New Proposal Seeks to Improve Building Procedures

By Daniel Perez-Crouse

A public hearing on the Design Overlay Zone Amendments (DOZA) proposals was held May 12. 

There were dozens of testimonies with varying points of agreement and opposition at its large tenants and finer details, particularly with its approach to streamlining projects in ways that would limit community involvement of design review.  

The Design Overlay Zone, also referred to as “d-overlay,” has been around since 1959. Its purpose, as outlined in DOZA’s staff report, was “conserving and enhancing the appearance of the City of Portland, especially in areas of existing or potential scenic value, of historical note, of architectural merit, or for interest to tourists.” 

This essentially boils down to architects having to follow particular rules in given areas. It started downtown, but over time, has expanded to areas like St. Johns, Lents and more.

The stated “primary goal” outlined in the staff report of the project is to “revise the design review program to better support high-quality design in development projects through a process that is efficient and effective.” 

Sandra Wood, Supervising Planner at the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), said, “Portland’s Design Review program has been in place since the 1970s, and like any tool, it needs to be refreshed and re-evaluated from time to time.” 

Design review generally refers to a process that evaluates the design of a proposal and public input can be given (this varies depending on the project and if it’s a major or minor design). 

Three tenets of design are illustrated to guide projects going forward: “build on area context, contribute to the public realm and promote quality and long-term resilience.” 

As opposed to seeing buildings as objects, the new plan promotes a city designed for people and in harmony with nature. This might involve better monitoring how projects affect public health, reflect the area and individuals it encompasses and more. 

In terms of process, there is a new threshold for projects. “We are proposing a higher level of review for bigger projects and a lower level of review, or an exemption, for smaller projects,” said Lora Lillard, a senior planner at the BPS. 

Smaller projects would be something like rooftop alterations for developments with one to four units, which, as the plan says, don’t need to be stymied by regulations of the design overlay zone. 

For projects that aren’t exempt, those outside of downtown will have the choice of a more rudimentary and numbers-based “plan check” in place of the Design Review process which would involve more qualitative procedures. 

The proposal would allow projects up to 75 feet tall to opt for this plan check system; the prior threshold was 55 feet. 

This was one of the main talking points brought up by commissioners and testimonials. 

Some of the testimonies felt the appeal process can rear its head amid design review and create problematic delays (among other issues), and having a more streamlined path for projects will get more affordable housing built quicker. Others felt the process brings about great results and is necessary to maintain the identity and integrity of Portland. 

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty questioned if design review unnecessarily delays the implementation of affordable housing developments in a time when they are needed.

Chair of the Portland Design Commission, Julie Livingston, responded by saying design review “gives the neighbors that surround the building, and the broader community, the opportunity to participate in public discourse about the development.”

She added there are “many people who support affordable housing that have true understandings of how their neighborhoods work well and what their neighborhoods need that will come to public forums and provide input for the design/development team that will positively influence the design of the building.” 

Hardesty inquired about what is being done to make the design commission as “inclusive” and “diverse” as possible, in order to best reflect the desires of its citizens when these reviews do take place.

Livingston said “We do a lot of outreach all the time to find people that have the skills, the interests and the ability to participate.”

Commissioner Mingus Mapps asked for an explanation “behind banning the design review process from requiring a change in floor area ratio or height. Where’s that coming from, and why’s that a good policy?” 

Wood explained the “knowledge about this is that the zoning code and the planning sustainability commission, when they sent a recommendation to council and they adopt the floor-to-area ratios, which is the amount of floor area on-site, that’s the amount of clay a developer is allowed to put on the site.” 

She further explained that you can vary the shape and distribution of this “clay,” but you have to work with the same amount. 

Katherine Schultz, Director of GBD Architects, echoed this sentiment and said it adds “certainty” for those in the development community and these discussions were had and understood in their public forums. 

Commissioners will discuss their amendments to this proposal at a work session May 26. Mayor Ted Wheeler may then decide to schedule another hearing on those amendments if need be. 

More details in the proposal’s three volumes at bit.ly/DOZAsummaries. The full May 12 City Council Session can be viewed at bit.ly/May12DOZA.

Updates on DOZA can be found at portland.gov/bps/doza.

New Proposal Seeks to Improve Building Procedures

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