The Design Advisory Panel’s role in City decision making

Before I report on the Thursday Design Advisory Panel (DAP) meeting at which the revised Port Place Mall redevelopment plans were reviewed, some impressions of the advisory committee system itself.

The DAP is made up of volunteers appointed by Council and as its Terms of Reference explains they are chosen from the fields of architecture (2), design, and landscape architecture, in addition to a City Heritage Commission representative and 3 at-large members.

There is a lot of talent sitting around this table. These are volunteers offering their expertise to help the Planning Department work with developers and to evaluate and advise on projects that require development permits. The Panel meets on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month and meetings can last 3 hours or more.

I’ve had the impression for some time that the advisory committee system isn’t operating as it was originally intended. I wonder – and will try to get both City officials and members of these committees to tell me if I’m off base here – if what was to be a useful addition to the decision making process hasn’t deteriorated into something co-opted and even exploited by City Hall. Certainly when a project comes to Council it isn’t said that the advisory committee reviewed it and had comments, it’s said the committee approved the proposal. And this – it’s my contention – has been used to move forward projects that City Staff and Council were in favour of while shifting the responsibility for the decision to the advisory committee. I don’t see in the DAP’s Terms of Reference for instance that it is called on to approve applications but to provide advice:

In this context, these Terms of Reference identify a mandate for the Design Advisory Panel. The mandate is an invitation to the City’s design community to become involved in moulding on-going developments to meet the unique urban design environment of Nanaimo. The Design Advisory Panel’s primary objective is to review Form and Character Development Permit applications and provide advice by way of recommendations to staff in its negotiations with applicants.

An example of this is in Mayor Ruttan’s response to my request to consult architect D’Ambrosio on the Port Place Mall redevelopment plans.

The review of these applications has been underway for a considerable amount of time, with one application currently approved and all been considered by the City’s Design Panel on several occasions. I have been advised that both Staff and the Design Panel are recommending that Council approve the developments as proposed.

More to come on the details of the meeting itself which had in addition to the Port Place Mall application, 4 other items on the agenda.

Frank Murphy

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