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A Public Arbiter of Good Design

A second challenge concerns procedure. Design review must not be a one-time hurdle just before getting a permit. It should be a multiphase process in parallel with design phases so that a project benefits from reviews as it progresses from concept to final design. A multiphase review also must be carried out collaboratively and quickly, with clear requirements, to avoid undue delay.

Another challenge is establishing appropriate aesthetic principles, goals and guidelines at diverse scales. Some goals and guidelines should apply to an entire community, while others focus on neighborhoods, particular streets or even specific sites. A one-size-fits-all approach would be doomed.

Finally, for design review to succeed, a jurisdiction must appoint a design-review body composed of people who are motivated, broadly knowledgeable, politically independent, relatively unbiased and professionally qualified. Respected designers, including one or two from outside the jurisdiction, and at least one well-informed citizen representative should serve. A qualified city or county official also might serve ex officio.

The choice of reviewers is critical. How well they express their aesthetic opinions and justify their recommendations will determine the acceptability of the process.

Design-review bodies already exist in the region, the most notable being the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Charged with reviewing all federal projects and projects directly affecting federal interests, the commission's essential mission is ensuring aesthetic quality.

A design-review process can never make less talented architects more talented. But it can motivate them to aim higher, pushing projects that might earn a C grade up to B. And it can likewise motivate developers to raise their aspirations and hire the most talented architects in the first place. In either case, the public benefits.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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