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Design Review

Design Review Guidelines

Download a current copy of the 1996 Design Review Guidelines and the 2018 Addendum (Objective Design Standards for Multi-Family Residential).


The Process

Download the Design Review Procedures: A Step by Step Guide (PDF), including graphics.



A. Purpose of Design Review

The focus of Design Review is to enhance the community character and create an individual identity for Walnut Creek. The Design Review process is intended to promote quality architectural design, site planning, and landscape development. The process is aimed at improving and augmenting other development controls included in the Walnut Creek Planning and Building Ordinances. The process seeks to promote diversity and creativity in the development of building structures, site relationships and other aesthetic considerations. Further, the process specifically seeks to preserve property values throughout the community.

B. Legal Authority

Most California communities have enacted regulations providing for design review of development including architectural standards and site planning controls. The purpose of these controls is to assure that the appearance of developments will be compatible and harmonious with the use and enjoyment of surrounding properties. The validity of the design review process has been consistently upheld by reviewing courts as an appropriate local government function.

C. Local Ordinance Authority

The City of Walnut Creek has adopted the 1989 General Plan and the Design Review Ordinance (Title 10 Chapter 4 of the Municipal Code). These documents provide policy guidance for the orderly development of structures and site planning within the city. The "City Design" sub-element of the General Plan provides specific policies for design review within the City of Walnut Creek.

The Design Review Ordinance sets forth the specific requirements for projects submitted for Design Review approval. This ordinance outlines the intent, purpose and powers of Design Review Commission, together with general information on filing and submittal criteria. This ordinance requires Design Review approval prior to any building or site development permit issued by the City of Walnut Creek.


A. Design Review Commission

The Design Review Commission is composed of five members appointed for three-year terms on a staggered basis. The composition of the Commission includes three registered architects or registered landscape architects and two residents at large. The three registered architects or registered landscape architects and two residents at-large. The three registered design professionals need not be residents of the City. The Commission generally meets on the first and third Wednesday of each month.

B. Staff Review

The Design Review Commission, through the adoption of Resolutions, has delegated authority for design review of some small projects to the planning staff. The coordinating staff planner will assume the primary role for reviewing and approving these small design review applicants. Some items that may be approved at the staff level include, but are not necessarily limited to:

1) Custom single-family homes when:

a) There are no unique or specapial conditions to the site, and
b) There is no known or potential for neighborhood controversy, and
c) Prepared by an Architect licensed by the State of California,

2) Projects or additions 500 square feet or less in size which complement and enhance the existing buildings on-site.
3) Storefront remodels having only a minor effect on the existing building (e.g. changing a door, expanding a window, paint change, etc.)
4) Awning s when in conformance with the adopted awning guidelines.
5) Minor revisions to approved landscaping plans when if or equivalent or superior quality to original plan.
6) Addition of outdoor decks which do not eliminate parking or landscaping.

Consult the planning division to clarify whether your item may be processed by staff.


This information pertains primarily to larger scale projects. Some of the requirements may not apply for small projects or single-family homes. Consult with the Planning Division to clarify whether your project should conform with the procedures and submittal requirements provided below.

A. Staff Supported Procedures

1. Preliminary information gathering

Early in the consideration of a potential project, the applicant should carefully review and obtain copies of the specific zoning regulations and the General Plan criteria for the desired project location. It is imperative that the proposed project is consistent with both Zoning and General Plan regulations. Information regarding the Zoning and General Plan can be obtained at the Planning Division Counter.

The applicant is also encouraged to research the site history and obtain aerial photographs from the City. Information regarding past applications on any property is available either through the Planning Division or Building Division which may provide valuable information.

Technical information regarding drainage, grading requirements and frontage improvements can be obtained through the Engineering Division. Direct contact with local utilities and special agencies (e.g., PG&E, Consolidated Fire District, Department of Fish & Game, Flood Control, etc.) should be conducted early in the project consideration regarding specific requirements.

