ZCC wants more time, new director

Commissioner Peter Kelsen and the Philadelphia zoning code

March 12

With less than four months left to rewrite Philadelphia’s 1962 zoning code, the Zoning Code Commission voted unanimously Wednesday morning to extend its own deadline – if it can get City Council’s blessing.

Under the original order, the commission is set to expire at end of June—a timeline some commission members said was ambitious at best. The group’s new goal: June 2010. Philadelphians voted to re-do the zoning code in a referendum last May. The Commission has met regularly since August, but critics say they’ve made little progress. 

 Wednesday morning, City Councilman-At-Large Bill Green, who is one of several council members on the ZCC, was among them. “We have nothing to report to the public, which is kind of embarrassing,” Green said.Peter Kelsen, chair of the commission’s workplan group, noted that a two-year extension would require a resolution from City Council. 

 He said the ZCC would ask council to give them more time, with the understanding that after one year the ZCC would update council on its progress. Kelsen also said it’s likely the ZCC would need more time after the requested two years is up, citing a similar zoning code rewrite in Chicago that took four years.

“This process, taking into account our sister cities, could easily take three to four years,” Kelsen said. “We’re recommending two years because we want to convey a sense of urgency and progress. We feel a four year request is too much right now. Two years keeps everybody’s focus on the ball.” 

The Commission did face some circumstances out of its control that seemed to hinder its progress.  Former Mayor John Street did not name his contingent of ZCC appointees until his last days in office, and then Nutter promptly replaced them.  And not only has the city change mayors since the ZCC started meeting, but former planning commission director and ZCC chairwoman Janice Woodcock stepped down at Nutter’s request after he took office.  Nutter brought in Andrew Altman as deputy mayor of planning and commerce.

The search is still on for Woodcock’s replacement. And the ZCC voted Wednesday to begin a search of its own – for an executive director. Nine commission member volunteers were appointed to the search committee: Al Taubenberger, Judith Eden, Eileen Evans, Emmanuel Kelly, Peter Kelsen, Richard DeMarco, Andrew Toy, Anne Papageorge and Eleanor Sharpe.

Assisted by Nutter’s office, they will conduct a search for an executive director and hope to hire someone by the end of April.

The ZCC has been relying on Planning Commission staffers, but Wednesday, there was some discussion of hiring staff. How big that staff would be is under discussion.  Gary Jastrzab, acting director of the city planning commission, suggested 2 to 5 as an informal guess, and others said that three was the standard number for similar cities.

A key portion of the intense work for which the ZCC was created may soon begin. The committee asked City Planning Commission staff to begin the process of finding qualified consultants to help rewrite the zoning code.

Kelsen said there is a very short list of consultants nationwide that have experience rewriting zoning codes for major urban centers, characterizing them as, “like a traveling circus” that moves from place to place as cities need their services.

Contact the reporter at jddavidson9@gmail.com

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