A Community by Design

About two weeks ago I started addressing some of the concerns I’ve heard about this blog and some of the efforts of its contributors. In one post I talked about how nonofficial venues are not threats but complements to the formal work of the civic association and its committees. In another post I addressed the misconception that advocates for stricter enforcement of the Guidelines are die-hard preservationists who want to freeze the neighborhood as it was fifty years ago. To the contrary, we think the guidelines, not individuals’ own particular views, should be the standard. Now I take up two other concerns I heard early on — that we value design over community and that we somehow are denigrating the work of volunteers.

In a reply a while back to a post, one person wrote that she moved here for the community, not the design. Yet so many of the elements of the design are just what makes this communtiy so open, and all of us a bit vulnerable. We can’t hole up behind eight-foot fences. The borrowed vistas, the open floor plans, the walls of glass keep us connected to each other. This design isn’t for everyone. Let those who love their colonials live in them. Those who like openness, simplicity, and connections to nature do well here, and I think they find themselves in the company of others of a similar bent. So, I think, many of us may have found our way here because we loved the houses, but then found out once we were here that the design created one of the most incredible communities in the country.

Of course, design isn’t an abstract notion. Davenport, Goodman, Kiley, and all laid out the physical design. Generations of Hollin Hillers have created and volunteered in the organizations that preserve and enhance it. What other place supports two swim clubs, lots of cultural clubs, parks committees, websites, design review, and ongoing committees to review by-laws, guidelines, etc.? The best way to honor generations of this kind of service and commitment to the community is to continue to serve and honor those institutions and traditions. To advocate for the design review process, for openness and transparency, is to honor generations of such volunteer work.

Notes from an observer at the June 6, 2007 DRC meeting

by Paige Conner Totaro

There were six proposals on the agenda for the June 6, 2007, meeting of the Design Review Committee. But because three of the sessions were closed to observers, I was only able to observe three sessions plus the status review of other issues before the Committee.

After discussion with some other meeting observers, I’m experimenting with a new way to report on DRC meetings. We want to talk more about the issues that arise in the meetings than we do about specific home projects. I would love to hear your responses to these changes.

At the June 6 DRC meeting, these are the some of the issues that arose.

Several issues were brought to the forefront with a neighbor’s proposal to replace a shed with a prefabricated one, as well as a brief discussion of another neighbor’s construction of a shed without prior approval from the DRC.

First, I think it’s important for the community to know that with a very few minor adjustments, a prefab shed from the mega home improvement store might be approved by the DRC. The DRC can look at a prefab shed and suggest several design changes, such as removing trim from around the door to make the door flush, painting it the same color as the house, and making sure that any windows are in conformity. This will vary from shed to shed, so people should always consult with the DRC before installing one.

Several of the issues brought before the DRC involved construction that began without DRC approval. This is a tough situation for the DRC and for the neighborhood as a whole. How should neighbors address this problem when it arises? How should the DRC address this? A non-conforming shed can appear overnight. What should happen next? The DRC noted that temporary structures are often given more leeway than permanent ones. But what if a structure is technically “temporary” — say that it doesn’t have a foundation — but likely to remain in place for a decade or so?

What if the construction in question goes far beyond the import of a shed and involves new construction on three or four sides of a house visible to neighbors and the street? How far can or should the DRC and civic association go in halting such construction and pressing the homeowner to go through the DRC process ? We do all buy our Hollin Hills homes subject to design covenants.

A couple of other issues came up at the meeting, and I do not by any means want to imply any any fault on the part of the current DRC members, because these issues involve more procedural questions that have likely been in place for years. I’ll be sending my comments to the SDRC, too, so they can possibly consider them as they work on their report.

First, there’s a question of how clear the DRC’s decision might be to the applicant. In one session I observed, the committee discussed at length how a proposal for replacing a shed could be done in a way that would make the replacement more in harmony and conformity; these included details such as using T1-11 board, making the trim around a door flush, and painting the shed all one color. At the end the Committee approved the replacement, pending neighbor notification. My question, as an observer, was this: had they approved the replacement only if the requested changes were made? Or did the homeowner just need to make her best effort to make those changes if possible? Should there perhaps be a written approval notice given to the homeowner to clarify exactly what has been approved? This language could then also be used in the neighbor notification, and could also be noted in the DRC’s spreadsheet (see below). I wasn’t able to ask the question at the meeting because the next group had arrived for their closed session, but I hope the homeowner had a clearer idea than I did of what had been approved .