Special site planning consideration must be given to sites containing creek ways, drainage ways, significant trees or sites affected by nearby traffic and circulation problems. If there are threes on the site, they should be carefully inventoried, accurately located and be given special consideration in the initial stages of the project. Information regarding trees is specifically contained in the Walnut Creek Tree Ordinance available from the Planning Division and Parks Superintendent. Generally, trees may not be removed in the City unless the requirements of the Tree Ordinance are met.

It is strongly recommended that the applicant submit a preliminary proposal to the planning staff prior to submission of the formal application. This will allow the planning and engineering staff to review the request and provide input to the applicant prior to a formal submittal. Initially, the applicant may file a preliminary application with the Development Review Team (see below).

Finally, all applicants are urged to contact the immediate neighbors with information of a proposed project.

2. Preliminary Review Team Meeting (Optional)

Preliminary review by the Walnut Creek Preliminary Review Team (PRT) is not compulsory and may be used solely at the applicant's option. The Preliminary Review Team consists of representatives from the Planning Division, Engineering Division, Traffic Division, Code Enforcement Division and Public Safety representatives. The Preliminary Review Team meets weekly to discuss preliminary projects prior to an actual submittal. The Preliminary Review Team is not a substitute for formal staff review, however, it will focus on specific environmental concerns, zoning constraints and engineering deficiencies that may relate to traffic, site planning, landscaping, building design criteria, etc.

Applicants wishing to receive responses from the Preliminary Review Team should submit:

a) A one-page written description of the project;
b) A preliminary site plan drawn to scale; and,
c) Preliminary building elevations.

To file a Preliminary Review Team request simply contact the Duty Planner and submit your preliminary plans. Following the Team meeting, applicants will be contacted regarding the items discussed. Follow-up items can be discussed individually with the Planning, Engineering or Transportation Divisions. If there are outstanding design issues that cannot be resolved, the applicant may wish to file for a Workshop Session before the Design Review Commission. (see Workshop below.)

3. Submit Application

Once the applicant has compiled a "completed application," it should be submitted to the permit counter of the Community and Economic Development Department. The applicant should follow the check list included with the submittal requirements and attached to the application form. The check list is intended to be comprehensive. Smaller projects, such as single-family homes, not needed to conform to all of the submittal requirements. The Duty Planner will briefly review the submittal to make sure required information is provided. However, it is the responsibility of the applicant to ensure that all necessary submittal requirements are provided. Incomplete, inaccurate and unorganized submittals cannot be processed and will result in significant delays. A submitted application must include:

a) Completed checklist
b) A Statement of Understanding acknowledging the fee requirements,
c) A completed application form signed by the applicant and property owner
d) The requisite number of folded plans
e) A one-page written description of the project, including profile data summary
f) A one-page written description of the design concept

Applications are accepted any day of the week but are recorded for bookkeeping purposes on Friday of each week.

4. Project Assigned to Staff Planner

After the project is filed at the counter, the Planning Manager briefly reviews the submittal and assigns the project to a staff planner. Project assignments are made weekly. The staff planner assigned the project will be your primary contact and staff liaison regarding your project through the Design Review process.

5. Project Referral to Reviewing Agencies

Once the project is assigned to the staff planner, a cursory review of the project is performed to determine those outside agencies and City divisions necessary to provide input into the project. These internal divisions include the Transportation, Engineering, Park Superintendent, and Code Enforcement Divisions. Outside agencies may include the Flood Control District, the Department of Fish and Game, Fire District, Sanitary District, Air Quality Control Board, Regional Water Quality Control Board, adjacent cities and public utilities.

The City typically provides each agency with two weeks to respond to the plans and written description of the project as submitted by the applicant. Each agency is also requested to send copies of the responses directly to the applicant. In some instances, outside agencies do not respond within the requested two-week period. Failure of an agency to respond, however, is not an implied approval of the project as proposed. While the planning staff liaison will endeavor to ensure a timely reply on your project, the applicant assumes the burden of attaining requirements from the various outside agencies.

