Perspectives from Planning Commissioners and DRC Members
What are the city’s planning commissioners and design review committee members looking for?
Many architects, designers, contractors and homeowners get an answer to that question for the first time in front of the planning commission or the design review committee, the city’s two advisory bodies dedicated to residential design and development.
Members from these two advisory bodies—all of whom are volunteers appointed by the San Marino City Council—tend to not like that.
Commissioners, committee members and city planning staff who explain architectural consistency and neighborhood compatibility to a homeowner can, at times, appear to be recommending a complete redesign of the homeowner’s proposal.
Add in public comments from neighbors and other residents and a homeowner’s first encounter with one of these two advisory bodies may seem hostile.
In most cases, commissioners, committee members, planning staff and the public use the San Marino Residential Design Guidelines, a 68-page document meant to “provide a clear concise summary of the City’s design policies for projects within the City’s residential neighborhoods,” to inform their comments.
Adopted almost 20 years ago, the document guides homeowners on matters of home design, architecture, landscaping and a home’s place on its property and in the neighborhood. It also includes graphic illustrations of different architectural styles and the city’s design review process.
Though, in a variety of circumstances, city codes may allow for designs discouraged by the guidelines, the guidelines carry a great deal of weight with commissioners and committee members.
The guidelines are Planning Commissioner Howard Brody’s primary guide when analyzing cases. The guidelines are not his sole guide though because, he explained, “It doesn’t incorporate all the variation that could take place.”
Architectural integrity and neighborhood compatibility are at the top of Brody’s list of considerations. He also discourages the practice of homes “being built from the inside out.” In other words, adding square footage at the expense of architectural integrity.
When a house is being flipped for profit, he noted, it’s the commission’s role to make sure the community is not left with an eye sore.
Fellow planning commissioner Raymond Cheng agreed that developers flipping homes should concern the commission.
If a developer proposes an incompatible design—especially one that does not understand the architectural value of a home—Cheng explained, it’s the commission’s job “to hold firm and protect that neighborhood.”
“There’s no black and white,” Cheng said of his approach. He stressed that pitting longtime residents against newcomers and old construction against new construction is the wrong image of San Marino.
Residents have the right to enjoy every detail of a good quality, fully-functional home, he added, but “if your family needs a 3,000 square foot home, look in the 3,000 square foot neighborhood.”
“Don’t buy in the 1,800 square foot neighborhood and max out on square footage.”
Design Review Committee Vice Chairman William Dietrick concurred. Vacant properties and homes that have large mass and scale diminish San Marino’s neighborhood-type community, Dietrick noted.
The DRC functions as an extension of the community’s interests, according to DRC Chairman Frank Hsu.
“We safeguard our community from bad architecture,” Hsu said. “At the same time we don’t want to create a hardship for homeowners trying to improve their home.”
The Tribune asked all of the Planning Commissioners and Design Review Committee Members for their comments regarding planning and design review matters. A compilation of their responses can be found below:
Planning Commissioner Se-Yao Hsu
For San Marino, community interests refer to preservation of San Marino tradition, which means that all designs must conform to [the] city’s building codes and the design guidelines and must be compatible with the neighborhood. While the private property rights refer to the rights of residents to build a house [in which] they’ll live comfortably. As a planning commissioner, I am working with the staff and my colleagues to help the applicants achieve these purposes.”
Planning Commissioner Susan Jakubowski
I am deeply appreciative of the passion our “community activists” have for preserving our neighborhoods. They care deeply about San Marino, both in its historical context and they care about its future. Each time I am involved in rendering a decision I see figurative scales in front of me so that I can keep an even balance between the rights of the homeowner and the rights of the neighbors and community. It is with a body that has far more say than I — our city council only, that can direct a change in that balance.
Commissioner Bharat Patel
For me, San Marino offers old fashioned community living where children can walk to school safely, enjoy enduring friendship from kindergarten to high school and beyond. I believe a sustainable approach to planning and design ensures private property rights are compatible with maintaining our strong family-centric community.
The preservation of the character of San Marino is both a community and private interest. Individually we all have private interests, but collectively we all share the common interest in our desire for this unique community character. The aesthetic appearance of our community is part of that, but it is also how we live together and concern ourselves with one another. When we support each other to advance private interests, in ways that are respectful of the community interest, we enhance that unique character that we all desire.
A house is just a structure, a financial asset. San Marino is not a collection of houses. San Marino is a community of homes. A home has a life and is connected to the neighborhood.
DRC Alternate Member Judy Johnson
The role of the DRC is to assist the city with ensuring the residents of San Marino abide by the guidelines set forth by the city as it relates to home remodels and new construction. There is a line between the Design Review Committee’s role and homeowners’ self expression, especially when it comes to matters that are not within the DRC purview, not a matter of zoning and matters of personal decisions in one’s own backyard.
The DRC meets at City Hall at 7 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. The Planning Commission meets at the same location at 7 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month.