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Design Commission losing half its members

Friday, August 1, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission said goodbye to four – and possibly five – commissioners at this week’s meeting due to the implementation of new board and commission rules.

Those commissioners represented a collective 48 years of service in the Austin boards and commission system. The departure is the culmination of a number of circumstances: the end of consensus appointments; the departure of two sitting Council members and, in most cases, the members they appointed; and a situation where a nine-member board is being pared down to seven members.

In the case of the Design Commission, those members will still be design professionals, although the guidelines now are broader and less prescriptive as to what kind of design professional they must be. A specific Council member now appoints each board member on the Design Commission.

Outgoing board members included Chair Girard Kinney, Perry Lorenz, Phil Reed, Joan Hyde and Calvin Chen. In a round robin of goodbyes at Monday night’s meeting, Richard Weiss joked that he would try to curb his sense of abandonment. Weiss will serve as interim chair of the commission until a new set of officers is appointed.

Lorenz, who has served 19 years on the Design Commission, probably was the most pragmatic about the change, offering a few words of thanks to his fellow board members. Lorenz, a downtown developer, often was the member that the professionals on the board turned to with the question, “Is this reasonable.” Or “Does this really work?”

Lorenz said the Design Commission, through its professionalism and work ethic, had earned the respect of Council and the community. That was one reason why the board had been so successful in its efforts to bring design standards forward.

“It’s important stuff that we’ve done, and it’s been incredibly successful, but we have miles to go,” said Lorenz, who then addressed two new commissioners in the audience. “Now that we do have credibility, we’re going to hand it over to you guys, and it will be your fault if things go wrong.”

Kinney, a local architect and president of Scenic Austin, said the Design Commission had been an important part of this life for the last 10 years, and in that time, the commission had made much progress on the design front.

“A lot of rewarding things have happened in those 10 years, and so I appreciate very much the support that I’ve had from the commission and the community and staff,” said Kinney, also expressing regret that a final version of the signage and way-finding project had not found its way to Council before Kinney left the commission.

Kinney noted, completely accurately, that the Design Commission was a different animal in the city’s board and commission system. The Design Commission was an independent board charged with rendering its professional opinion on projects.

“Politically it may not be a popular thing to say, but the Design Commission’s job is not to be popular. The Design Commission does not have the same responsibility to constituents that City Council members do. It does not need to worry about whether it’s going to be re-elected,” Kinney said. “It’s really, really important for the Design Commission to be concerning itself with the quality of life for the entire city without regard to a specific constituency.”

Architect Phil Reed, who joked that he had served a mere 10 years on the board, said it had been great working with members with such a high level of commitment. The Design Commission, Reed said, needs to continue to look at Austin from the biggest, broadest picture with the boldest point of view.

Chen, who served a year on the board and was appointed by former Council Member Jennifer Kim, was not at the meeting. Kinney praised Chen for his advocacy for the pure and inherent values of the principles of design.

Landscape architect Joan Hyde, who spent eight years on the commission, may be reappointed. Hyde called her service on the board hard work, but also a great gift.

“I think what’s unique about this experience – as opposed to others in my life – is just the free exchange of information we have,” Hyde said. “We don’t have a client or a family or a boss we’re trying to serve. We are here to do what we can for our community, and that’s just been a really neat thing, and I thank you all for it.”

Jeannie Wiginton, one of the commission’s newer members, said she was overwhelmed by the keen insight of the board members and what each brought to the city. Eleanor McKinney, a consensus appointment who is likely to be reappointed, said she would miss the outgoing members.

“When I’m at other committees or when I’m serving as a liaison, I’m always thinking, “Perry would say this. Girard would say that,” McKinney said. “I can hear your voices in my head. Those points of view – and that integrity that you’ve brought to this commission – have really been rewarding to me. I just want you to know that we are the Design Commission, and we have made a difference, and I want to thank you – all of you – for that.”

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