6. 30-Day Notice of Application Status

Thirty calendar days after the initial submittal date, the staff planner assigned to your project will provide you with Notice of Application Status. That notification shall indicate whether your application is complete for processing or whether additional information is required on the application for clarification. Those comments actually received from outside reviewing agencies will be included in a "Notice of Application Status." The applicant may wish to discuss any items contained in the Notice of Application Status with the staff planner.

7. Environmental Determination

Virtually all Design Review requests are required to have an environmental assessment to determine if the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report is necessary. Information on the timing and sequence of the environmental process is contained in the city brochure entitled "Applicant's Guide to Procedures for Environmental Review." During the initial 30-day review of your project, staff will determine whether specific environmental reports are necessary to support the City's environmental determination. These reports may include traffic studies, noise studies, soils reports, visual impact analysis and other documentation necessary to arrive at an informed environmental determination under the terms of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). An environmental determination can result in one of the following three decisions:

(a) Project Exempt - Project exempt means that the project is small enough to be considered exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act. These exemptions are not arbitrary. The exemptions are set forth specifically in the California Environmental Quality Act.

(b) Negative Declaration - A Negative Declaration is usually a brief statement issued by the City of Walnut Creek which indicates the project will not have a "significant effect" on the environment and therefore does not require the preparation of an EIR. Negative Declarations customarily include supporting documentation that the City used to determine that no significant effect would result from the project. Negative Declarations often include mitigations measures that must be incorporated into the project. The Negative Declaration is required to be posted for 21 days to allow interested parties, residents or property owners to appeal the City's determination.

(c) Environmental Impact Report - An EIR is a detailed report describing and analyzing the significant effects of the project. The EIR must include alternatives to the project and ways to mitigate identified significant effects. Depending upon the complexity of the project and the significant environmental effects analyzed, preparation of an EIR can be a lengthy process. An Environmental Impact Report requires a 45- to 60-day public review and comment. Following the public comment period, the agency is required to respond to all correspondence received on the EIR and conduct additional studies as necessary.

8. Project Scheduling

The Planning Department will not reserve a space on a future Design Review Commission agenda until plans have been submitted and determined acceptable for Commission review. Formal considerations before the Design Review Commission can be tentatively scheduled after the initial 30-day review period and a determination of environmental status. Scheduling depends on several factors:

a) Outstanding design issues have been resolved
b) The applicant has re-submitted required plan revisions
c) The number of other projects pending Design Review scheduling

Projects are customarily scheduled at least once before the Design Review Commission at a Preliminary Review Session following the initial set of plan revisions and during the environmental determination stage. The preliminary review is intended to provide initial feedback on-site planning, architectural, and landscape issues.

B. Design Review Commission Hearings

1. Preliminary Review

A preliminary review before the Design Review Commission is intended to allow applicants to discuss project concepts before the plans are fully developed. Preliminary review is usually scheduled during the environmental determination phase of the process. This allows for concurrent processing of your design review submittal and environmental review.

Preliminary Review serves to familiarize the Commission with a project before the formal public hearing is scheduled. Generally, only the Planning Staff, Design Review Commission and Project Applicant participate in Preliminary Review, although any interested party may comment on the proposal. A submittal for a preliminary review must be reasonably well developed and presented so that the Commission is clearly informed as to:

1) Design Intent and Concept,
2) Site Planning and Circulation Relationships,
3) Indication of Landscape Elements,
4) Impact on adjacent land, and

5) Architectural Plans.

Generally, submittals conforming to the application checklist requirements are suitable for study session review. Site photos should be available at the meeting.

It is not unusual for complex projects to appear at several preliminary review sessions prior to scheduling for Final Design Review. It is advisable to resolve outstanding design issues at the informal preliminary review session rather than the Public Hearing at the time of Final Design Review.