Second is a question about DRC recordkeeping. At the meeting, I saw (from afar and without seeing any detail) a large spreadsheet of cases pending with and decided by the DRC. The DRC Chair noted that he had given administrative approval to a few things between meetings, and that those things did not need to be noted on the spreadsheet. So this brought to mind a few questions: first — what is administrative approval and when and by whom can it be granted? Second — why not note it in the spreadsheet? I am all for institutional memory, especially in volunteer decision-making groups, to ensure consistency in decision-making, and to strengthen the DRC’s case in certain situations. (E.g. “we’ve declined approval for these types of gutters x number of times, so we can’t approve them now unless there’s been a change in their design” or “we’ve approved this type of prefab shed x number of times so we can grant administrative approval if the same changes are made and the location is okay.”)

Last is the issue of closed sessions. Personally, I can understand and appreciate the desire for homeowners to have closed sessions early in the process, but I think the earlier the meetings can be opened to the neighborhood, the better. How the DRC interprets the Guidelines in any given case has consequences for all of us, especially in so far as any given decision becomes a precedent for decisions down the road. For this reason, I think, especially for cases of first impression (new technologies, new materials, new design issues) or cases of major renovations, the community should be invited to comment to the DRC before the DRC makes its final decisions.

I must say that I enjoy attending DRC meetings, and I am always impressed with the work that the DRC members do. They have great respect for the homeowners who come before them and they clearly put a lot of time into these volunteer positions. I may come away with a lot of questions, but I always learn something when I attend.

(Editor’s note: The DRC’s report of the June 6 meeting has just been posted and can be found at http://www.hollinhills.org/drc/drcReport.php?period=062007  )

Die-Hard Preservationists?

This week I’ve been trying to allay concerns in the community that have circulated during the past year. In my previous post I talked about how nonofficial venues are not threats but complements to the formal work of the civic association and its committees. Here I want to address the misconception that advocates for stricter enforcement of the Guidelines are die-hard preservationists who want to freeze the neighborhood as it was fifty years ago. Here’s my take on this.

After we’d lived here a short while, I figured I understood Hollin Hills — as a certain kind of modernism, a particular slice of time, that moment shortly after the steel and concrete of the Bauhaus melted into the organic forms of Neutra, Schindler, and, yes, Goodman. Then on the Fourth of July two summers ago, Mary Normile invited Kelly Valceanu and me to come visit her house around the corner from the picnic. We hiked over and walked up to the second floor of her split level and I was astonished. Here was this Carribean paradise, complete with a side room full of exotic birds chirping, open cabinets revealing rustic dishes, windows that looked out on to lushness. Mary’s house had the soul of Jamaica and it was firmly planted in Hollin Hills. That’s when I realized these houses could do so many different and unexpected things. …. The Damitz’s perfect square house that now evokes Frank Lloyd Wright… The Cox’s house with a potter’s spirit, with every space a tableau of special objects. … The Cohen’s house with its icons of high modern design… The Carr’s house full of colorful contemporary art… The Polo’s house with a wall of glass in the back looking out on to an incredible vista.

But what ties these houses together are the elements, a certain proportion in the windows, a particular kind of siding, rescued brick, a rhythm of elements and proportions that repeat from one house to the other. And of course there’s the landscaping that makes Hollin Hills so utterly different from most any neighborhood anywhere else. I’ve meditated on these elements on many long morning walks.

What makes Hollin Hills Hollin Hills? Not fixed notions of 1950s modernism, but the elements of the design itself, elements that are extremely well put in the Design Review Guidelines and the little landscaping book published by the Civic Association in 1989, A House in the Woods: A Landscape Aesthetic for Hollin Hills written by Dennis Carmichael. While only the former are enforceable, both can be recommended as aesthetic, community ideals. My hope is that those are the design ideals that guide this neighborhood into the future.

Subversives?

In my last post I promised to address some of the concerns I’ve heard about this blog and the efforts of some of its contributors, including what we used to call the House in the Woods Club. I mentioned these criticisms: (1) that we are subverting the usual committees and structures of the community; (2) that we are die-hard preservationists who can’t tolerate design innovation; (3) that we value design over community and neighborliness; (4) that we are denigrating the good work of volunteers; and (5) that none of this is any of our business, things were wonderful before we showed up, and now we are tearing apart the community.

