Urban Design Panels in British Columbia: An Insiders View

I have a tripartite perspective on the issue of Urban Design Panels (UDP). First, as an architect who has presented projects to the Panel; second, as a participant in the AIBC’s review of Standards of Practice for membership of Urban Design Panels in the mid-1990s; and third, as the current Chair of the City of Vancouver Urban Design Panel. The issue of Urban Design Panels as integral to the project approval process in British Columbia has been highlighted recently by Lisa Rochon of The Globe and Mail. In her judgment, the UDP process has helped Vancouver gain a higher quality of new development in the public realm relative to Toronto.

I will speak to the issue mostly through the lens of my experience with the City of Vancouver, although Design Panels of varying composition are a common municipal entity in British Columbia.

In Vancouver, the UDP is, in part, a creature of a strategy of discretionary zoning (as opposed to a prescriptive approach, more common nationally) which applies to many major Vancouver properties. For example, a lot on a Vancouver arterial may allow outright development of a 1.0 floor space ratio, but allow a maximum of 3.0 FSR if it goes through a discretionary zoning process. In practice, the financial benefits of increasing the floor area are so substantive that almost all property owners and developers will choose to participate in the more onerous discretionary process. In this context, the applicant is seen as needing to put forward a case to “earn” the additional density by virtue of contributions to the fabric of the city in one form or another. The Design Panel is one of a series of mechanisms to measure and regulate the effectiveness of those contributions.

Design Panels in BC are, on paper in any case, advisory only. In practice, they are a genuine hurdle in the application process. In the City of Vancouver, an applicant may always choose to proceed to a hearing in front of the Development Permit Board (which has authority for all projects that do not by virtue of size, complexity or other reasons need to go through council), without the approval of Design Panel. However, this is quite rare. The price for proceeding to the Development Permit Board without the Design Panel support is often the imposition of onerous conditions. Recently, this occurred with the new Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre expansion. The project did not receive Design Panel support at its initial preliminary development application but the time crunch necessary to meet the schedule for the 2010 Olympics required immediately proceeding to the Development Permit Board. The Board granted a Preliminary Development Permit but imposed a number of onerous conditions reflecting the Design Panel (and other) concerns.

The UDP in the City of Vancouver is composed of 12 members. These include six architects, two engineers, two landscape architects, a representative of the development community and a representative from the Vancouver City Planning Commission, a civic advisory body. Panel members sit for a two-year term and 50% of the Panel is refreshed every year. The Chair is selected from the group that has sat on the Panel for a year and serves a one-year term. The Chair is by tradition an architect, although this is not mandatory. Panel sessions occur biweekly and are typically two to four hours long. An individual item typically takes an hour to review, although larger more complex issues may take substantially longer. The planner in charge of the project presents the background, the zoning context, and requests Panel input on specific issues. For a re-zoning application, these may be as broadly based as use, form and density. For a detailed Development Permit application, much more specific issues such as configuration of retail entries may be discussed.

Following the planners, the applicant team (typically including the architect, landscape architect and the owner) will present the project. Each Panel member will then offer commentary on the issues on which the planner has requested input, and any other issues that they consider to be important about the project. This commentary is precisely minuted. At the conclusion of the commentary, the Chair provides a summary of the critical issues. This aspect is dependent on the nature and style of the individual Chair. Some Chairs have chosen to present the diversity of opinion, which is often a characteristic of Panel commentary. My own style is to attempt to prcis the three or four critical issues from the discussion around which there is a strong degree of consensus, in order to avoid the applicant needing to respond to an individual criticism that is not supported by a broad swath of members. The applicant is then given a chance to respond to the issues presented. The final step is a vote of support or non-support. Most commonly, a vote of non-support results in a return to the Panel.

In the City of Vancouver, there is a direct link between the Urban Design Panel and the Development Permit Board, which does have legislative authority. The Chair or the Vice Chair of the Urban Design Panel sits on the Development Permit Board meetings as an advisor to the three-member Board (Director of Current Planning, City Engineer and City Manager). He/she is one of a group of eight advisors drawn from members of the design community and the general public. The Development Permit Board, unlike the Urban Design Panel, does allow public input. The role of the UDP Chair is to present the opinions of the Panel and to comment on whether the conditions (referred to in Vancouver as “prior to” conditions) accurately reflect the Design Panel concerns. In addition, the Chair of the Design Panel is expected to comment on both the public input regarding any other issues that he/she sees important about the specific acceptability of the project, and/or any conditions that should be attached to the granting of the Development Permit. This process can in itself be controversial. In one recent case (an addition to an Arthur Erickson building) I found myself in stark disagreement with the opinions of the Urban Design Panel. Subsequent to presenting the UDP consensus, which was supportive of the overall strategy proposed, I presented my own concerns for consideration by the voting members. The applicant was not pleased by this, especially as the project was only approved subject to a substantial size reduction, which may ultimately put the project in jeopardy. I discussed the challenge of this and similar situations with both the DP Board and the UDP, and both were supportive of the need for me to express my own judgment at DP Board, provided it was clearly defined as just that.

A project may come in front of the Panel three to four times during its passage through the regulatory stream in the city. Larger urban issues such as the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre Expansion may be “workshopped” in a non-voting session of the Panel, arrive at the Panel as part of an overall development or a Preliminary Development Permit application and be seen again at the Panel at the Development Permit stage. In theory, the Panel discussion should get more and more focused at each step. However, applicants typically review Design Panel support at one stage as a green light to proceed forward with a design as presented. This may create problems when clear critical feedback is not given.

In my view, the most controversial aspect of Design Panels is the question of appropriate area of focus. In the AIBC standards and procedures for the conduct of Advisory Design Panels, there is a specific reference to the inappropriateness of comment on materials and colours in the absence of neighbourhood-specific design guidelines. This restriction is consistently ignored. The challenge is that it is impossible to draw a firm line between issues of urban design and issues of architectural design.

Design Panels are also rife with at least the possibility of a conflict of interest. Specific conflicts where the project being presented is by the firm of a Design Panel
member obviously require that member to step out. However, the more subtle conflict of commenting on a project not done by your firm but where the client is a client of your firm has obvious challenges. Nonetheless, I believe that the professional integrity of the members of the Vancouver Design Panel has not allowed this to be an issue. In smaller municipalities with a limited number of architects and clients, they may have to deal with this challenge more frequently.

My sense of the pros and cons of the Design Panel process was somewhat akin to that of prescriptive design guidelines. Often, they help cut out the worst design, but they can also cut out the best. My experience on the Vancouver Urban Design Panel has led me to believe that, on balance, a well-run Design Panel can be a positive contributor to the quality of development. It is certainly true that I have experienced moments of Design Panel reviews that have been characterized by a desire to nitpick a design to death, a lack of respect given to the integrity of architectural intention, and poor feedback. However, in my experience, projects that go through the Design Panel wringer often come out the other end vastly improved. A recent illuminating moment involved encountering the architect of a project that had recently not been supported by the UDP vote. I noted that he must have been quite frustrated by the result. In fact, the opposite was true. He thanked me for the Design Panel turning the project down. In part, he had struggled with his client to set the design bar higher for a prominent site, and the client had consistently been resistant. The Design Panel rejection gave him a tool to return back to his client in search of a higher calibre of design. At its best, this is the kind of contribution an effective Panel can make.

Bruce Haden is a Principal of Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects, and is the current Chair of the City of Vancouver Urban Design Panel.