2. Workshop Session

Workshop sessions before the Design Review Commission are intended to be short, focused sessions for applicant clarification on one or two specific design issues. A workshop is intended to clarify issues before the applicant incurs major expenses developing final plans. A workshop can occur any time in the process, even before an actual submittal is made. A fee to cover city expenses of a workshop session may be collected.

3. Input Session

Projects that are "permitted" by the Zoning Ordinance and conform to the General Plan typically need only Design Review approval prior to a building permit application. On all projects requiring review and approval by the Planning Commission, a prior Input Session before the Design Review Commission is required. These types of projects include Use Permits, Subdivisions and Planned Developments. Those areas that the DRC provides input include:

Site Plan

  • Concept
  • Compatibility with surroundings
  • Vehicular Circulation and Access
  • Pedestrian Circulation and Access
  • Landscaping and Grading
  • Public Spaces
  • Solar Orientation
  • Noise Orientation



  • Concept
  • Compatibility with Surrounding
  • Compatibility of use with Design
  • Height
  • Mass
  • Style
  • Internal Relationships


4. Final Design Review

Almost all development projects in Walnut Creek require Final Design Review approval at a Formal Public Hearing by the Design Review Commission. Final Design Review Approval is required prior to filing for a Building or Site Development Permit. Final approval is typically the last forum for formal public consideration of a development project. Final Design Review considerations will likely include a Public Hearing where interested persons may testify in support or in opposition to your project. A public Hearing is required if:

a) No other public hearing on the item was conducted by the Planning Commission and/or City Council,
b) At prior public hearings opposition was expressed by persons concerned about design related issues,
c) The project is in or adjacent to residential areas.
d) The project is likely to be controversial because of design related issues of significant public concern.

Final approval of your project requires that environmental documentation be completed and that all outside agencies and internal city divisions have completed their analyses of your project. Plans and exhibits submitted for final design review approval must be thorough, and reflect significant detail.

Applicants should closely review the staff report and "Proposed Resolution" prepared for the Commission regarding the proposed project. The final resolution as adopted by the Commission, together with the submitted plans and exhibits are the official Design Review approval documents. Any subsequent modifications of Building Permit plans that do not adhere to the Final Design Review Commission approval are invalid. No modifications to Final Design Review Plans, Exhibits and adopted Resolution are permitted unless specifically requested in writing and granted by the Commission.

5. Consent Calendar

Items scheduled on the consent calendar are considered routine by the Design Review Commission. Several items are acted upon simultaneously by the same motion at the beginning of each meeting. No testimony by the applicant, staff or general public is accepted on consent items unless requested and removed from the consent calendar by the Chairperson for independent consideration.

Items that may be placed on the commission's consent calendar include small projects, and items that have been previously reviewed by the commission requiring only minimal revision.

6. Commission Actions

The Design Review Commission is an independent body with discretionary powers provided within the standards of the General Plan and Municipal Code. As such any action taken by the Commission is final unless appealed to the City Council. A request for final approval by the Design Review Commission may result in various actions:

a) Approve

After the project is considered and the resolution adopted by the Commission, there is a 10 calendar day appeal from the time the Resolution is officially mailed.

b) Conditionally Approve

In approving a project, the Commission may impose conditions of approval not shown on the submitted exhibits. Those conditions of approval must be incorporated into the plans submitted for Building or Site Development Permit. In some instances the commission may approve a project but require specific components to return for approval at a future meeting (e.g. revised landscape plan on consent calendar).

c) Outline

If there are outstanding issues at the conclusion of a hearing, the commission may continue the item to a future meeting with the consent of the applicant. Typically, if the item is continued, plan revisions are required.

d) Deny

If the commission can not find that the project is appropriate and in the best interest of the community, or if the applicant will not agree to a continuance to resolve outstanding design issues, the DRC is obligated to deny the project. Projects denied may not be re-filed until 6 months after the commission action. However, a project denied "without prejudice to re-file" may be re-filed at any time and need not wait for the 6 month re-filing period.