Here I take up the first one, that we are supposedly subverting the usual committees and structures of the community.  Note that no one is trying to delegitimize those bodies or take over their functions. Perhaps critics are worried that having additional venues for discussing neighborhood matters somehow undermines the official venues. But how does having extra spaces for discussing issues undermine the process? Can’t it be seen as a complement, not a threat, to neighborhood commonweal?

I hope we can get over the sense that there has to be antagonism between “unofficial” public expression, no matter how contentious and lively, and the official venues. In fact some who have been involved in these other discussions are also past or present members of these committees. Those of us who are raising these issues are strong supporters of the processes that have been established over the years. We’d just like them to be more open and consistent.

Unofficial spaces for public discussion are not threats to official processes — they can be vital complements to them. In informal spaces — like the open forum e-mail list, the 4th of July picnic, on morning walks, in comments to this blog — we can take up and think through the community’s business, which is, after all, all of our business. There will be disagreements, but these can be very productive if we discuss things civilly. In these informal spaces we start to get a sense of what we collectivley think about issues. These informal spaces help to create public will; they don’t make policy. Formal bodies are for making formal decisions. There’s a lot to think through, and a lot to do. And there’s plenty of room for all of us.

One Year In

I started this blog a year ago with the rather naïve idea that this could be a space for informal, public discussion of some of the issues facing the Hollin Hills community, a space that would supplement the formal work of the civic association bodies. My idea of “informal” public deliberation was informed by many years of research into nongovernmental public deliberation, the idea being that it is not just elected governmental bodies that decide “what should be” in a community but the citizenry itself in its ongoing mullings and deliberations over matters of common concern. I tried to find free software that would allow for multiple and manifold ownership of the website. But I didn’t find any. So I tried to set up the site as a site generically owned by the informal group calling itself the House in the Woods Club. But still, ultimately, only one person could “own” the blog, even though I wanted everyone interested to feel ownership in it. Hence, I listed the byline as Hollin Hills. Later, when it was clear that it was mostly me putting things up, even if authored by other people, I switched the tag line to my own name.

I didn’t intend this site to be an experiment. But it has been one, and not an altogether successful one. The main reason for this is that the issues discussed here — involving our homes, our community, our sense of what is beautiful — touch a lot of nerves. And it’s all too easy to blog or comment when unnerved. So things can be said too forcefully, or unthinkingly. I made some mistakes along these lines – though infinitely less than others have done in recent comments to the site. (I am thinking of Rick Ward’s and David Shultz’s recent, incredibly uncivil comments, which I decided not to delete simply because they stand in testimony of how not to behave in public.) It’s best to discuss difficult things in person, when we see the face of the person being questioned or interrogated. The face of the other person is a great sobering and civilizing factor. One-on-one communication is infinitely better than electronic communication. Civility reigns in person much more than online. Yet the benefit of online communication is that it allows for much wider communication; more of us can meet online than we can in person at specified times and places. To the extent that we can engage in discussing touchy issues in an unprickly way, online communication is a plus. But when it gets touchy and personal, it’s high time to step back. That’s what I’ve learned. Never blog when perturbed.

I’ve been checking in with people to see whether this site is worth continuing, including people who don’t share all my views on things. I am still unsure what is best. Many think it’s worthwhile to have a forum where different issues can be considered and points of view can be expressed. This is a nice counter to all the criticisms I’ve heard over the past year. The criticisms, which I think are all serious misunderstandings, are these: (1) that we are subverting the usual committees and structures of the community; (2) that we are die-hard preservationists who can’t tolerate design innovation; (3) that we value design over community and neighborliness; (4) that we are denigrating the good work of volunteers; and (5) that none of this is any of our business, things were wonderful before we showed up, and now we are tearing apart the community.

In the days ahead, I am going to address these misunderstandings one by one. So please check back in. In the meantime, I continue to welcome lively and vigorous debate on the issues. (And be sure to come to the civic association and SDRC meetings June 14.) I may (or may not) continue to accept uncivil posts to the website, which, again, testify to how not to behave. But please don’t be mean-spirited about my gardening or I don’t know what I’ll do. There’s only so much a gal can take.

