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News > Context Spring 2023 > Feature: Supporting the “Civic” in Design Review

Feature: Supporting the “Civic” in Design Review

Charts sourced from: City of Philadelphia — Civic Design Review Brochure 2023 
Charts sourced from: City of Philadelphia — Civic Design Review Brochure 2023 

By Nancy Rogo Trainer, FAIA, AICP 


With any luck, this simple statement is already a core tenet of the next Philadelphia mayor’s belief system. In a broad, civic-minded definition, a well-designed public realm — streets, sidewalks, parks, and other shared spaces — is one that promotes the creation of what urban ethnographer Elijah Anderson calls the “cosmopolitan canopy,” a place where all feel welcome and safe, where civility is the order of the day. In short, a place people want to be.  

Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review (CDR) process was designed to promote these four core concepts by focusing on civic, shared spaces — and on the height, bulk, transparency, and materials of the buildings that shape them. CDR is rooted in a fundamentally optimistic view of both development and the design process, with guidelines that are more aspirational than prescriptive; they suggest that development be compatible with the neighboring context, for example, but do not specify materials or particular design features. The regulations governing CDR explicitly state that the process is “not intended to evaluate the architectural style or compositional aspects of a project outside of their clear impact on the public realm.” Neighborhood representatives have meaningful roles in the review — with seats at the table both literal and figurative. CDR was designed to promote the collective goodwill of designers, developers, and neighborhood groups — and, as it is advisory only, relies on this goodwill for its success. When this goodwill is present, the process works — sometimes beautifully. But often, it doesn’t, and design improvements made in response to CDR comments are either too marginal to make a difference or never carried through to construction.  

As Chair of the CDR Committee from its inception in 2013 through 2020, my thoughts about design review are informed by that perspective; and as a result, my recommendations focus on ways of facilitating the good faith and optimism necessary for the Civic Design Review process to work. 

1. Devote energy and resources to develop policies that respect and preserve Philadelphia’s unique, character-giving qualities — its mix of old and new, remnants of its industrial past, its diversity of neighborhoods — and ensure that new development will be woven into this extraordinary existing fabric.  

Too often, by the time the Civic Design Review Committee reviews projects, existing buildings have been demolished or approved for demolition — cutting off all discussion about the design value of preservation. In too many cases (Jewelers’ Row, for example), this results in unproductive, unsightly gaping holes that persist for years — a “lose-lose” scenario precluding preservation without the promised benefits of new development. Potential solutions could range from conditioning certain demolition permits on completing Civic Design Review for replacement structures and on commitments to a timeline for construction to providing bonuses, financial credits, or other additional incentives for reuse of existing buildings. In the most optimistic scenario, incentives would be robust enough to put developers in the position of arguing for the character-giving aspects of existing buildings — not unlike a period in the 1980s when developers worked to get historic designations to qualify for Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits 

2. Give community members reason to believe that renewed, well-designed neighborhoods will benefit them, and that amenities brought by new development—the very thing that they are investing their time to discuss — will not make them feel like outsiders in their own neighborhoods.  

  • Promote affordable housing — in every neighborhood. The biggest impediment to goodwill in many CDR discussions is community members’ suspicion that low- or middle-income people will be displaced, and that the neighborhood the developer is envisioning doesn’t include them. Whether based on past experience or their expectations for the future, neighbors of proposed development understand the potential of new construction to raise market rent and sales prices for nearby properties, making the neighborhood inaccessible to longtime residents and their families.  
  • Ensure that affordability is closely linked to existing neighborhood incomes so that long-term residents can see a place for themselves and their families in the neighborhood as properties are developed. 
  • Create a more direct link between height and density bonuses and proposed project locations. Allowing developers to receive bonuses for paying into the Housing Trust Fund puts the burden of those bonuses on a specific community without any guarantee that the funds will produce or protect affordability in their neighborhood.  
  • Focus attention on the shared public realm and encourage design that is both contemporary and contextual, building on the styles, scales, and textures of its particular, unique location. Often, community members see the emphasis on architectural design features like gray brick or metal facades, roof decks, and dog parks as entirely foreign to their neighborhoods, less as amenities than as symbols of gentrification and harbingers of exclusion. 

3. Redesign the process to add more “teeth” to the review while maintaining its aspirational, non-prescriptive qualities.  

Use the prospect of additional reviews to incentivize architects and developers to prioritize Philadelphia’s public realm in their initial submissions and to show substantially improved designs when required to return for a second presentation. Too many developers build two trips to CDR into their schedules and, sometimes, pre-sent no meaningful change on a return visit. This is a waste of the Committee’s and the community’s time and encourages cynicism about the process itself. (I once overheard an architect advise a client that “it doesn’t matter what the Committee says, the worst they can do is make you come back with the same design.”) A redesigned process, for example, could give the Committee the ability to require the developer to return more than once in particularly egregious cases; to avoid drawn-out review processes as a matter of course, agreement of two-thirds of Committee members present (rather than a simple majority) could be required to trigger a third — or fourth — visit to the Committee. 

Creating such incentives for architects and developers to “do better” would allow CDR to be more effective while maintaining its aspirational, non-prescriptive qualities, qualities that respect the creative process and reflect a deep faith in the design profession. CDR recognizes that Committee members who have spent a few hours reviewing plans cannot solve all the issues inherent in making a design better; instead, the process places the faith and responsibility for doing so in the design professionals who have spent months, or even years, thinking through every aspect of a project. Keeping the guidelines aspirational and focused on the public realm allows reasonable, spirited dissent among Committee members without inhibiting or stalling good development, diluting creativity, or devolving into “design by committee.” 

4. Devote to the Planning Commission the staff and resources it needs not only to review projects, but also to follow those projects as they are permitted and completed, and to make recommendations to improve the CDR process as needed.  

The Planning Commission staff includes talented and dedicated public servants, whose expertise and city-wide perspective are critical to the CDR process. Allowing the Commission the time and resources to monitor projects as they move through construction and to document findings would help the public understand whether developers are honoring the design changes they have committed to in public meetings, a critical factor in building the goodwill necessary for an advisory-only review process to have a positive impact. Additional investment in the Planning Commission would yield greater accountability and, ultimately, a city whose development more closely aligns with its stated ideals and aspirations. 

Along with some seemingly intractable challenges, Philadelphia’s next administration will inherit an extraordinary diversity of neighborhoods, building types, urban textures, and a myriad of opportunities to create a more welcoming and livable public realm. My hope is that Philadelphia’s next mayor is idealistic enough to envision the physical city as a setting and an engine for a more equitable and engaging civic life, and pragmatic enough to make that vision a reality.  

Nancy Rogo Trainer, FAIA, AICP, was Chair of Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review Committee from 2013 through 2020. 


Chart one:  

Civic Design Review Addresses the Following:  

What is the existing context of the site in the surrounding neighborhood? 

How will the proposed project function in the neighborhood? 

Does the proposal enhance neighborhood qualities?  

Is the proposed project compatible with the character of the neighborhood? 

Has the local community organization been engaged? 

The Process:  

Determination of Requirement by Licenses & Inspections (L&I) 

Applicant submits materials to PCPC staff. See deadlines below. 

Notice to and meeting with Registered Community Organization (RCO) 

Review and recommendations by Civic Design Review Committee at advertised meeting 

Potential 2nd submission and 2nd review meeting 

PCPC sends letter to L&I CDR Process is complete 

Charts sourced from: City of Philadelphia — Civic Design Review Brochure 2023 

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