7. Appeals to City Council

Any action taken by the Design Review Commission may be appealed to the City Council. A completed appeal form must be filed within 10 calendar days from the time the adopted Design Review Resolution is officially mailed. An appeal may be filed by the applicant regarding a project denial or condition of approval. An appeal may also be filed by any person living or owning property within the city who objects to a project approval. A member of the City Council may also call any item up for review by the full City Council. Because of the volume of issues acted on by the City Council, scheduling an appeal hearing can take several months.


The following submittal requirements constitute a comprehensive list for design review. This list is intended for large complex projects. Smaller projects, such as single family homes, need only submit those items designated with an asterisk (*). This identical list is contained along with your design review application entitled "Application Checklist". You should review each item below to ensure your plans include the following components. Consult with the Duty Planner to determine if your project should conform to all of the requirements listed below. If required submittals are not completed it will result in significant delays to your project. Your application may not be accepted, routed for comments or scheduled for hearing unless all required items are contained in your submittal.

A.* Application Form (signed by applicant and property owner)
B.* Application Checklist
C.* Filing Fee

1. Flat Fee, or
2. Deposit (billed on an hourly basis)

D.* Statement of Understanding Regarding Fee Structure
E.* Vicinity Area Map (include scale and north arrow)
F.* Site Photographs
G.* Written Description

1.* Project Description and Profile Data Summary (1 Page maximum)
2. Design and Architectural Concept (1 Page maximum.

H.* Plans 14 sets (drawn to scale and submitted on 11" x 17" minimum to 30" x 42" medium sized sheets)

1. Site Plans

a)* Proposed Site Plan (drawn to the center line of adjacent streets and to all adjacent structures)
b) Site Boundary and Topographical Survey including public and private easements.
c)* Existing Structures and Proposed Structures and Uses
d)* Existing Natural Features (e.g. creeks, drainage swales, rock outcroppings, etc.
e)* Trees (accurately plotted showing the trunk location and the actual spread of the drip line. Must include type, size, and whether they will be removed or retained) Note: an Arborist report and tree appraisal may be required for tree removal.

f)* Proposed Building Footprint dimensioned to property lines. Include proposed uses.

g) Parking spaces including handicapped stalls showing aisle and space dimensions
h) Landscaped Areas
i) Circulation (vehicular & pedestrian) including surface and posted directional signs
j) Contiguous off-site features (sidewalks, driveways, buildings, street furniture, traffic signs, traffic signals, etc.)
k) Location of light fixtures, fences, trash areas, recycling areas, etc.
l) Loading and Unloading areas
m)* Conceptual grading and drainage showing existing and proposed drainage patterns and retaining walls including height and material.
n) Existing and proposed Right-of-Way alignment
o)* Existing and proposed fence locations p) Site Lighting Plan including light fixtures and stanchions and area of illumination.

2. Architectural Drawings (scaled and dimensioned both vertically and horizontally)

1)* Materials, details and features (include visible roof equipment, plumbing and electrical meter locations and method of concealment, downspouts, lighting fixtures, etc.
2)* Heights scaled and identified. Topography must be accurately represented with building heights measured at any and all points from existing or finished grade, whichever is lower.
3)* All sides of the building with compass reference settings.
4) A minimum of one representative colored elevation.

Note: Elevations should not include superimposed landscaping and trees that hide the elevations for artistic purposes.

b)* Roof plan (include proposed mechanical equipment and screen)
c)* Floor Plans (include handicapped access)

3. Preliminary Landscape Plans drawn to 1" =20' scale or larger, indicating accurate growth in three-year period.

a) Plant legend showing plan list and indicating type, size, and spacing of plants, shrubs, trees, ground cover.
b) Planting Plan indicating location and types of plants used.
c) Trees to remain or proposed for removal including species, trunk size, and drip line.
d) Preservation information for trees in construction zone.
e) Hardscape features including walkways, driveways, paving material, special paving treatment, etc.
f) Schematic Irrigation Plans
g) Light stanchions, bollards, transformers, etc.
h) Trash area and landscape screening.
i) Utility transformer locations

Note: All landscaping must conform to the Walnut Creek Water Conservation Guidelines.

