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Markham design review panel - making it permanent

April 4, 2018
By Rob Jowett

Markham Urban Design Review Panel is to become a permanent fixture of city planning after a two-year pilot project.

"The panel is an advisory group of professionals in the design field who are very [much] respected members within the industry," says Markham city architect Ronji Borooah. "They consist of architects, landscape architects, urban designers, and engineers."

The eight-person panel was created to help architects and developers improve building and site designs during the application review phase. February 26, Markham council approved the establishment of a permanent design review panel after the pilot project ended.

"The main reason to have a design review panel is to help [city] staff in dealing with complex, high-rise, and high density projects in Markham," says Borooah.

The panel focusses on two parts of the city, which are designated as key development areas: Markham Centre, and around Yonge Street and Highway 7. Complex, high density, high-rise projects are the typical in applications in these areas. Borooah says staff will now consider adding more areas to the panel's mandate, such as a larger portion of Highway 7 and the Woodbine corridor.

"We review these projects from a variety of perspectives including urban design, landscape design, architecture, and also… the infrastructure aspects of these projects in terms of how they're serviced,  how parking works, things of that nature," says panel member and Urban Strategies partner Michel Trocme.

"It really is a very useful form of peer review and criticism," says Trocme. He says that the panel review is much like design 'crits' that architects experience in school, and while the process can be stressful it is a very valuable tool for developers.

"These are pretty collegial discussions," says Borooah. "It helps a lot to just have a nice, clean, simple design discussion, without confrontation, without any pressure." He says the design community has responded positively to the panel.

"We are supporters of design review panels as a firm," says Quadrangle Architects principal Sheldon Levitt, who also serves on the City of Vaughan's design review panel. He went through the Markham design review process for a large, multibuilding development in the city's downtown.

"It's actually a bit more intimate in Markham than what I've been used to in Vaughan or the City of Toronto," he says. He adds that the reduced formality works well for the city since the panel is still so new.

He also says the design review process was helpful for their development. "It really gave us pause to reconsider some of what we were doing and I think really strengthened and made the project that much better."

Levitt says he personally is a supporter of the design review process because of the effect it can have in new and growing urban centres like Markham and Vaughan. The panels have allowed communities such as Vaughan to find a community voice and make better choices when it comes to building design, he notes.

"There's one-storey warehouses; beside it there are 50-storey buildings going up," he says. "And so it might not directly affect an individual project but I think over time it raises the level of discourse about these buildings and about the community. … And so in many cases it's very good for the designers, the clients, and the city to hear another and completely independent opinion."

When an application for a building is submitted it goes through a few different review processes at the same time- re-zoning and official plan amendments, as well as site plan approval—and Markham staff make recommendations to the panel as to where improvements can be made.

"This is seen very much as a collaborative effort," says Trocme, "[It] is about really providing that critical feedback to peers in the design community."

"Many municipalities in Ontario have permanent design review panels," says Borooah. "We are not the first, and certainly not the last municipality to go through this process of instituting a design review panel system."

He says that other panels throughout Ontario have influenced Markham's design review process.

"It's really a way for the consultants - for the architects and planners and landscape architects in the community to give back to the cities, to give back to their communities, to give back to their profession," says Borooah.