Committee on Design ruffles some feathers as it begins reviewing new project aesthetics

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Rendering of Trammel Crow's Fulton Market development, the first to go before the Committee on Design

Chicago’s new Committee on Design within the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is stirring some controversy and anxiety early in its mandate.

Crain’s Chicago Business reports several developers are concerned that the new advisory group may stall or delay development because “their buildings might not be stylish enough to win over the city”.  The developers wouldn’t speak on the record with the business publication, fearing that publicity could add to their problems, but “deem it an extra hoop to jump through in an already lengthy city review process at a time when Chicago can ill afford to deter new investors,” Crain’s reported.

The 24-member advisory group formed in July includes architects, urban planners and development community members who will review certain projects and suggest aesthetic and other changes.

The panel “was forged by Planning Department Commissioner Maurice Cox as a tool for developers to improve their building designs and for the city to provide a more thoughtful—and ideally speedier—review, while also upholding a Chicago tradition of innovative architecture and design that some experts in the field say has recently become more homogeneous and driven by developer budgets,” Crain’s reported.

“It’s turning what appears to be a well meaning and relatively innocuous group of volunteers into a lightning rod issue for local real estate investors about the role of the planning department and to what degree the look and feel of a new development should be within its purview.”

“My hope was to create a place where we can have a conversation about the built and natural environment and have it be applicable to real world projects that are going to be realized,” Cox told Crain’s. The committee will review a handful of projects each month that are large-scale, of historical significance or involve public subsidies. “If we could use this as a way to accelerate the development process, that would be the ultimate outcome.”

Cox said a comprehensive discussion about architecture and design of a building can get lost in that process or require lots of back-and-forth between the planning department and a developer that prolongs the review. “That’s why he wants the committee to inject discussion about things like building setbacks, materials, shadows and open space into the earlier stages of planning, when it’s more feasible for developers to reshape projects,” Crain’s reported.

“We think we’re going to give (developers) back days and days off of their approval process,” Cox was quoted as saying. “If we can’t shorten the development process, then this process is not working.”

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