No cuts for planning, zoning

Nov. 08

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Staff and funding for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Philadelphia Historical Commission will not be affected by the Nutter administration’s major budget cuts announced last week, according to Andrew Altman, deputy mayor for planning and commerce.

“We just felt that over the years, those departments have already been gutted enough,” Altman said.

Altman spoke with PlanPhilly on Saturday morning, before he moderated a panel of international city managers dealing with municipal planning “after the age of oil.” That’s the theme of a three-day urban design symposium that started Thursday at the University of Pennsylvania, “Re-imagining Cities,” sponsored by the Penn Institute for Urban Research, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Penn School of Design.

He added that hiring for at least some open positions in planning, zoning and historical departments would proceed. That includes an executive director for the Zoning Code Commission, a decision that had been delayed by the intensive budget discussions during the past month or more. The majority of open positions in other city departments have been frozen as part of the emergency realignment, along with hundreds of layoffs.

“In all honesty, with the new demands put on the Planning Commission staff, we’ve given them a lot more responsibility, so to then cut staff would have been devastating,” said Natalia Olson de Savyckyj, a transportation planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission who sits on both the planning and zoning commissions. “I was very, very worried about that.”

Part of the added pressure could be whole new processes for development review and design, review, Olson de Savyckyj said. “That would add two whole new levels to their workload.”

Olson de Savyckyj and her fellow planning and zoning commissioners, groups of professionals from related fields, city officials, neighborhood activists and others, are not paid.

Philadelphia’s budget woes have been remarked upon numerous times at the Penn “After Oil” conference. It is the freshest example of the challenge facing planners grappling with funding issues as bridges, roads and water and sewer systems slowly crumble. Nutter’s decision to leave the city’s Planning Commission alone impressed several of Saturday’s speakers and attendees.

“It’s extraordinary,” said Eugenie Birch, chair and professor of Penn’s Department of City and Regional Planning. “It shows the real commitment on the part of the mayor, that he takes this seriously.”

Birch’s comment was reflective of an undercurrent at the conference, one of preaching to the choir. Effective communication of the urgent need to update aging infrastructure, the importance of long-term sustainable plans and an awareness of the coming “post-oil” world is a common problem, attendees said. All too often, they have been “invisible” issues that are among the first big-budget items to be axed in situations similar to what Philadelphia and other cities are experiencing now. Compared to fire stations or libraries, green energy plans, for instance, have no immediate lobby. Cutting zoning projects would not likely result in pickets at City Hall.

The Zoning Code Commission, which is tackling the expensive, multi-year effort to re-write the city’s outdated zoning code with the help of several outside consulting companies and subcontractors, was told that the top job would be filled months ago. Recently, it was advised that a decision on which of several finalists – to be interviewed by Nutter personally – would be put off until citywide cuts were finalized.

Olson de Savyckyj said that four finalists are in the running for the executive director position, and there will be no announcement to be made on Wednesday night (Nov. 12), when the commission kicks off its series of public outreach events at City Hall’s council chambers (look for coverage that evening or the next morning from PlanPhilly). Nutter will speak at the meeting, scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

That planning and zoning were spared the fiscal belt-tightening is not a big surprise. Mayor Michael Nutter declared on several occasions during his first 10 months in office that a revitalized Planning Commission – one with teeth that would once again make Philadelphia’s the “preeminent” planning department in the United States – was among his top priorities.

Part of that involved the hiring of Altman, elevating his position to cabinet level and merging planning with the Commerce Department. In fact, Altman’s paycheck will likely be the only cutback the Planning Commission will face – after taking a voluntary reduction of 10 percent of his $186,044 salary, Nutter asked his cabinet members to take 5 percent pay cuts.

Thursday’s announcement said the reductions in city spending are the result of a five-year, $1 billion budget gap. City Council has no legal recourse to challenge Nutter’s budget changes, but it must approve other measures, such tax cut rollbacks and increases in municipal fees.

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