negotiation and compromise

Affordability, livability, density: These are pressing design issues virtually everywhere, and architects on planning commissions are solving them from the inside out. Case in point is Leslie Creane, who parlayed her Yale graduate degree in architecture into a job as chief planner for Hamden, Conn. She recently rewrote setback regulations to allow an outlet of The Home Depot on the edge of a residential district to be built closer to the street—a move that re-established the street wall, creating a sense of containment and helping the building blend into the neighborhood. On another project, she asked a subdivision developer to sacrifice six lots in order to connect two cul-de-sacs with a street. The compromise was a pedestrian walkway.

“When I don't have the authority to tell people what they have to do, I can make a very cogent, persuasive argument that something should be done because it's best for the architect and the community,” Creane says, adding that she routinely dispenses design advice—something the average planner cannot do. It's an advantage “being able to sketch out ideas, so people can see a picture in front of them, instead of just throwing words at them,” she says.

Peter Steinbrueck, FAIA, has been wrestling with similar issues for the past 10 years as a member of the Seattle City Council and chair of its Urban Development & Planning Committee. One barrier to good design, he says, is the lack of legal tools to enforce it. In Seattle's case, the next best thing is seven design review boards that cover the entire city, using a process of negotiation and compromise that's worked fairly well for more than 12 years. Each proposal is reviewed against written guidelines that recognize the characteristic scale, texture, materials, and fenestration details of particular neighborhoods—a clear, codified system that has significantly cut the number of appeals. “The boards have never rejected a design” outright, Steinbrueck says. “They try to make it better, but there are limitations to how far you can push that.” In Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, “there aren't these God-given property rights that we have here,” he explains, noting that Canadians are more accustomed to giving up some rights for the good of the community, whereas Americans are less inclined to do so.

And in the continuing battle against sprawl, everyone agrees that good design is the key to public acceptance of density. The wish list is the same from city to city: open space, landscaping, walkable streets, neighborhood businesses. The wild card, again, is cost. Several years ago, city officials invited AIA Seattle, partnering with local developers, to design prototypes that would increase density and demonstrate quality of design. They were supposed to be affordable but broke the budget. Some affordability battles have been won, however. The planning commission has insisted on one-to-one replacement for HOPE VI housing. And a creative tax-abatement program forgives property tax increases for 10 years when developers include a percentage of affordable units in their rental projects.

In fast-growing places such as Seattle, the political pressure is intense, and Steinbrueck says he picks his battles carefully. The commission is currently negotiating with a national grocery superstore to design a green building with housing above. The proposed project is in a neighborhood business district surrounded by single-family homes. “[The grocer] wants a land-use concession to expand the store, and I'm not afraid of using those kinds of leverages,” he says. “I think communities should push for those things, and architects should push their clients to be more responsive to community design characteristics.”

As architects branch out beyond their drafting tables, they're finding that their ability to conceptualize and think hierarchically lends itself well to the public domain. And they're happily honing a knack for consensus-building, because nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. “Architects are problem solvers,” Steinbrueck says. “It's a great skill to transfer to public policy.”