanged because they didn’t have controlled development overlays. Also, the Planning Commission was not particularly happy serving as an arbiter of building design. So, in the 1980s, design review was extended to the rest of Richmond, and, in order not to overload the Planning Commission, the Public Development Review Board (PDRB) was formed and took over design review. The PDRB was required to have at least some of its members experienced in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, planning, and construction.


 In the 1990s, design review was once again reorganized with the PDRB morphing into what is now the Design Review Board. Administrative review of small projects by staff was implemented to reduce processing time for typically non-controversial items.  As the number of projects and applications increased, however, the Design Review Board became busier than the Planning Commission, meeting regularly two evenings a month, while the Planning Commission was reduced to one evening a month.


Now, the City Council wants to go back to what we were doing in the 1970s, assigning a combination Planning Commission and Design Review Board with not only conditional use permits, subdivisions, lot line adjustments, EIR certifications, general plan and zoning changes and variances, but also design review. To handle the workload of both bodies, the new commission/board may have to meet three times a month, which may also dissuade some good people from serving.


During previous debate on this topic, Viramontes related an anecdote more than once about a family who had received Design Review approval for an addition but later had to tear it out because the building inspector found some fault with the design. This seems to be her principle basis for this change, but she has never revealed the location of the alleged incident so that her facts can be checked. Maria is not one to let facts stand in the way of a good story.


The proposed amendments do more than just eliminate the Design Review Board as a separate body; they eliminate many projects from Design Review (based on type and size) by the new Design Review Subcommittee of the Planning Commission, substituting instead, review by staff (without a public hearing) and review by the Zoning Administrator (with a public hearing).


Projects requiring entitlements will first be reviewed and approved by the Planning Commission and/or City Council before design elements are reviewed by the Design Review Subcommittee.


Although these changes were supposed to streamline the process, two separate hearings will still be required for projects requiring Design Review – one before the Design Review Subcommittee and one before the Planning Commission.


What this change does not do is incorporate one of Viramontes’ 2007 policies that I actually supported: “Complete Design Review Guidelines for Central Richmond by March 31, 2007, and provide a schedule and budget for completion of Design Review Guidelines for other areas of Richmond.”


Although staff has completed and the City Council adopted Guidelines for Heritage Homes on July 22, this covers only certain homes in a small portion of Richmond and leaves out such key neighborhoods as the Point Richmond Historic District.


There are no guidelines to deal with the most frequent basis of complaints that result in appeals of Design review Decisions to the City Council:


  • Protection of views
  • Privacy from neighbors
  • Project out of scale with the neighborhood
  • Not enough parking


The concept of a right to a view or the right to privacy from a neighbor’s deck or window is still totally subjective but debated over and over again. In fact, it is the subject of an appeal on the July 29 City Council agenda. None of the proposed changes has any new guidelines or policies relating to views,


The amendments will not create a new Planning Commission but will provide the mayor an opportunity to appoint six new people to the seven-person commission. All but one of the existing five members’ terms have expired.

  • Stephen A. Williams, term expired 06/30/2007
  • Nagaraja Rao – Vice Chair, term expired 06/30/2008
  • Virginia Finlay, Chair, term expired 06/30/2008
  • Jeff Lee – Secretary, term expired 6/30/08
  • Charles Duncan, term expires 6/30/2020

This change will undoubtedly be ramrodded through by the Viramontes Five. I would be the first to acknowledge that there is room for improvement in the Planning review process in Richmond, but this initiative is based on false or nonexistent justifications and does not provides solutions that could truly improve the process. It is mostly a sop for the out of town commercial interests the Viramontes Five suck up to.