Design review? “Not so fast”

Jan. 27

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Philadelphia neighborhood civic organizations and developers, acting independently of one another, contend that the Philadelphia City Planning Commission is not giving them enough time to review the details of the proposed Design Review Committee for new projects, and both camps – for different reasons – question the need for such a committee at all.

Interested parties have until Feb. 9 to submit comments and questions, but the draft recommendations to establish the committee were sent out only last week, on Jan. 19. Neighborhood groups were taken aback, though, because some emails said the deadline was as soon as Jan. 31.

As of Monday afternoon, Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger said he had not heard directly from anyone yet. “If I start to hear that there’s a desire to have a little more discussion, I’d be willing to consider extending the deadline,” Greenberger said. “Not indefinitely, because people’s favorite stall technique is to say they need more time.”

The Design Review Committee would be a seven-member panel made up of design professionals of different disciplines and reporting directly to the Planning Commission. The reviews, which the commission says happen anyway in a “disorganized” and irregular fashion throughout the city, are “intended to be a public forum where developers and citizens can discuss projects before they are subject to regulatory action and where principles of design excellence, especially with regard to impact on the public realm, are articulated.”

Planning Commissioner and Zoning Code Commission Vice Chair Natalia Olson de Savyckyj agreed that feedback is more important than immediacy.

So that problem seems to be taken care of. Others will no doubt linger.

A lot of questions
Developments to be reviewed by the Design Review Committee will be any project “in need of zoning variance or City Council-sponsored ordinance change and that is over 100,000 gross square feet of development or 25 or more residential units,” the document says. “Projects in these use categories that are smaller than the limits above, but that exceed existing zoning limits for density, height or setbacks by 200 percent or more, will also be reviewed.”

“Rather than criticize, I just want to ask a lot of questions,” said Craig Schelter, one of Greenberger’s predecessors at the commission, but also a longtime development executive, familiar with most of the city’s players on both the public and private sides of the field. Specifically, Schelter wants to know what happens with non-Planning Commission master plans completed by community groups such as the Center City Residents Association and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, or by PennPraxis for the waterfront. He’s wary of what his fellow developers fear will be another bureaucratic step in the official planning and zoning processes. And he wants clarification on “as-of-right” projects, saying the language of the draft recommendations is unclear.

“Given the current economic environment, what problems are they wishing to stem?” Schelter said. “What disasters are they trying to avoid? If the markets were going crazy and there was lots of money around to develop, and people were trying to throw up slip-shod kinds of stuff, maybe I could see it. But right now … it sends a terrible message.”

“I think this is the perfect time to do it,” responded Greenberger. “When everything is going gangbusters, the development community might say, ‘We don’t want a design review process to get in the way – we just came through a recession, let’s get stuff done and not hold any of it up.’ You can play this any which way you want. This is the perfect time to be thinking about this, to implement something before the economy heats up again, and to prove its worth.”

Getting ‘of-right’ right
Any development proposal that requires no zoning or ordinance change is considered an “as-of-right” project. According to the draft recommendations, the public may request that the committee review these, but it would only take place with the consent of the developer (and the approvals of the committee chair and Greenberger). Any ensuing report for an “of-right” project would be “advisory” only, to the developer and the community.

“If everything is as-of-right, then there’s no point in having a conversation, and it’s in those conversations where you get the building blocks of good relationships between developers and neighbors,” said Rob Stuart, president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), one of the more active community groups in the city, and one with plenty of members who are architectural or design professionals.

“The way I read this is that it would kick in only on very large projects, assuming revision of the zoning code which would eliminate a lot of zoning variances,” Stuart said. “There would be no requirement for design and development review at the neighborhood level. Neighbors would only find out after [the process] had begun. That’s not the way to get a project off on the right foot.”

Said Greenberger: “If the concern is that, with the code re-write, there are fewer things that need variances or ordinance changes, and therefore major projects might slip through, I’m concerned about that as well. That’s why, ultimately, I think that design review has to move in the direction of being able to review projects that are significant, but still of-right. But that’s going to require regulatory changes that are beyond what we’re currently proposing.”

Olson, who is often sympathetic to the concerns of neighborhood groups at Planning Commission meetings, stressed that the Design Review Committee would provide needed structure for less sophisticated civic associations, allowing them to know what they should be doing, and what they should be talking to the developer about.

Both developers and neighborhood groups would know that there would be a set timeframe for consensus, and a set number of meetings to get it done, she added. “This kind of gives them a place to start off from. As we go along, we’ll shape it and maybe change it. Nothing is perfect. I’m just happy that there’s something there.”

Schelter is concerned about the as-of-right stipulations as well, but for other reasons. There are tons of details for, say, an office building that will not be known when a developer goes through his initial design phase, he said. “To have that come before you get Planning Commission or Zoning Board of Adjustment approval seems to me to be out of phase. In fact, this is what I thought the Planning Commission was doing with their new process of ‘information only’ presentations [by developers at commission meetings, started in 2008]. Why would you want to take this subject to another group that would then submit a report to the Planning Commission? That I don’t get.”

