Annapolis is one of those small, historic American cities whose antique charm and special allure depend on a rare confluence of natural and man-made phenomena: an always threatened, delicate architectural past embodied in the historic district's intimate streets and period houses; the Severn River, Spa and Back Creeks, and the Chesapeake Bay; and maritime traditions associated with the harbor and its boats, diverse commercial activities and the U.S. Naval Academy.
But the city must struggle constantly to preserve its assets.
In the past two decades, the harbor area and historic district have been transformed by increasing quantities of tourists, recreational boaters and traffic.
Real estate values have escalated as more people choose to visit and live in Annapolis. The historic district has strict preservation controls, but surrounding areas have experienced substantial new development, often with little design oversight.
Unfortunately, as is the case with so many historic towns and cities, the infectious architectural charm of an 18th and 19th century past seems to have been compromised by much of what's new.
In an effort to mitigate this trend, the Annapolis City Council is considering a new ordinance "for the purpose of establishing criteria, standards and requirements for site design plan review applicable to all zoning districts in the city." Misleadingly described as an ordinance concerning "site plan review," the proposed legislation in fact calls for comprehensive review -- of both site and architectural design -- of almost all future construction, including renovations and additions, anywhere in Annapolis. The only exception would be one- or two-family dwellings built individually.
The legislation before the city council would grant architectural review authority entirely to the department of planning and zoning. Its appointed director would have complete discretion over approving design, determining the need for public hearings before the zoning commission and enforcing compliance with approved designs.
The intentions of the pending ordinance are worthwhile. It seeks to ensure that future building in Annapolis is compatible with the existing city fabric, reflects "sound planning and design principles" and respects the natural environment. It also aims at "a thorough, coordinated and timely review of development proposals by and among appropriate city departments."
Few seem to question these intentions and the need for Annapolis to take steps toward improving the quality of development within the city as a whole.
But in its present form, the legislation has provisions that demand further consideration, provisions that would be problematic anywhere, not just in picturesque Annapolis.
Should statutory design review authority, far-reaching in its impact and requiring so much subjective design judgment, be solely in the hands of one person, not an elected official, who may not be comfortable making such critical judgments?
The well-meaning legislation charges the department of planning and zoning and its director with determining, among other things, whether a proposed project is "appropriate and compatible" with its surroundings, "human in scale" and "designed to relate to and welcome people on foot."
According to the ordinance, the width of a new or altered building "should reflect the characteristic rhythm of surrounding facades" and "be divided into elements with size and proportions similar to those of adjoining and nearby structures." Roofs, setbacks, window proportions and composition, materials, colors and massing are specifically mandated to "complement" and be "similar" to adjacent buildings and streetscapes.
Additional prescriptions pertain to site improvements, landscaping, drives and parking, signs and open space.
These quoted design attributes, indispensable to the legislation, express conceptually the city's overall aesthetic objectives.
But architecture entails both concept and detail, subtlety and precision. And it's a form of public art subject to multiple interpretations.
Therefore, why not enhance and deepen the interpretation of architectural proposals in Annapolis by creating a design committee or panel to evaluate such proposals, instead of a single individual? Indeed, why impose such an onerous burden and responsibility on one person, the planning and zoning director, who probably is already overburdened with other tasks?
The ordinance states that "the department of planning and zoning shall not approve the site design plan if it finds that the development would not achieve a maximum of compatibility, safety, efficiency and attractiveness."
Imagine being a city employe asked both to render and defend decisions about whether designs are "maximum."
Annapolis could establish a review committee comprised of distinguished design professionals -- architects, landscape architects, planners, engineers -- and individuals representing local business interests, historic preservation interests and the general public.
The design professionals, unlike other committee members, should not all be residents of Annapolis, thereby introducing to the review process perspectives drawn from more distant, but nevertheless relevant, sources.
The design review committee should limit its purview to aesthetic design assessment and disregard economic, political and social considerations.
The city could grant the panel the same authority it proposes vesting in the planning and zoning department or make it strictly advisory to the mayor and council, or to the zoning commission.
In either case, a properly composed and competent design review committee would increase greatly the chances for rigorous and fair evaluations.
Most important, it could be an incentive for developers and architects to aspire to higher design standards and perhaps take worthwhile aesthetic risks, knowing that there exists a forum for design deliberation, rather than just acquiescing to the tastes of a single individual.
Beyond aesthetics, legal issues are raised by Annapolis' proposed design review ordinance.
The pending legislation appears to give the planning and zoning department the power to effectively "down zone," for the director could insist that, in the interest of achieving "maximum compatibility" and "attractiveness," a developer build a project smaller in size -- by reducing height and volume -- than allowed under existing zoning.
Not only does this jeopardize private property rights, it also would call into question the validity of official public policy about the use of land within the city presumably set forth in zoning laws. A design review process should not abrogate already granted rights or become a backdoor confiscation technique, all the more reason to create an independent panel dedicated exclusively to design review under existing statutes.
Annapolis' pending ordinance could become a positive catalyst for improved design and desirable development, rather than a deterrent, if properly refined. With the right procedures, a strong and wise review committee and clearly enunciated standards, design review could expedite rather than bog down the movement of proposals through the approval process.
Otherwise, property owners, developers and design practitioners, seeing design review as just one more impediment erected by no-growth advocates, will give up on Annapolis completely. Perhaps that's what some citizens really want. Roger K. Lewis is a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland and a practicing architect.