David Wark, chair of the city's Design Commission, has been involved in public commissions for nine years and three months, including as the vice chair of the Portland Art Advisory Committee. In nearly a decade, Wark has reviewed hundreds of architecture, art and planning proposals.
While those are volunteer positions, Wark's day job is as an AIA principal architect at Portland-based Hennebery Eddy Architects, which focuses especially on historic resources and sustainable design. His credentials are from the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Green Building Council LEED accreditation, and the International Interior Design Association.
Palm Beach-born Wark has lived in Portland for 28 years, after earning his B.A. in architecture from the University of Florida and his Masters of architecture, historic preservation and conservation from the University of Texas in Austin, where he lived for 10 years.
BT: You've been serving on public committees in Portland for nearly a decade. What first interested you in getting involved?
DW: I moved here in part because of the high quality of architecture and the urban environment of Portland. I felt there was a standard here that was very high, so I moved here and started working as an architect. Several years later, I discovered it was a result of design review and the design commission.
I've lived in Portland 28 years now and have come to appreciate the character, the scale and the quality of the architecture in the urban environment — it has grown more and more as I've lived here.
We had the downturn in 2008, '09 and '10, so I came in 2008 right on the last wave of that era of development, and it came crashing down as we all know. There were some months where there weren't even any cases, so we didn't meet. Slowly, the economy worked its way up again and that new wave has swept through the city, so it's been busier than it's ever been in history — it's been one of the challenges over the last two years, handling cases on a timely basis and giving applicants constructive feedback in a way they can incorporate in time and get approval.
BT: When giving design advice, where do you draw the line between important details that could affect everybody who's in and around the building, and what details no one outside the development team will notice?
DW: Design review prioritizes the public realm, the pedestrian realm, because you can have the most incredibly-designed building and if it's not successful at ground level, the first floor streetscape, it's not a great building — it's not even a good building. That's priority No. 1. The second is the building embraces its context in terms of massing, scale and character. The third is quality and permanence. We question in terms of design, and then permanence in terms of materials and details. All those taken together starts from a larger scale and works its way down to the details.
BT: As a principal architect and a design commissioner, you've been on both sides of the design review process. What did you find tough about being an architect who's trying to get a project through, that now on the other side you have the chance to address?
DW: What applicants really want, and what I wanted was clarity. It's imperative for projects to go through that first step called design advice reviews and get clarity. The path forward ahead is pretty straightforward once you have clarity. At times, clarity isn't always there immediately. Part of that is the number of cases sometimes and how large-scale projects are, and sometimes it's a lack of information provided or the applicant isn't necessarily clear themselves in some aspects. As with all communication, there's a bit of interpretation when things aren't really clear. It has to be clear on both sides what are you after and what do you want to get out of design review for design review to be clear about helping them chart a path forward. If you can get all those in mutual understanding, the applicants can relax and so can the commission with assurance we're all on a common understanding.
BT: The Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA) project is supposed to streamline and quicken the development permit process, including affecting the design commission. Do you think having a faster permitting process will benefit the city, and create more housing faster? Does it matter if the building is the most beautiful thing to look at that fits in with the neighborhood, if it helps reduce the amount of those who are homeless?
DW: There are two things relative to that: there's speed and then there's quality. Speed is great if quality doesn't suffer. Therein is the challenge: to get projects through the design review process permitted and construction, but still have the same level of quality we've come to expect in the last 30-plus years.
The DOZA thing will help the process by clarifying the guidelines and expiditing the time it takes — that's the aim, speed up the process but get the same quality we have had.
The housing crisis is the issue of our day. But what we have seen is a reduction in cases coming through, and I believe it's directly related to the passage of the Inclusionary Housing requirement. What I've heard from the development commission is they're waiting to see how they can make it work. They were thinking in the next two or three months we'll find out about cases that are pending, and whether they come through or not.
The part that really stung me the most is out of the 4,000-plus apartment living units that were approved in the last year and a half, 482 were affordable units which is about 12 percent.
