Tom Bamberger
In Public

The Problem Of Architecture Review Boards

All the rules for developers kill bad buildings. But do they also kill the great ones?

By - Feb 1st, 2017 10:53 am
The Kimpton. Photo from Google Earth.

The Kimpton. Photo from Google Earth.

We are talking about buildings these days. Mayor John Norquist started it when there wasn’t much to talk about. Cities had lost their mojo. Real estate developers were making their money building cul-de-sac communities and big box stores along the freeway.

Norquist thought buildings mattered in a city. Bridges and streets too. All of which, incredibly, seemed like a new idea at the time.

To stop the bleeding Norquist and his planner Peter Park eventually set down a set of urban design principles. Most importantly, the idea that buildings should not disrupt the architectural fabric of their neighborhood. The emphasis was on “background buildings,” as they’ve been called.

The blending principle was a reaction to the 1960s to the mid 1990’s, when urban architecture barely existed because cities didn’t seem to have a future.

Today there is a growing constituency for architecture in Milwaukee, especially people who see new buildings through their apartment windows. And read Urban Milwaukee for that matter.

But what is a good new building? Norquist didn’t really answer that question. We didn’t know what to do in cities at the time.

Nor should he have. Mayors are not czars. He did lay down a framework to make buildings less bad that has been carried forward by the administration of Mayor Tom Barrett. It’s been enshrined with increasing vigor by community groups, Architectural Review Boards (ARB) and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) that lords over more than 25 districts in Milwaukee.

Norquist’s guiding principle was that buildings should fit the character of the neighborhood. That includes scale, materials, and style. Today how things fit into the existing fabric of a city dominates the discussions of the ARBs, HPC, and the articles in Urban Milwaukee about real estate development.

Norquist wrote the playbook. His “new urbanism” is called “good urbanism” today, which takes on a preservationist bent because blending into the established character of the neighborhood usually means the new should reflect the old — Milwaukee’s pre-World War II buildings made of mortar and brick.

Community oversight became an increasingly effective weapon against willy nilly real estate development in Milwaukee. The Walker’s Point Association and Ald. Jose Perez recently stopped a ludicrous proposal to put a large gas station on several empty lots on 6th Street just north of National Avenue. The suburban developer was thinking of the cars rather than people.

Now Walker’s Point is thinking of setting up their own ARB, like the Third Ward — the oldest and most powerful architectural review board in the city. Which brings us to a new building, the Kimpton, an upscale boutique hotel on the corner of East Chicago and Broadway. A headline in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called it “a landmark for Milwaukee’s Third Ward.”

There is nothing wrong with the building. It’s proportions, massing, and composition are drawn from the buildings next door and across the street. Its red brick middle and top are slightly inset. The corner is slightly articulated. The Kimpton has a two-story white-stone base. It’s all just enough design to not make a difference.

The Kimpton is faint but it doesn’t look cheap. Like an old song played on synthesizer rather than by an orchestra, it resembles the rest of the neighborhood. The materials and patterning follow a formula derived from the venerable brick buildings of the Third Ward.

The Kimpton looks respectable. It’s nice. A fine young building with excellent manners that doesn’t call attention to itself.

Which is to say the Third Ward’s tallest building on a central corner of the neighborhood is a wallflower.  Has no character of its own. This “landmark” can’t mark anything because it’s not anything in particular.

By all accounts the Kimpton aced the ARB approval process. “The larger the project, the less of a problem. Big developers very quickly learn the system”, says Robert Bauman, the alderman for the Third Ward and Chair of the ARB.  “It’s good business” for them to learn the rules, “time is money,” he adds.

Guidelines and oversight has forced developers to hire better architects to get their projects through the process. The Kimpton’s local architect, Kahler Slater also blended the controversial Marriott Hotel into the background of an “historic block” on East Wisconsin Avenue. Making non-buildings has become a feature of successful architectural firms in Milwaukee. Their business is to win the game according to the rules.

The powerful Third Ward review board has perfected the background building. “New buildings in the Neighborhood”, the guidelines state, “should be designed using similar materials (brick, metal, glass, stone) to those used on existing buildings and respect the mass, rhythm, height, robust scale, and ornamentation of existing buildings.”

That’s not all. The Design Guidelines For The Historic Third Ward Neighborhood is a 103-page document that could be the syllabus for a graduate school level introduction to the field of urban design circa 1990. It has an extensive bibliography and illustrated appendix. Further reading includes Jane Jacobs classic The Death and Life of American Cities and the Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language.

Following Alexander’s rules of order, the guidelines state: “Emulating the human body, one of the tenets of architectural composition is the idea of a building having a base, middle, and a top. This has been borne out in the history of architecture for thousands of years.”

This is bunk.

Buildings don’t have to emulate the proportions of the human body. What is borne out by history is buildings look like buildings made with the materials, technology, and fashion of their time.

The Calatrava looks like ship laying down and the head of cobra when it stands up. The new Northwestern Mutual Tower looks like a skyscraper.  Ranch houses in Milwaukee look like ranch houses.

