Design Review Ponders Ways to Clarify Process

The city Design Review Committee may have another tool to help its work with local residents applying to make aesthetic and structural changes to their homes in San Marino.
One idea that emerged from the committee’s joint meeting with the City Council last week was to not only track the dates when applications are continued or denied, but also the reasons why the committee was uncomfortable moving forward with plans. The committee members said this could help them determine when applicants are taking the process seriously enough to work with them to get the project done.
“Not just tracking when, but the why,” DRC member Judy Johnson-Brody said. “I think what I would really like to understand through an analysis post is, are they being denied for the right reasons and where is that happening in the process. I think the why is as important as the when.”
The DRC is tasked with evaluating projects on residential and commercial properties in town to ensure their aesthetics are in keeping with their neighborhoods, they are using appropriate material and are respectful of their neighbors in terms of scale and privacy.
Committee members agreed that continuations or denials mostly boiled down to two categories: projects with one or two details wrong or missing from the presentation, and projects that flagrantly violate design guidelines and codes.
“They just don’t take it seriously or they don’t take staff seriously or they don’t take the process seriously,” said DRC member Joyce Gatsoulis. “Who knows? Are we looking at somebody who purposely did not come to the table with this info or are we looking at somebody who just didn’t know?”
Johnson-Brody said she felt as if the DRC was developing a reputation for being difficult to work with, if it hadn’t already had that reputation to begin with, and could have greater tolerance for applicants who make honest mistakes.
“Outright denying a project just because they’re missing a color [on the materials board] is, in my mind, flat-out ridiculous and expensive,” she said. “Anyone here who has built or modified a home in this knows time is money.”
DRC chair Howard Brody countered by recalling a moment years ago, before he was on the committee, when he overheard two architects at a meeting. One of them insinuated there was little risk to advancing a bold design concept, because the committee would merely continue the subject till its next meeting rather than flatly disapproving it.
“That reputation is, in my opinion, worse than having a reputation of just outright denying,” Brody said.
DRC member Kevin Cheng said he was confident the committee could make the right judgment calls on a case-by-case basis after evaluating the circumstances of what’s holding up a project.
“I think the committee is savvy enough to see whether the applicant has simply made a mistake or if they don’t have respect for the process,” he said. “What I don’t want to see is this becoming a punitive board. What we want to make sure we communicate to the community as a whole is that we’re here to help them and not to punish them.”
Other topics from the meeting included improving the process by which new DRC members learn the ins and outs of architecture and public meetings law and maintaining a list of interested candidates so that the city does not need to scramble to fill future vacancies.

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