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Edmonton Design Committee – is perfection attainable?

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  • Edmonton Design Committee – is perfection attainable?

    The Edmonton Design Committee was formed in 2005 to provide advice to council on selected development permit applications that fall within specific geographic areas of the city. While the committee provides advice, it is council that makes all decisions – and council can choose whether or not to take account of the committee’s opinion. Committee members are a diverse group with representatives from different professions. The committee is guided by its “Principles of Urban Design” that were developed at the Committee’s inception during a series of intensive workshops. These principles are not a checklist that projects must adhere to, but rather are guidelines to provoke and challenge proponents to achieve exemplary urban design.

    The committee’s review process is undertaken in one of two formats. Proponents have the opportunity to first present the project in a pre-assessment consultation. This pre-assessment is held in camera - thus protecting the privacy of developments in early stages and allowing informal and candid discussions between the proponent and committee members. By reviewing a project in the early stages of development the committee members have an opportunity to identify areas of concern at a stage where they may be addressed by the proponent with minimal cost to time and budget. The formal presentation occurs once a development permit application has been received by the planning + development department. Formal reviews are open to public attendance, but final committee deliberations are made in camera.

    The challenges for the committee are myriad. The committee has been criticized for not enough transparency, for supporting projects that do not demonstrate exemplary urban design, for strongly supporting public art, for seemingly arbitrary comments and for ignoring community consultation results.

    Some of these concerns reflect the reality of a diverse committee membership where various interests are documented in the decisions. I believe that this diversity results in a more comprehensive review of projects and encourages applicants to push their projects beyond the mundane or expected. While comments may seem arbitrary when taken out of context as bullet points from the minutes, they generally result from thorough discussion and careful consideration.

    References to public art are common in the minutes – resulting in a perception that the committee emphasizes public art’s importance over other urban design issues. Typically, public art becomes part of the discussion when a DC2 application is reviewed which has major variances from the existing zoning. A public art contribution is not required or requested for most developments. The committee recognizes the potential of public art to contribute positively to the urban landscape and encourages the inclusion of potential art(ists) early in the project’s development to fully explore possible solutions.

    The transparency of the decision making process is a source of ongoing debate and review for the committee. Committee decisions are made in camera to allow candid discussion and sharing of different perspectives. The result is a recommendation that has been carefully considered and debated. The passion of the members to realize the best possible decision often results in time over-runs – a source of frustration for proponents, committee members and visitors. The committee has discussed debating their decisions in public and under strict time controls but believes that the decisions that result from the existing process allow a comprehensive review of issues that is vital to realizing better urban design.

    Often the criticisms levelled at the committee stem from comments which suggest that the proponent fundamentally change the design. Whether the requested change is related to the projects’ location on the site, its height or its orientation, such a challenge may be perceived as naive or without regard for practical realities such as community opinion. However, it is the committee’s responsibility to review projects with the intent to encourage exemplary design. The committee’s hope is that our reviews may challenge proponents to think beyond the boundaries of the expected. It is why we strongly encourage proponents to come to the committee for a pre-consultation to better identify opportunities in the early stages of design. A talented design team can both give consideration to community desires and respond to committee suggestions.

    The committee is aware that there are areas which can be improved. We strive to contain the question period to the allotted time. We try not to raise issues in the decision letter that have not been discussed previously with the proponent. We are determined that style preferences will not override our evaluation of projects, but rather choose to focus on encouraging durable materials, respect for local conditions and the creation of beautiful places. We regularly review our processes to evaluate their efficacy and challenge our assumptions. The planning + development department is exemplary in their support of our processes and is an invaluable partner. We are working with them to review completed projects and assess our successes and failures (on both sides of the table) in realizing our suggestions. We are equally frustrated with projects that do not achieve even a reasonable level of design despite repeated appeals on our part. Achieving perfection is unlikely, but as the committee continues to evolve, hopefully it will prove itself to be an invaluable contributor to the improvement of Edmonton’s buildings and urban fabric.

    -- Anneliese Fris, Architect, AAA, LEED AP
    Vice-Chair, Edmonton Design Committee