Two 20-story buildings proposed for Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh were reviewed in recent months by the city’s Appearance Commission – with two different outcomes.
One was recommended favorably to the city’s planning director fairly quickly. The other was not. The reasons lie, interestingly enough, in how architects and developers tell the stories of their designs to the commission. It’s part of a complex process aimed at achieving better design for the city’s downtown.
City council appoints the Appearance Commission’s 15 members, the majority recruited from Raleigh’s design community of architects, developers, landscape architects and planners – and others from the community at large. “We’ve tried to build a holistic view beyond the design world,” says committee chair Brian O’Haver, an associate vice president at Stewart, a local design, engineering and planning firm.
Some say the commission, which acts solely in an advisory capacity, is less than successful in assuring design excellence for Raleigh – largely because the state does not allow municipalities to legislate aesthetics. “I don’t think it has much effect,” says architect Frank Harmon. “It’s never had any teeth, while Charleston (S.C.) can force a developer to change a design.”
Others contend that over its 43-year lifespan, the commission has been effective, though real results often depend on the will of the applicant. “It has advocated, cajoled, lobbied and encouraged projects to improve their quality,” says Steve Schuster, partner at Clearscapes and former chair of the Planning Commission. “If they have an applicant who wants to improve a project, it works – but if the applicant is less concerned, then there’s no bite in their bark.”
The commission is concerned with 10 areas of interest, including transparency, blank walls, massing/step-backs, pedestrian access and landscaping/screening. A project goes in front of the commission when a developer or architect wants to request a change in one of those areas. Applicants can also request a courtesy review for informal feedback.
After an applicant’s presentation, the commission can recommend approval or denial of the request to the city’s planning director, who can agree or disagree with its recommendation. Ultimately, the project will not be approved by the city’s department of development services unless it meets code or has a letter from the planning director. If the applicant wants to contest the decision, the issue will enter into a quasi-judicial process for resolution.
That’s the process that two teams of architects and developers recently worked through with projects at 301 and 400 Hillsborough St. In the case of 301 Hillsborough, The Lundy Group proposed a pair of 20-story towers, one for offices along Dawson Street and another for residential use along Harrington Street. They would be part of a two-acre city block that also would include 176 hotel rooms, street-level retail space and parking.
Accommodating that much activity on Raleigh’s sidewalks is of particular interest to city planners and the commission alike. “There’s a certain amount of transparency and ground-floor activity – what they’re trying to prevent are blank walls and unscreened parking,” says Roberta Fox, the city’s assistant planner. “You want shops, cafes, retail, lobby entrances there – the things that are active and that people use on a day-to-day basis.”
In an urban environment, walkability – and a tight mix of uses where pedestrians can get around easily – are important. “People like to walk around other people and they like to feel safe,” she says. “It comes down to a vibrancy thing.”
It comes down to psychology and economics too. “For a city to maintain itself, it’s kind of a like an organism – it maintains itself by generating revenue and increasing tax revenue from people buying and selling things,” she says. “You need to be able to walk by and see those things and do them.”
But it wasn’t the street-level activity that paused the project at 301 Hillsborough. It was the request for a step-back on one corner of a tower that the commission didn’t find satisfactory. One member commented also that the applicants did not do a good enough job in explaining how they interpreted the building code. “Some tell a story in the process, but others don’t,” O’Haver says.”
As a result, the developer has instructed its design team to redesign the project to meet code, so no changes will be needed. That means that the revised plan will not return to the commission, but will be submitted directly to development services for review. And that begs the question: It may meet code, but will it be an asset to the city’s skyline?
Applicants for the 20-story structure at 400 Hillsborough took another tack altogether – with an extensive presentation. Designed by the local branch of Gensler and proposed by real estate developer Gregg Sandreuter, it too is to be a mixed use of offices, residential apartments and ground-level retail. “That one went through the Appearance Commission pretty quickly,” Fox says. “It’s a very thoughtful building – it’s contextually sensitive, by picking up cues to materials on the façade and how it speaks to other buildings in the area.”
Theirs was a fairly sophisticated presentation, developed in collaboration with Stewart, O’Haver’s employer. Because of that client/firm relationship, O’Haver recused himself from the presentation. The applicants’ 25-plus Power Point pages took the commission through a series of images that start with two stacked cubes on the one-block site, and then step their massing back in a series of gestures that allow light to penetrate the building and its surroundings.
Their presentation was successful. “A good architect follows this process and works with the context to be able to meet the goals of the zoning codes in an elegant way,” Fox says. “When they understand the intent, they can articulate why what they’re doing is better in some cases than the code, or how it manifests itself differently.”
In other words, they may have stepped back their tower, but they stepped up their narrative. “The ones that get through easily bring their ‘A’ game and bring quality projects,” says Ted Van Dyk, former commission chair. “The ones who are not prepared and bring lesser quality projects get paused.”
At the end of the day, the commission has green-lighted a well-designed building at 400 Hillsborough and denied another less successful one down the block. They’ve made the right calls, though final designs are yet to be unveiled. When they are, and as they’re built, this column will be paying close attention. After all, skylines and streetscapes – unlike a Picasso painting that a museum-goer can ignore – are inescapable backdrops to urban living here. And because they are, their appearance matters.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.