Outreach for new Zoning Code is on deck

ZCC member Peter Kelsen

Oct. 9

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly
Consultants hired by the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission on Wednesday morning laid out a plan for the next six months to engage the general public, along with frequent users of the code, with outreach meetings in each of the city’s 10 councilmatic districts. They will follow a large general meeting, to include Mayor Michael Nutter, scheduled for Nov. 12 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center to explain the multi-year process of reforming the outdated code.

“We want to set the stage then,” said Don Elliott, senior consultant for Denver-based Clarion Associates, one of the firms hired by the city for the rezoning effort. “But we can start code-user outreach right now – there’s no reason to wait till November 12th.”

On the back end of the meetings, it is important to keep the door open for later input, he said, with online surveys and other means. “We will get a lot of good information from the people who fail to engage” in the initial stages, Elliott said.

In the meantime, Zoning Code commissioners would help matters greatly by explaining to developers, homeowners and others that “this is not a planning process,” Elliott stressed. “You don’t [have a] vision about a zoning code. … It would not be the most effective feedback, and we need to educate the public about the difference between planning and zoning.”

Elliott said he was speaking from experience that it’s better to talk with neighbors and constituents about the rules and processes of zoning in order to steer conversations away from “the map.” The goal, while not the sexiest topic being bandied about municipal corridors, is nonetheless clear, he said – to “revise, streamline and update” Philadelphia’s antiquated and labyrinthine zoning.

Elliott, the energetic, self-described “quarterback”” of the zoning code overhaul, speaks rapidly, clearly and very often in verbal bullet points. He decisively laid out step-by-step guidelines and timelines, along with responsibilities expected of his fellow consultants, the Zoning Code commissioners and members of City Council.

Councilman Frank DiCicco and several commissioners asked for specifics about releasing meeting dates (they should be announced all at the same time, DiCicco said) and in keeping community groups, stakeholders and the media focused on each phase of the overhaul.

Frances Burns, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses & Inspections and a ZCC member, wondered about the long-term timeframe. “I want to get a sense of the tangible, concrete approach, as to what kind of change we can see along the way,” she said. Burns was concerned the entire process could stretch beyond six years, but Elliott replied that he estimated it would take three to four years to get the job done.

“It’s inherently controversial” whenever you talk about changing the rules,” Elliott explained. He predicted that after the initial announced district meetings, “I guarantee you there will be requests for more meetings.” The key is to keep a disciplined, progressive process on track.

“Our experience is you get better feedback the further down the process you go,” he said. “The door is never closed, but if you don’t keep momentum, you will die in the tar pit. Please send that message – it’s never too late, but we need to keep going.”

To kick off the outreach effort with a meeting aimed at drawing 150 or more people is already more than what most cities do, he added. “If you get 150 to 200 people at that November 12th meeting, you’ll be in the top 10 percent of cities as far as generating interest in zoning matters.”

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible,” said Natalia Olson de Savyckyj, a Zoning Code and City Planning commissioner and a transportation planner at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. She told her fellow commissioners that minority communities and others not necessarily involved in this kind of process in the past are being asked to engage. “We are actually going to be asking for a lot of help, so I hope we can all count on each other.”

Zoning czar still not hired
Commissioner Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, gave the group an update from the hiring committee, charged with serving up candidates for the ZCC executive director position that remains open. Eight people were interviewed, Taubenberger reported, and four were recommended to Mayor Nutter for interviews.

Because of the city’s emergency budget meetings and other time constraints on the mayor’s time, Taubenberger said the interviews were delayed. “At this point … we look forward to having that in the next couple of days,” he said. “If necessary we’ll have an additional meeting” to announce the mayor’s choice.

Contact the reporter at tom@thomasjwalsh.info.

Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission web site: http://www.zoningmatters.org/

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