“Major projects deserve a more in-depth and thorough public airing than we probably can give them in one information-only presentation to the commission,” Greenberger said. “The commission’s got a lot of business to do. … The ability to do that kind of in-depth discussion about design is very difficult.” Even the commission’s fulltime staff, talented as it is in overall planning expertise, is not necessarily trained in design, he said. Major projects should be “handled by a group that truly understands design, whose business is design.”

Regarding the as-of-right matter, unless the law is changed to require a design review of projects with that status, the Planning Commission has no authority to force it, Greenberger said.

Center City’s tallest building, the Comcast Center, was an as-of-right project – it required no zoning variances, no height exceptions, no special permissions and no City Council-sponsored ordinance change. Obviously, it is well in excess of 100,000 square feet of space. According to the draft recommendations, it would not need a design review. Even if planned in a different style from its current handsome glass façade – say, as a towering slab of concrete with clashing streaks of paint – it would theoretically still go forward, Greenberger said.

In such an extreme scenario, of course, the public hue-and-cry could produce changes via lawsuits or by activists chained to bulldozers, and Greenberger said his reaction in such a case would be to clamor for a law change. “It’s not to say we don’t have a long-term interest in major projects coming before Design Review even if they are of-right. I just don’t have a way to do it at the moment.”

Scale & proportion
One way might be to scale down the threshold limits for projects to be reviewed, from 100,000 square feet, suggest colleagues of Stuart’s at LSNA. They cite Seattle’s specifications for mandatory design review: only 4,000 square feet in neighborhood settings; 20,000 square feet for “downtown mixed-use areas” (such as the Logan Square-Parkway area); and 50,000 square feet for downtown office buildings. Members of the LSNA worry that Philadelphia’s proposal would mean there would be no design review for most new neighborhood developments, that it would be limited to high-profile projects like the American Commerce Center.

Greenberger said he’s not ruling out that kind customization. “If the conversation is about size, what we might look at long-term is whether areas of the city have their own versions of this that live at the next level down, of project dimension. There is a practical reality to larger projects having impacts beyond their proportional size increase.”

That wouldn’t necessarily mean yet another step in the process, Greenberger explained, but perhaps just other categories of attention. Efforts would be made to identify both a scale of development and certain key problems that show up repeatedly – such as commercial or residential projects that push zoning’s envelope in a way that is predictably controversial.

An example is the current hotel project at 40th and Pine streets on the western edge of University City (the Campus Inn) – it is less than 100,000 square feet but tests the area’s zoning enough that it is causing controversy. “That’s exactly the kind of project that we would like in some kind of design review,” Greenberger said. “It gives the community and the developer an organized forum. It’s as much about that as it is any kind of design expertise.”

The architect George Claflen, a longtime urban design specialist, applauds Greenberger’s effort. “We were having unstructured reviews at the ZBA [hearings],” he said.

“Considering that Alan is trying to address a problem that’s been around for a long time, it’s timely,” Claflen said. “It’s always been within the discretion of the Planning Commission. It requires no legislation. It’s not like enacting a zoning bill, and it’s the kind of thing they are ordered by charter to give. Knowing the people involved, I don’t think anyone is trying to stop development in the city. From the community side, I would see it as another voice in the dialogue – the community’s opinion cannot be stopped.”

Stuart, too, thinks that an organized city design review process is “long overdue,” but feels that neighborhoods where development occurs should simply have a voice at the table.

“There’s a lot of nuances, but it’s not rocket science,” Stuart said. “A lot of it is just facilitating good conversations. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing what time the school gets out, and what kind of egress is needed there. There is a lot of wisdom in neighborhoods that developers can benefit from.”
Power gridlock
Greenberger says that, frankly, he doesn’t blame active civic organizations for being skeptical, since there were many years when if the residents didn’t put together a plan, nobody would. They’ve come out on the winning end of some long-fought, legitimate battles. So it’s only natural, he said, that community groups “all think they are going to lose some power base” through a new Design Review Committee.

“That’s what they’re all worried about,” Greenberger said. “But this is not a proposed process by which there’s an intention to cut out the community voice – it’s to establish a single place for a community voice so that it doesn’t happen randomly, and so it doesn’t happen unfairly throughout the city, where some communities that are highly organized get to do things one way, and others that are not get nothing.

“What everyone has to recognize here is that a lot of these local plans are coming on the back of a motivated residential group. It’s a perfectly legitimate role – I mean they live there, it’s a perfectly natural thing. On the other hand, it’s a bigger city than just the residential neighborhoods. As an example, [LSNA’s] borders include a huge part of the commercial core of the city. The well-being of the commercial core of the city cannot simply be left to one neighborhood group to define. There are other interests that have to be weighed in this, and that’s why, ultimately, plans that have implementation strategies have to come as a result of public policy.”

He cited the recent Germantown-Wayne Junction plan, presented at the last public Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 20, as an example of one that had “intense community participation but that represents public policy that we can use as a real guideline for development in that area.”

It “appropriately merged” the interests of those two communities, he said.

“We’re trying to change a culture that has totally been based on each process getting defined by each transaction,” said Greenberger. “The fact that organized community groups and developers and a community of lawyers have figured out how to make a very convoluted process in Philadelphia work does not mean that it’s a good process. It just means that they know how to make it work for them.”

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

More from PlanPhilly this week: The inspirations behind the Design Review Committee.

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