your neighbor,
Noelle

Open Meetings & the SDRC Questionnaire

One of the items on the agenda for the civic association meeting this coming Tuesday night is an update on the Special Design Review Committee survey. If you filled out the survey, you may recall some questions about whether Design Review Committee meetings should be open to observers. As it turns out, this isn’t an academic question. For the past three DRC meetings, some applicants have requested and been granted closed sessions with the DRC. Except for immediate neighbors and the DRC, no one else is able to learn about proposed additions and renovations of these houses. This is so despite the fact that the covenants state that they can be enforced by “any other person or persons owning any real property situated in said development or subdivision.” (See the first paragraph of the Covenants.) If any other persons owning real property can enforce the covenants (not that things should ever come to that!) then certainly the authors of the covenants figured that they should be able to know what is going on. But with closed sessions, that’s not happening. Moreover, with closed sessions, the DRC only gets input from immediate neighbors, though the covenants indicate that all real property owners in the subdivision have standing in the process. The more closed sessions there are, the less information there is available for the community as a whole and the DRC itself.

When my husband and I along with some other people in the neighborhood started observing the DRC meetings last year, one set of applicants requested a closed session and the DRC complied. For many months thereafter, all sessions were open to the public. But then a few months ago an applicant again requested a closed session. The board weighed in and said that the DRC needed, because of that one earlier “precedent,” to let a session be closed when requested. Most sessions are still open, but one architect in particular is requesting that all her sessions be closed. One board member told me that this would be the protocol until the SDRC process of reviewing and revising the guidelines was completed.

Part of that SDRC process is the questionnaire we were all asked to complete this past winter. For anyone outside the SDRC and the board, this was the first time the wording was open to the public. The following is the wording of the first question pertaining to whether DRC meetings should be open:

22. Should any Hollin Hills resident be allowed to attend the monthly Design Review Committee meetings to voice opinions about the additions and renovations being discussed at that meeting?

The wording for this question is unfortunate, to say the least. It presumes that people want to attend meetings to voice their opinions rather than simply observe. There should have been a question asking whether observers could attend the monthly meeting, period. I and others who have observed the sessions go there to observe, not to voice our opinions. If we do speak up at all, it is between sessions and only to ask questions. We have never intervened, or even conspicuously coughed, when the DRC is considering a proposal. That would be completely inappropriate. It is only after the DRC has made its decision and the applicant has left that we might ever say, why did you decide this rather than that?

I have heard informally that, even with this wording, the majority of respondents answered “yes.” That’s pretty amazing, and if it’s true. it’s surely a testament that this community wants an open process for design review.

There were two other questions on the matter. Question 23 was whether applicants can request a private, preliminary session with the DRC. That seems perfectly reasonable and I have heard that most respondensts thought so too.

Question 24 asked whether an applicant with a proposal on the agenda could ask to have his or her session of the DRC meeting closed. I have heard that this question got a majority approval, seemingly contradicting the majority’s view on question 22. People want meetings open and they want the chance to close them. How can that be? Maybe this strange contradiction arises because the group of questions sets up a false choice: either there will be observers meddling with the process or there will be no observers at all. This would not have been the case had question number 22 simply asked whether observers could be present at meetings.

So, on Tuesday, if some people start to claim that the questionnaire results mean that the majority of the neighborhood wants to allow closed sessions, keep this in mind: Since the simple question of whether people should be allowed simply to observe meetings was never put to the neighborhood, we don’t really know what the neighborhood thinks. Let’s try to have some time to think through the right question in the right terms.

Loving Hollin Hills

 

The other day a canvasser for the Sierra Club came by the house as I was unloading all kinds of kid gear from the car. He was polite and didn’t want to bother me while I was busy, but he did ask, “What do all these blue and white stickers on the car bumpers here mean? Will I get ticketed if I don’t have one?”

“No,” I said. “We’ll just know that you’re not quite as cool as everyone who lives here. This is a very special place.” I couldn’t even begin to explain it.

Look, I know this blog, as a kind of “watch dog,” has raised some hackles. But it has been in the service of something I dearly love: this neighborhood. And, no, not just the houses, but the community.

I love going on early morning walks in the spring and seeing what’s blooming. I love that I can call the friends I’ve met here in a pinch and they will pick up my kids at the bus stop. I love the Hollin Hills pool — and I liked the other one the one time I went. I like that we care so deeply about this place that we sometimes get very strong feelings about each other (compared to the last place I lived where no one seemed to care about anything beyond their 1.1 acre). I love these houses. I love these yards. I love the people who’ve been here for many decades and seem sprier than me. I love all the kids and the ways they inch up in years and still befriend the younger ones. I love the gutters and the ivy that can grow all the way to the road because there are so few sidewalks.

What do you love? Please add, repeat, whatever, but feel free to reply….