10 June 2011


110609 precedent
Standing on Precedent

I was thinking about something that struck me as I was getting planning approval awhile back for a project in one of the beach communities here in Southern California. All of the planning commissioners on the panel happened to be attorneys at law.

Over the years I've met a few attorneys who actually were students of design, and could speak intelligently to the issues. I couldn't tell if any of the lawyers on this panel fit into this category, and if they were knowledgeable about all the other factors that work into a design.  The commissioners were on top of one thing: they were absolutely conversant in the letter of that city's planning code, and that they were absolutely on guard that no legal president be set beyond anything but the strictest adherence to the letter of the code.

I have a pretty good idea as to what the reason is to why this panel only consists of attorneys. This is a community where something built inches too high can block the most precious of assets, a view towards the Pacific Ocean. Over the years, many battles have been won and lost over this issue. It's no laughing matter- even the loss of a sliver of a view can mean tens of thousands of dollars in property value. The rules needed to be carefully written, and carefully administered.

So this community placed lawyers on every seat on the panel.  

There is a funny thing about precedent.  While rules are absolutely vital towards making a great city, selectively and carefully breaking those rules are most emphatically as important.

In the application we made to this city, we were careful to make a design that any strict constructionist could support, and our project was easily approved. We're used to contorting our designs to make good on such things.  Simply put, we pushed our design further in the ground to keep the building under the height limitation. A price was paid for this, at the expense of good design. Our project had a complicated relationship with other buildings on the campus; pushing everything down to make things fit resulted in a lot of ramps, steps, and railings to connect things. The beautiful courtyard we created between buildings was compromised by these awkward transitions.

Another funny thing was that the surrounding buildings around our work were all taller by a substantial amount over our newly proposed building. The ruling wasn't about good design at all.  When taking on a design problem, a responsible design team respects the attributes of surrounding site.  When no infringement is made to the attributes of the surrounding buildings, that design team will consider a design that might happen to require a variance on the rules, proposing a good result for their client, but also good result for the neighborhood as a whole.

By focusing in on the narrowest of interpretation of rules, and throwing everything else in to a category of ‘thou shalt not’ is hardly a way of making a great city. The rule of law is headed with great regard in the formation of civilized societies, and is truly one of the great elements of why we live as well as we do.  Those who dwell in the house of law and public policy make the mistake of believing that because the law is so great at what it does, that it is also universally applicable to any number of other human endeavors, like say building a city. The focus on the 'shall-nots' by its nature eliminates any number of design possibilities that are otherwise completely compatible with making a good place to live and be, while supporting the general safety and welfare of the public. Variances are substantial obstacles, because they are based on the fear of setting an inappropriate precedent, rather then allowing an anomaly that is good design; the process requires substantial resources to expended, and many times involve the employ of more attorneys. Most often the process diverts resources away from making the best possible building.

Good rules and how to administer them are of utmost importance to city design. Design by precedent is at best too simple minded a way of making a city, and at its worst, a way of allowing the legal profession to usurp something best handled by designers. 

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