4. Sign Plans (including individual submittals and Sign Programs)

a) Site plan referencing all sign locations
b) Table indicating total site signage square footage, sign message and sign type
c) Signs shown as proposed on the architectural elevations d) One colored elevation
e) Actual sign copy
f) Sign details, scaled and dimensioned, showing: * color * material * cabinet details * sign returns * illumination method, type and level * method of attachment
g) Site directional signs keyed to site plan

Note: Sign applications not associated with a new development project must also comply with these submittal requirements.

I. Color and Material Palette (two upon project approval) submitted on 11" x 17" foam core board. Paint chips and individual material samples shall be no smaller than 3" x 5."

J. Optional Requirements: The following optional items need not be submitted at the time of an initial application filing. They may be requested by the staff planner or the commission at a study session to clarify issues. The applicant may also elect to prepare any of the following:

1. Perspective Drawings
2. Conceptual Model
3. Color Rendering
4. Sectional Drawings
5. Shade Diagram


Projects are generally processed on a first come, first serve basis. The length of time necessary to process a Design Review application varies. Timing is never guaranteed at the initial phases of an application submittal. Only a few weeks may be required for small, staff delegated projects, and many months may be required for complex projects requiring an Environmental Impact Report. Much depends on the quality of the application, timely responses from outside agencies and the diligence of the applicant. The staff planner can provide a tentative time estimate after an initial review of the project.


There are no guarantees that a project will be approved by the Commission. However, the following tips should help.

A. Review Site History

1. Know your project site. Document all the physical characteristics. Note unusual features. 2. Ask for Micro-fiche records of files for any applications that were previously filed on your site. 3. Ask for any prior Building Permit Records. 4. Ask to review Aerial Photos of your site.

B. Comply with all Zoning Requirements

1. Obtain copies and review the Zoning Ordinance and provisions that pertain to the site. The cost of an entire ordinance is extremely reasonable. 2. Don't rely solely on oral information at the counter. Ask for copies of the specific code provisions and ask for clarification for those items not understood. 3. The Zoning Ordinance is The Law. It is not advisory. You must comply with all development standards.

C. Review General Plan Provisions which apply to your site

1. Obtain copies and review General Plan provisions that pertain to the site. 2. Specifically examine the FAR Map, the Height Map, the Setback Map, the Land Use Descriptions and the Design Review Sub-element. Again, don't rely solely on summarized oral information obtained at the counter.

D. Use Quality Design Professionals

The single most important aspect of your project is the professionals who represent you. Architects, Landscape Architects, Engineers and Sign Consultants are trained and practice in the development field. The quality of the plans and project presentation reflect on the applicant and the quality of the application.

E. Respect the Character of the Area

"A proposed development does not stop at the property lines." A multi-story granite and reflective glass office building next to a Victorian Mansion creates a sharp contrast in character. Large buildings with no setback can screen the sunlight light and street exposure to a smaller neighboring structure with gracious setbacks. The project designer should examine and give thoughtful consideration to the life of the building and its contribution to the community over the years.

F. Public Contact

1. Obtain a copy of the mailing list - All public hearings include notification to neighbors within 300' of your project site. You can use this mailing list to provide your own correspondence.

2. Meet with Neighbors - Meet with neighboring property owners and tenants to discuss your proposal early in the process or prior to filing an application. Although they may not agree to portions of your project they will generally respect your efforts to keep them informed.

3. Follow up with outside agencies - Ask to be on the mailing list for all correspondence relating to your project. When plans are referred to outside agencies, follow-up by making direct contact with those agencies to find out the status of your project review.