Design and Opinion and Urban Design column

RACE: Professional project review is an investment in quality

September 1, 2012

McDonald’s has more than 100 building designs. If you cannot tell them what you want, your city will get the generic one—to match all the other generic franchise design your city probably already has. See that as a metaphor for every project. No vision for your city or neighborhood or the capacity to deliver your aspirations? Then expect a generic solution.

Over the past several months, the city has taken some heat because its development review process has resulted in less-than-exceptional design. Generally, that is what happens when a city does not know what it wants and, by default, the process becomes politicized.

Developers want certainty. They get that certainty when the design review process is clear, predictable and fair. If you want to make the private sector leery of developing in your community, take the certainty out of the process by making it political.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with more than 100 client communities and speak to local leaders about community design in professional conferences. I always emphasize that as mayors, city councilors and commissioners, they are responsible for:

n facilitating a popular vision of the future based on community values and aspirations,

n articulating community design and development policies that emphasize public and private investment in quality projects, and

n supporting a professionally administered regulatory system of quantitative and qualitative standards and guidelines.

This seems straightforward until you consider the wide range of expectations and contexts a large city like Indianapolis has. Investing in design review needs to happen at a variety of scales and contexts, including larger downtown projects, infill mixed-use projects in urban neighborhoods, reinvestment in existing housing stock and historic buildings, and in auto-oriented commercial corridors.

To do this in Indy would require increased investment in community development resources when we are debating cuts to essential public services. So why do other cities facing similar budget woes continue to invest in design and development review?

The cities we find on “Top 10” lists based on a variety of measures (see my March 3 column) make design and development review a part of their economic development strategy. Design makes them a better long-term investment location for business because a quality address, and the promise of future quality, is more economically sustainable. This then leads to a more sustainable tax base.

In particular, top cities articulate their design expectations as co-investors in projects. These cities know what they want, especially when they have skin in the game with direct subsidies, such as cash, land and brownfield remediation; or other off-site contributions, such as intersection improvements, utility connections and streetscaping. They expect their private-sector partners to deliver projects that embody community design standards as an integral part of a business proposal, not as a favor.

Top cities use high-quality public-realm investments as catalysts for private-sector projects. They maintain and manage past investments in streets, trails, waterways, parks and other public spaces in a way that provides a high-quality armature for new private-sector projects to connect to. They hold themselves to the same high standards as their private-sector partners.

Well-designed cities flourish under the stewardship of informed leadership and staff because they read, visit peer cities, and invest in training of staff and advisory commissions and boards. They professionalize planning and development review. In turn, their efforts provide certainty, which is an essential ingredient for attracting investment.

To improve development review results, Indianapolis needs to address the following:

n Design policy. The city needs a set of citywide design policies that expresses our qualitative expectations.

n Enrichment. Invest in a culture of constant improvement by training staff, advisory boards, commissioners and developers. Top cities have robust development review programs that include investment in education and communication.

n Leadership and professional development. The city must support, recruit and nurture leadership and encourage professional development for staff. They are entrusted with helping our private-sector partners deliver the city we want. In addition, we should be training advisory boards and commissions so they can represent our values and aspirations for a more livable and economically competitive city.•

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Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, is an award-winning architect and urban planner, owner of RaceStudio, and recipient of the Indiana Sagamore Planning Award. He lives in a historic Indianapolis neighborhood and teaches urban design at Ball State University’s Downtown Indianapolis Center. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at br@racestudio.com.

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