It doesn't have to be the most beautiful, it just needs to meet the guidelines … (which) allow for a high level of variety in architecture. It doesn't subscribe a style, but it does ask those questions that are inherent to the architecture. It's not about what it looks like, it's about what it is.
People who live in affordable housing buildings deserve the same level of quality of living space and latent error. What we don't want to happen is for affordable housing units to be stigmatized or not be inspected buildings. Some of these you look and say, which one is affordable housing and which isn't?
BT: You mentioned Inclusionary Housing. Do your clients say it pencils out for them? How could we adjust this policy so it actually ends up creating more housing and affordable housing, like initially intended?
DW: We don't get involved with let's say performance of development projects. I think that the city itself and the Portland Housing Bureau would need to help with that, and how they can provide incentives to bridge what is now a gap.
A lot of people fall back and suggest waiving SDCs (system development charges), but then the city pays for that in some ways and still have to fund it. What has happened is the coming together of the development community, and the city, to see how this can work. Everyone wants the same thing, and we're a smart group of people. Once we have a group of people with a vision work toward that vision, then that vision can be realized.
BT: One specific project, Ankeny Apartments, was the first design review denial in living memory. What stuck out about that design that just wasn't up to par after five reviews?
DW: That was the first (denial) I was there for. What usually happens is we can work with the applicant enough to help it meet the guidelines and at that point, it's approved. But this wasn't possible with all the limitations and the siding and what they felt needed to be built on the site to make it a worthwhile project — that's where the difference was. We had to vote on it, so now City Council is working through that. (See result on p. TK) It's pretty easy to see the historical record that that's the first denial in over nine years that I've been on the commission. It's unfortunate. It would be good to understand, take a lesson and learn from this, and keep moving forward. I don't want to get into it, it's a very complicated project with multiple issues that would take a hour just to summarize.
BT: Portland is unique for its 200'x200' block grid, and is starting to see some superblock developments like the recently completed Belmont Goat Blocks and the upcoming Zidell Yards, Broadway Corridor and 1400 N.E. Multnomah St. Have we outgrown the small block grid?
DW: It could be the future of parts of Portland and it is likely to happen. The Portland character is defined by the 200x200 block. An interesting sideline, it was plated with smaller blocks because they've got more corners: it's more desireable, you can charge higher rates for corners. PBOT came through one time and said that creates 40 percent more right-of-way than what they consider to be average downtown. They've got more streets, more corners, but with that you've got more light and air, you've got a smaller scale, a smaller footprint and smaller-scale buildings. If those buildings get taller, they're more slender and to me, not as hulking. If you look at most of the buildings in the last 10 years, they're not these hulking masses you see in a lot of cities that take up a lot of room and cast a lot of shadow. That 200-foot dimension finds its way into designs all around the city. Say there's a large block in the Lloyd District, or there could be a long one at the South Waterfront. How can you break that scale down relative to that 200-foot architectural DNA that we have? That's what I think starts to make Portland's architecture distinctive in a way.
BT: What about the old unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs), not all of which are historical, that the city will soon require owners to update because of the dangers they could cause in case of a quake?
DW: Yeah, it's very expensive. There's been talk about incentives, and I think that's what we're going to have to end up doing. Most are old structures but might not be historic: there is a distinction to be made there, but most owners want to keep their buildings standing. So how can we help them do that while also ensuring the safety of the people inside them that are using them, and the health of our city, too? If we can get to the point where minimal damage is done after a reasonable-sized quake, it'll be that much better afterward.
BT: How do you think the development industry in the city could balance preservation and growth?
DW: I have a master's in historic preservation. Working with historic structures has given me an understanding of a building's relationship with time, and through that as a design commissioner, I look at it as which design materials tend to last, particularly through the second 30 years of a building's life when a building is the most vulnerable, given to change and demolition to be replaced.
You're looking at it through a lens of two to five years, but a building's life can be 100-200 — with maintenance, a building can be immortal. Buildings without maintenance will fail.