The Price of Protest

It was a shame to loose Keith Rivera as an Architectural Board of Review (ABR) member. Those who know him know that he is a kind, knowledgeable, intelligent, articulate, and talented design professional. He was also a very capable and otherwise even-handed board member – certainly one of the best currently on the board. His letter of resignation due to the Chick-fil-A controversy makes clear he had no intention of delaying or blocking the project approval. Rather, abstaining for Keith was a way of temporarily removing himself from the ABR decision-making process rather than potentially influencing it. In point of fact, despite what the initial News-Press headlines proclaimed, the project was not blocked or even delayed for a moment. Any project applicant, upon approval of a Consent Calendar review, can immediately take the project to the Building Department counter for plan-check submittal. Applicants do not have to wait for the ratifying of the minutes (which follows two weeks later) by the full board.

Nonetheless, these facts do not alter the fundamental issue which has come to the forefront. Under what circumstances should the applicant’s politics or public history be allowed to influence the review of the applicant’s project? As respected veterans of the process such as architect Bill Mahan and others stated, if we make “the applicant” the subject of review rather the “the project,” it seriously unravels and degrades the integrity of the design-review process.

As City Attorney Steve Wiley pointed out in his legal memorandum to all city board and commission members; it not only subjects the process to “disrepute” but opens the city to potential lawsuits. The ABR is a volunteer, unpaid board whose job is to impartially review mass, bulk and scale, aesthetics, and neighborhood impact as it relates to architectural design and planning. This process is controversial enough already, as even the most seasoned architects can disagree as to what constitutes an acceptable design solution.

In addition, it is part of a government process in a city which welcomes those of all beliefs, political affiliations, and lifestyle choices. The ABR vote should never be construed as being a moral “yay” or “nay” in regards to the applicant. The ABR, Historic Landmark Committee, Single Family Design Board, and Planning Commission members should all be entrenched guardians of every citizen’s right to an unbiased and impartial review of the architectural and planning components of their project as outlined in the Design Guidelines and Municipal Code. If, for whatever reason, they are not capable of pledging themselves to this commitment on behalf of the community, then they should not be in a decision-making position in regards to architectural review.

Keith’s resignation is a learning experience for us all. Even abstaining from a vote in this review process makes a statement. If a board or Commission member is compelled by personal convictions or bias to alter his or her vote or even to abstain from voting based on what he or she knows (or think she knows) about the applicant, then they must accept the consequences of that choice. In opposition to the institution of slavery and an unjust war, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax. As a result, he was briefly jailed. When Emerson came to visit him, “Henry,” Emerson said, “Why are you in jail?” To which Thoreau famously replied, “Ralph, why are you not in jail?” Heroes and activists of recent history such as Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi insisted that activism based on matters of conscience or personal conviction should not seek to avoid the consequences that resulted. –


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