There is no holy grail for architecture. Every rule for composition in the history of art is eventually broken.

The Third Ward looks like commercial buildings built around the turn of the century in the American Midwest. Now a hundred years later the Third Ward preserves the character of this neighborhood by making a characterless building?

This process can only go on so long before a place dilutes itself. The blending principle can become a broad spectrum insecticide that kills off both the bad and the good stuff. Pretending to be old because you are afraid of the new (neophobia) inevitably results in the blandness of the Bayshore Town Center or Mequon.

Bauman concedes that could be a problem: “There is a potential for that. Creative people (on the ARB) must use good judgment.” Then Bauman added, the “guidelines could be adjusted in the future.”

But oversight committees trend in the other direction, to make more rules, not less. It’s just the nature of beast. What is oversight anyway other than being on alert for something bad?

Bauman told me the Third Ward ARB prohibited a corner store from putting signs of brands on the inside of their windows. The board was overruled, however, by the City Attorney on the grounds it violated the shop owner’s First Amendment right of free speech.

This level of fussiness may tell us something about how grim this review process has become. What was needed back in the 1990s, when Norquist and Park were creating these rules, may not needed or may not need to be as rigid. Something can look good in its place and not look like the building next to it. Give architects a chance to fill in the blank with something truly imaginative.

Unlike 25 years ago, the city is booming with development and no longer needs to play such strong defense, to so stoutly defend the ramparts of urbanism. The Third Ward would have been a perfect place for a landmark building that broke the rules. The fact that this is not possible — and was apparently never desired — seems a major issue for the future of Milwaukee.

Categories: In Public, Real Estate

16 thoughts on “In Public: The Problem Of Architecture Review Boards”

  1. judith moriarty says:

    YES TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. i LIVE IN A CONDO WHERE i DARED PUT A POLITICAL SIGN SUPPORTING Hillary. Inside my bedroom, but oh my god, where it could be seen from the street! So sayeth the rules the “Association” sets forth, but well, this is a street of Republicans, so how dare I not be one of them? Anyway, a rap on my door and a visit from the Association’s President followed. I was told, not asked, to remove the sign. Oh yeah, we get to choose a color approved by the Association when it comes time to paint the exterior. How many persons are on the ARB? And let’s see now, how does that work from the standpoint of their qualifications, Don’t we need a board to oversee the board? I have to tell you Tom, when I lived in the 1522 On The Lake building, there were unit owners who complained that the roses on the terrace didn’t match..Frankly, the Third Ward was much more interesting when wild artists lived there and had the nerve to put huge rubber “condoms” on those ugly ridiculous pylons…just saying.

  2. Virginia says:

    There’s another trend to watch out for: buildings that get approved with NO review process, as long as they conform to a code developed by New Urbanists. This has happened in Sarasota, Florida and Andres Duany, a founder of CNU, got it implemented. That basically cuts out the public or anyone but a planning manager checking off a list of qualifications.

    Keep in mind that one reason for boring, conformist-looking buildings (of any sort) is the desire to cut costs by a developer (and sometimes architect. Same for “little boxes on the hillside” or big boxes on the riverfront.

    Creativity does not happen only in the absence of guidelines.

  3. Dave Reid says:

    @Virginia There is nothing really new about the Sarasota example. Buildings can be built “by right” right here in Milwaukee, all you have to do is design a building that fits zoning (in areas without ARBs and such).

    PS Sarasota looks like a nice project to me.

    PSS I’d argue that one of the big mistakes of the Norquist’s years (I think this was D’Amato and Park if I understand my history right) was a massive down zoning of the city.

  4. Virginia says:

    @Dave, so do “by right’ design guidelines reinforce the author’s point or refute it (or neither)? I was not aware this is the policy in Milwaukee and the article says neither were Sarasota residents. (I was not debating the merits of the design.)

    Could you explain what’s meant by a massive down zoning of the city?

    BTW, the Brady Street and Third Ward ARB guidelines have not seemed to diminish economic development or kept people from wanting to live or visit those areas. Historic districts tend to increase property values, which is good for the tax base.

  5. PS…….. I don’t have the solution to the problem

  6. “BTW, the Brady Street and Third Ward ARB guidelines have not seemed to diminish economic development or kept people from wanting to live or visit those areas. Historic districts tend to increase property values, which is good for the tax base”.

    Because the property values have gone up in the Third Ward it does not follow they have gone up because of their Architectural Review Board. Historic districts are more likely to increase in value based on their location, the Third Ward being a case in point.

