Recently Matthew Hamilton attended his first Design Review Committee meeting, representing TEDxBirmingham. He presented plans for the organization’s upcoming community art project, Before I Die…, which is to be sited in a commercial revitalization district. Because of that, Hamilton’s project had to be approved by the Design Review Committee before it could go any further through the city’s approval and permitting process.
Hamilton’s project was the second item of the agenda at that morning’s meeting. Staff pulled up a photograph of the site as Hamilton handed out printed packets. Then he began a brief introduction to the TEDxBirmingham organization, a description of the project and Candy Chang, the artist behind Before I Die…
After Hamilton finished, the committee opened general discussion. Members voiced both support and concerns for the project, from having permission from the building’s owner and who will monitor the project to how the project will be preserved. Hamilton explained that the building was recently purchased and the new owner has plans to begin renovation in October, giving the organization the time and approval to use the structure for two months. Then he described the plans for volunteers to patrol and photograph the project.
Upon approval, the committee members expressed their excitement for the project. Many also provided suggestions on who to speak with at CAPS and Railroad Park so both organizations knew what to expect from the project, especially since Railroad Park is across the street from the site.
Like Hamilton, many Birmingham residents who own a building within one of the city’s many historic or commercial revitalization districts need to know about Design Review, the committee charged with making sure that exterior additions and improvements to buildings within these districts meet municipal requirements.
Established in 1980 through the city zoning ordinance, the Design Review Committee interprets how well a proposed change or addition fits within the established guidelines for aesthetics in the city.
The committee meets every second and fourth Wednesday (with the exception of December holiday season) at 7:30 a.m. in the Auburn University Urban Studio, located on the third floor of the historic Young & Vann Building on First Avenue North.
Members of the committee consist of working architects, designers, building tradespeople and landscape architects, and all members must be residents of Birmingham. However, there are also at-large seats. Employees of the Birmingham Planning Department also sit on the committee.
A typical meeting features an agenda covering anything from three to 14 items, many of them signage requests. But people coming before the committee also bring requests regarding residential and commercial exterior renovations, temporary art projects and landscaping.
Attorney Samuel Frazier has served on the Design Review Committee for 33 years, including chairing the Committee since 1980. Frazier sees the Committee’s role as administering the permitting process in the city’s Commercial Revitalization and Historic Districts.
Often mischaracterized as a “star chamber,” Frazier says that the committee members do have the best interest of the city’s built environment in mind. They consider the impacts of signage and renovation projects on not only the physical environment, but also on the livability and sense of place of an area, he notes.
For example, a proposal to install a parking lot and driveway within a popular pedestrian thoroughfare was recently rejected by the committee. Although the project would have added parking for building tenants, the discussion revealed a number of negative impacts to people using the sidewalk along First Avenue North. The DRC voted against the parking lot, and in favor of retaining and protecting the pedestrian feel of the block.
Another major topic during many Design Review meetings is signage. There are rules regarding the content of signs, i.e. no phone numbers, and the size of signs as a percentage of the frontage of the business. The committee considers these rules as well as the aesthetics of signage, often making recommendations on how to make signs fit better with buildings and neighborhoods.
The committee was also stewarding the city’s image when Harbert Realty presented a proposal for the sign atop the 2020 Building downtown. Grandfathered in as it existed prior to the signage ordinance, the realty company wanted to envelop the structure in pre-printed vinyl while waiting to eventually install LED technology in place of the current system.
Committee members and citizens expressed concern with the proposed designs, which made the sign look more like a billboard. Many alternatives were discussed during multiple meetings, including a committee member’s request to make a sign cover that celebrated the long, historic relationship between the Birmingham and Buffalo Rock. However, all presented designs resembled modern advertising and included slogans. The committee routinely rejected the proposals to avoid setting a precedent for allowing temporary advertising on building rooftops.
In addition, the committee works with multi-tenant building owners to develop signage master plans. These master plans serve a number of purposes, from ensuring future signage meets Design Review and zoning requirements to presenting a cohesive exterior feel for the building.
As Frazier explained, cities like Birmingham need design review committees “to act as a spur and protector of economic development. We were all told by our fourth grade teachers that the limit of our freedom is when we harm another. The same applies to property. Zoning is based on that principle, but so is what we do.”
Rebecca Dobrinski began attending Design Review Committee meetings for the defunct Magic City Post in summer 2012. Her recaps of the meetings now appear regularly at The Terminal, bhamterminal.com.