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Thread: Edmonton Design Committee – is perfection attainable?

  1. #1
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    Default 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

  2. #2
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    Default clarification

    My article needs some clarification on what is held in public and what is not:
    Pre-assessment consultations are in-camera.
    Formal Presentations are held in public.
    Committee review of formal presentations are in-camera.

  3. #3

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    Sorry - what does "in camera" mean? Does this mean it is videoed for anyone to download?

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    Ah, meeting jargon...."in camera" means in private and is not available to the public.

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    Thanks, sorry about that, I learned something new today! I appreciate you posting the article to.

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    No problem and you're welcome!

  7. #7
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    'Camera' actually is latin for 'box' so the meeting is in the box, not in public. A photography camera is a 'light drawing box'


    Incidentally there was a member here who attended some of the early sessions (not in camera) of EDC as a member of the public, and reported that he was made to feel very unwelcome. Has that changed, and are there often interested members of the public in attendance?

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    We don't often get members of the public in attendance. I suspect that's because the EDC meetings aren't advertised other than on the City of Edmonton website which lists upcoming agendas.

    I'm disppointed to hear he was made to feel unwelcome. I wonder if that was growing pains in the early days when we were "finding our way". It should be noted that public attendance means attendees are welcome to listen to the presentations and the questions from the committee members to the proponents, but are not able to participate beyond that. I'm aware that some public attendees have hoped they can have time to speak, ask questions or offer opinions, but the meetings are not structured to allow that. We are more than happy to have public attend the formal presentations and, in fact, encourage it. Attending a meeting will give some insight into the variety of applications that the committee reviews and the response to those applications. But be prepared for a long night if you want to stay for more than one....and anticipate finding ways to occupy yourself when the committee goes in camera to deliberate prior to seeing the next presentation.

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    Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about design in Edmonton.

    Would it fall within the mandate of the EDC to ensure that new multi-family buildings welcome a broad range of people? Many condominium complexes ban children from living there. Also, as most suites are bachelor or one-bedroom, it wouldn't be possible for a family with kids to live there anyway.

    I'd like to see sandboxes and swingsets included in mandated in green spaces. Many new buildings have fitness areas, but I'm not aware of any high-density intensification sites in Edmonton with playrooms, something that is common in other cities.

    It seems that the only new housing for families with children is being built on the outskirts -- causing urban sprawl.

    Would the EDC suggest to developers that projects should include a percentage of two- and three-bedroom suites as well as amenities for families with children, or perhaps is that idea beyond the group's mandate?
    Last edited by Green Grovenor; 31-07-2009 at 02:37 PM.
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    The EDC is an urban design review panel, so by its definition we are primarily focused on developments' contribution to the urban realm. We try to avoid commenting on the appropriateness of planned uses, but focus instead on achieving the best resolution of the proposed use. For example, if a development intends to have retail on the main floor, we will review it for best practices for that use - transparency, visibility, winter conditions, universal design, etc.

    That said, we do encourage developers to include aspects that contribute to the greater good. Affordable units, public art, public green space (including play areas), sustainable design are all encouraged and often a part of the discussion. The pre-assessment review best serves the goal of getting "more" into a development. It allows us to raise these issues early on and challenge the design + owner team to consider their inclusion. Later on in the process, when an investment of time and effort has been made in the design, it is harder to consider new ideas or change concepts. Generally, when proponents come to a pre-assessment, they are receptive to the committee's suggestions and do make an effort to incorporate some or all of the suggestions within the development permit application.

  11. #11

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    If people can go and watch the meetings but can't be involved in the debate then what's the point?

  12. #12

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    you can go watch the legislature and court hearings too, but there is also zero participation.

    Why is this?

    We live within an "open" system, one which we are able to audit, and comment on the systems happenings. If you want we can adopt China's system...

    No one is stopping you from commentingone the EDC outside the meeting.

  13. #13

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    Quote Originally Posted by morainepup View Post
    Ah, meeting jargon...."in camera" means in private and is not available to the public.
    Nothing against you morainepup, but...

    jargon ... blech.

  14. #14

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    We have seen some examples recently where late in construction, or just before construction, materials have been changed. I have seen this refereed to on this board as "value engineering".

    My question is: Once a design is approved by EDC, what follow up is done to ensure the building is built as designed? For example, if a developer decides to change the outside material to stucco instead of what was presented to EDC, what is the consequence? Is there a penalty, or is the EDC approved design just something that can be changed at will once construction starts?

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    ^Often times there are conditions associated with the development permit. These conditions can be tied to comments provided by the EDC or other departments / agencies. If a developer breaches these conditions, I believe the City can a) refuse to grant their occupancy permit until they meet the conditions or b) seek legal recourse.

  16. #16

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    ^Developers can, and often do, apply for "As-Built" occupancy permits, if there are some descrepancies with the original Development permit and what was actually built. If it is a DC2, sometimes how things are finished is a matter of interpretation, and developers will sometimes use a cheaper product than what they originally showed in their renderings because of cost or availability. (not that I'm making any excuses at all).

    I can think of one example where in the Legacy condo project they were required to have a retail space on the corner of the building, only to have the developer sell the space or remake the space into a condo at a later date upon occupancy. In this case it would take someone a big chunk of their time to convince Bylaw that it is worth their time to investigate this, and at this point they may not have any legal recourse. That one in particular p*ssed me off.
    Last edited by GreenSPACE; 03-09-2009 at 10:32 AM. Reason: grammar
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    ^If I recall, that retail space still exists. Its on the SW corner and the windows are papered up. The space looks small, very small. But one day could house a small convenience store.

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    Quote Originally Posted by lat View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by morainepup View Post
    Ah, meeting jargon...."in camera" means in private and is not available to the public.
    Nothing against you morainepup, but...

    jargon ... blech.
    ....hardly "jargon" - my, what are they teaching in schools nowadays?

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    Wait till they hear "Voire dire"

  20. #20

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    Interesting about "in camera". It's counter-intuitive. It sounds like it would be available to the public eg how the coucil chamber has an audio and video feed (a camera).

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    ^as in being recorded but private.
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