Work begins on new zoning code

Code discussion at the ZCC

April 8, 2009
By John Davidson
For PlanPhilly

Hot on the heels of a formal (and dismal) assessment of the state of Philadelphia’s Zoning Code last month, The Zoning Code Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to hire a consultant to do the code re-write.

Commissioner and land use attorney Peter Kelsen said that a request for proposal seeking consultants will be issued April 30. A consultant will be chosen by June 30, and will get to work in July – even though the contract won’t be finalized until September.  There’s $335,000 budgeted to pay the winner, whose work will suggest zoning classifications and detail what can be built within each of them.

Beyond that, many questions about the framing of the new code remain.

Some commissioners wanted to know if Philadelphia would stick with its current traditional coding model, with specific uses prescribed for each type of zone. Or would the city switch to a form-based system, in which building size and form, and the feel and setting desired in a particular area are outlined, but use is not. Form-based systems are thought to encourage mixed-use development.

Planning Commission Executive Director and ZCC Chairman Alan Greenberger replied that the city would likely end up with a mix of the two types, but said it is premature to decide. And in any case, Greenberger said, it’s a question for the consultants that will be vetted through the ZCC and community-based meetings.

Greenberger also discussed comments and questions gathered from public meetings, interviews with professional code users and a web-based survey that raise questions about the new code: How do we approach codifying sustainable design? To what extend should a zoning code incentivize building practices that are quickly becoming the standard? Should there be incentives in the code for adaptive re-use? What about things that don’t fit neatly into the code, like urban agriculture? And how will the code be enforced?

These questions, as well as feedback from architects and other professionals, is included in the latest version of the interim report on the existing zoning code, which is posted here.

City Councilman and Commissioner Bill Green said these questions should be answered now, while everyone is waiting for the RFP to go through. Greenberger replied that it is not necessary to answer all the questions now, but that the ZCC should establish a set of values from which the consultants can work.

Civic engagement has been on the ZCC’s agenda from the outset of the rewrite process, and at Wednesday’s meeting Commissioner Natalia Olson de Savyckyj reported that all ten meetings at which the public was asked for comments on the existing code have taken place, and about 40 or 50 people attended each one.

Kelsen said consultant hired to re-do the code must devise a plan for 12 community meetings to get input on the proposal before it is finalized. Along with the final draft, the consultant will have to produce actual zoning code language to be delivered to City Council for a vote.

Once the rewrite is complete, the consultant will assist the city with code adoption and implementation and produce a training program for the new code, complete with a user manual in multiple media formats.

Greenberger also mentioned that the PCPC is working on an industrial land study right now and is nearly ready to make recommendations on what to do with the 21,000 acres currently zoned for industrial use. A significant portion of this land is underused, he said. “This is what disconnects the city from the river and from the neighborhoods. What can we do with it?”

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