  7. Janet F Grau says:

    As always, Tom has some excellent points about the double-edged sword of regulatory capture and overreach. It’s good to do damage control, but we do it by creating a “box” or codifying architecture by (over)simplifying, sampling, and reducing. The whole creative process gets boiled down to a brittle sugar glaze at the bottom of the pot. In doing that, you do get rid of the outliers, but that is the worst and the best. Is there a solution? First, watch the overreach. Second, don’t have anybody on the ARB who can’t recognize art or architecture as art. Third. Don’t get too overly obsessed or fussy about guidelines. Take the guideline of base, middle and top–it might work if you were doing an infill building in Florence, and again, it might not work because Renaissance buildings were of their place and time, a creative response to an artistic and political realm. I happened to catch Frank Gehry’s “Fred and Ginger” last summer, or “the dancing building” as they call it in Prague, and am still amazed that they let that one go. They allowed it (or them) to turn the corner so very elegantly and so very well. They must have waived the rules. So we should do that. If it’s a building that aspires to be ordinary, then apply all of the rules. If it wants to be art, let it be art. Unfortunately, we’ve beaten architects up too many times and not that many aspire to the latter.

  8. judith moriarty says:

    Janet: These thoughts are great, but the problem is, each board member thinks they “recognize art” and are astute in their thinking. This will never be solved, as who is going to decide what is artful and what isn’t? Over the years I’ve watched this happen again and again. It starts with well intentioned institutions teaching our little kids what is art and what isn’t art. As for the Third Ward, why are they so boxed in by regulations, yet have some really atrocious exterior “art works.” I don’t get it. Who is watching that pot boil?

  9. And art may be too high a bar, or low for that matter.

    The public sculpture program is “art”, bad art which is worse than no art at all.

    And good or great art? It is at less half luck.

    Janet: I like your line about how beaten up the architects are by the process. Maybe all need to do is make it less like a parole hearing?

  10. Janet F Grau says:

    To stretch a metaphor–always risky–the whole concept of background buildings has always bothered me. It implies that districts are like the cast of a Broadway show. You have the stars, the supporting stars, and then there’s the chorus or the “background buildings.” The chorus still matters, but not as much. If we’re talking about buildings (it’s just a background building), it sounds like an excuse for ordinary or not trying too hard at doing architecture. Tom’s question as to whether ARB’s or design guidelines actually ensure or enshrine something like the lowest common denominator is a very good question. It would be, sticking with the metaphor, a show (district) of all background, no standouts, or a show with all chorus, no stars. Not what you want.It wouldn’t last long, right? If it were Broadway, there would be a crash, a big fail. Producers and directors who had a real financial interest in the production (The Producers notwithstanding) would be punished. But we have ceded that balancing act to a small group of “experts” who may or may not have the skill level to shepherd the production. Maybe we periodically need to take a step back and look at how we’re doing? There is no giant axe coming down (a swift cancellation) if the district falls short or doesn’t perform. That said, ARB’s do serve a purpose because they (love the ‘parole hearing’) do subject the project to scrutiny. It just needs to be the good kind, and a group of flawed critics needs to rise to the occasion. Therein lies the dilemma. I used to sit through exhaustive design crits with Peter Park that went on so long and so exhaustively that all of us– architects, owners, developers–were falling out of our chairs. This is what students put up with. But we gave him a pass…he was pretty good at it, and most projects improved.

  11. Mark Paschke says:

    Great points, Tom. We need to respect history and context, but new architecture shouldn’t require designers to wear a creative straight jacket. Beyond zoning and building codes, the architectural requirements are guidelines, not rules, and ARB’s need to use common sense when reviewing new projects. Thanks!

  12. Patricia Jursik says:

    The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for” comes to mind. The more developers look to public money (TID and even outright grants), the more you will have “Review Boards”. Public Money does and should come with public oversight. When Tax Incremental Districts first were introduced, they were a public/private solution to developing old rust belt communities. Thanks to our WOW communities controlling the seat of government (please do take it literally), TIDs are now used for virgin farm fields.

  13. judith moriarty says:

    okay folks, let’s turn to a great writer, Italo Calvino and his superb book “Invisible Cities.” thank you lord for not having a board to “oversee” his work. someone needs to post excerpts from the book..just a few here and there. or go to your public library and find the truth about cities and what they mean…judith

  14. Virginia Small says:

    Brady Street has an ARB and also an active neighbors group and BID. They all regularly duke it out and it remains one of Milwaukee’s most vibrant and diverse streets and neighborhoods.

    East North Avenue”s BID also has a review board but somehow that screaming-red ROSATIS sign (with not apostrophe) slipped by. It’s not art, just overwhelming in its sales pitch, clamoring to be part of Times Square instead of this landmark triangle. But the sign was within the regulations. So go figure.

  15. Janet F Grau says:

    I just want to thank everyone for being so polite. From Facebook,Twitter, Youtube, newspapers, I see people trash talking, hurling insults or just “hurling,” parroting talking points they don’t understand, making asses of themselves and not even doing that very well. I guess that last part is debatable. Maybe this is a topic where if you have a point of view, you’ve earned it. But again, thank you. Seriously.

  16. Tina - Brady St. Area Assoc. says:

    @Virginia – Brady Street is listed as a National and Local Historic District. Here’s a great map from Historic Milwaukee, Inc:

    Brady Street does not have a separate ARB (unless you mean HPC), nor is it included in the East Side ARB. The East Side Architectural Review District boundary is similar to the East Side BID boundary on North Avenue. See Exhibit A map of file #110693 on Legistar:|Text|Attachments|&Search=110693

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