Zoning reform underway in Philadelphia

Aug. 3

By Kellie Patrick
For PlanPhilly
The panel of architects, community activists, attorneys and zoning experts charged with fixing Philadelphia’s zoning code will first investigate just how it’s broken.

The Zoning Code Commission met for the first time Friday – well, most of them did. Mayor John Street has yet to make his five appointments to the group, which will decide what Philadelphia looks like in the future by crafting the rules that designate what can be built in each part of the city.

The code is old – there hasn’t been a complete overhaul since 1962. And in many areas, the buildings that exist or are under construction bare little resemblance to what the code in place for that area calls for, said Commission Chairwoman Janice Woodcock, who is also the director of the city’s planning commission.

Jonathan Barnett, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a combination pep-talk and cautionary tale to the Commission and told a little story that illustrated Woodcock’s point.

“Across the street from where we live, there is a luncheonette that the owner wants to be a bar,” he said. The neighbors don’t want that to happen, and are opposed to the zoning variance needed to make it so.

But the wannabe bar wouldn’t need a variance if it were located where the residents live. Based on the zoning designation C-4, “They could do it in any one of our living rooms,” he said.

Another key element of the investigation will be determining what the Philadelphia community wants – both what residents, business people, developers and others think should change, and what they think should be protected.

 “We should get as much community input and dialogue as possible,” said Commissioner Peter Kelsen, an attorney with Blank Rome LLP.

To that end, the Commission decided that every meeting (there will be two per month) should include some time for community input. A website that is under construction will also allow people who cannot attend the meetings to make comments and ask questions. For now, people can send email to zoning@philaplanning.org.

After getting a handle on the shape and size of the problems with the current zoning code, the work of fixing it will begin in earnest.

The Commission decided to start that work in the more stably developed neighborhoods where not much change is happening or projected to happen – places where, Woodcock said, people need assurance that buildings they love will be protected.

The zoning in these portions of the city will need only to be tweaked, making it an easier place to start, Woodcock said, than areas where much development and change is happening or predicted to occur.

Some areas may need to be completely reclassified – for example, abandoned industrial areas could become commercial or residential.

The Commission will need lots of information to pinpoint and understand the intricacies of, and trade-offs in, such areas, Woodcock said, and they can work on smaller changes in the more stable areas while the staff collects it.

The original law, based on the referendum voters approved to create the Commission, gives the committee one year to rewrite the code.

But it took a similar group in Chicago four years.

And City Councilman Brian O’Neill predicted it would take much more time in Philadelphia, where the government structure gives more power to council members and therefore allows them to act more “independently.”

Said Barnett: “You were all told you were going to be here for a year. That’s a remarkably optimistic statement. If you do, the paths to Philadelphia will be worn down by people coming to see how you did it.”

As optimistic as the law is, Woodcock said, there is a safety valve: An extension can be granted with the approval of City Council.

The group is also working on its mission statement – and heard the strong suggestion of architect Stephen Anderson, who came to watch the proceedings.

“If you are making decisions and in the back of your mind it is fixed that zoning reform is about streamlining development, you will look at things differently than if it is about improving the quality of life for the residents of this city,” Anderson said.

After some discussion, commission members decided to start with the wording in the law that created the group, but amend it as necessary at their next meeting.

When Barnett warned the group of some potential trouble spots along their new journey, he said the trouble comes mostly because people feel passionately about both what gets built where and the value of their property – and zoning holds much sway over both.

For that reason, the commissioners can expect no shortage of public comment, he said.

“This is your opportunity to hear every local controversy that might occur in the next 25 years right in the next year,” he said.

Zoning Code Commission Appointees

1) Janice Woodcock, Executive Director City Planning Commission. – Appointed by Legislation.

2) David Auspitz, Chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustments. – Appointed by Legislation.

3) Robert Solvibile Sr., Commissioner Licenses & Inspections. – Appointed by Legislation.

4) John Binswanger, Chairman Binswanger & Co. – Appointed by Mark Schweiker, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. (Denise Early – Alternate).

5) Delilah Winder, Executive Director African American Chamber of Commerce. – Appointed by African American Chamber of Commerce. (Luther Weaver – Alternate).

6) Narasimha (Nick) Shenoy, Executive Director Asian American Chamber of Commerce. – Appointed by Asian American Chamber of Commerce.  (Julie Wong – Alternate).

7) Varsovia Fernandez, Executive Director Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. – Appointed by Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. (Guillermo Salas Jr. – Alternate).

8) Al Taubenberger, Chairman Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. – Appointed by Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. (No alternate appointed at this point).

9) Councilman Frank DiCicco, City Councilman District 1. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

10) Councilman Darrell Clarke, City Councilman District 5. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

11) Councilman Brian O’Neill, City Councilman District 10. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

12) John Westrum, CEO Westrum Development Co. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

13) Emanuel Kelly, Principal Kelly Maiello Architects. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

14) Eleanore Sharpe, Associate Director University of Pennsylvania Center for Community Partnerships. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

15) Guy Pigliacelli, Council Representative Local 1050 Carpenters & Joiners. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

16) Ann Hoskins-Brown, Director of Development MANNA. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

17) Richard DeMarco, Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers. – Appointed by Anna Verna.

18) Greg Pastore, Bella Vista Town Watch. – Appointed By Frank DiCicco.

19) Darwin Beauvais, Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers. – Appointed by Jannie Blackwell.

20) MeLinda DeNofa, President Molly Construction Co. – Appointed by Carol Campbell.

21) Peter Kelsen, Blank Rome LLP. – Appointed by Joan Krajewski.

22) Anne Papageorge, University of Pennsylvania. – Appointed by Daniel Savage.

23) Wendella Fox, U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. – Appointed by Donna Reed Miller.

24) Marion Johnson, Legislative Aide to Councilwoman Marian Tasco. – Appointed by Marian Tasco.

25) Michael Leithead, Senior Deputy Executive Director Philadelphia Housing Authority. – Appointed by Brian O’Neill.

26) Andrew Toy, Enterprise Center. – Appointed by Darrell Clarke.

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