Zoning Code re-write is about to shift gears

July 8


By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

As the city’s Zoning Code Commission moves toward the fall, the first re-mapping of the city of Philadelphia in almost 50 years is about to get started, with the formation later this year of an organized, comprehensive planning process to accompany it – essentially the kick-off to the city’s re-mapping efforts that will be borne of a new zoning code.

Planning Director Alan Greenberger, now also interim deputy mayor with the departure of Andy Altman last month, told members of the ZCC Wednesday morning that it is not yet clear where the funding for the process will come from, but that it is an “absolutely critical thing.”

“Particularly when we get into zoning re-mapping, we really need a sense of where the city is going over the next 30 or 40 years,” Greenberger said. “We’re not looking to re-map the entire city. There are plenty of places in the city that work just fine the way they are. … We need to have this process running in parallel to what all you’re doing.”

At least initially, Greenberger said the re-mapping process will take into consideration large-scale commercial corridors, transit-oriented areas and “a whole host of issues in every corner of the city.” He said that would include an examination of “form-based issues” and will involve a system of “district plans.”

The district plans “are not neighborhood plans, nor are they regional,” he said, meaning there would be no re-mapping of an area such as all of Northeast Philadelphia, for example.

He also said the Planning Commission would be introducing a “Planning Institute,” something that other cities have employed, and meant to be the educational arm of the Planning Commission. It, too, would need a funding source, but Greenberger said he is committed to the concept, which would promote educational modules that could be taken directly to community groups or other interested parties.

Riverfront updates
Greenberger also reported that the Planning Commission has in hand “23 top flight plans” for the Central Delaware Waterfront and is currently in the vetting stage for picking consultants. A public policy plan is expected by September. … He added that the Commission is “closing in on a design firm for Pier 11,” along with a project manager for the Central Waterfront’s master plan.

ZCC work plan
Commissioner Peter Kelsen, chairman of the ZCC’s work plan committee, said that he finalized the “scope of services” agreement Tuesday night with the commission’s consultants for the last phases of the re-write. Planning Commission staffers working on the re-mapping efforts, referred to by Greenberger, will be able to “interface” with the Zoning Code consultant team during the process.

Also, a timeline for the final, completed Zoning Code has been revised – to August 2010.

“There’s no doubt in any of our minds that that goal is attainable,” Kelsen said.

Best practices
Much of the meeting dealt with follow-up on suggested best practices introduced in June by lead consultant Don Elliott.

Subjects discussed Wednesday included authorizing the Planning staff to “make more decisions on minor permits and approvals, based on objective criteria and conditions in the Zoning Code” and providing the public with adequate notice of decisions and opportunities for “input and/or to appeal or request review by the [Zoning Board of Adjustment].”

Other subjects on the table included zoning as it relates to sustainability issues, off-street parking and “form controls outside downtown.”

The latter includes controls on “three key situations – boundaries between residential neighborhoods and non-residential areas, redeveloping commercial strips, and transit-oriented development.”

Form controls also deal with “contextual zoning,” Elliott said, along with the height and massing of buildings; the location of parking areas – such as surface lots versus garage zoning; and tailoring “transit-oriented development controls to the type of transit involved and the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood.”

Web-based zoning
Pity poor Kelleann Foster, managing partner of the VIC Group (State College, Pa.-based Visual Interactive Communications), an interactive design and graphics firm that specializes in converting regulations and guidelines into a multimedia format for delivery on the Web (or to CD-ROM).

Foster was brought in by Elliott to extol the virtues of zoning codes that are Web browser-based. One big problem: there is absolutely no means of getting Internet access on the 18th floor of the One Parkway building.

She soldiered on, however, and made it clear that browser-based interactivity is far superior to simply slapping PDFs of codes up on a city Web site, or relying on a proprietary database, which often requires special access personnel and special software.

“Land use regulations are becoming increasingly complex,” Foster said, explaining that an ease of maneuverability within the presentation of the code is important. Besides, everything is on the Internet now anyway, allowing for “provocative educational tutorials“ and even “dynamic and engaging” games.

“Why is regulatory communication so far behind?” she wondered. Since access is the key, browser-based codes, when compared to PDFs, is almost as stark as the difference between online availability versus paper copies. “It needs to be readily apparent, and easy to understand,” Foster said.

In a moment of slight distraction, she let slip, innocently enough, a caveat: “If you go with a Web-based code, you have to make sure you have better Internet access than you have here…” That got a number of appreciative laughs from those commissioners more accustomed to the pace of municipal technology.

Logan Square Parkway Plan
The meeting concluded with a detailed presentation of new Center City zoning recommendations produced over the past two and a half years by the very active Logan Square Neighborhood Association, led by ZCC member and LSNA officer Andy Toy. It is part of a recently published, 241-page “Logan Square Neighborhood – Parkway Plan,” prepared by Kise Straw & Kolodner, with Urban Partners.

The LSNA describes its boundaries as Spring Garden Street to Market Street, and Broad Street to the Schuylkill River. The report, which was conceived more than five years ago, was done in partnership with the City Planning Commission.

“The goal was, and is, to create a vision that will help guide the development and the operation of the neighborhood, over the next decade and beyond, that both recognizes the positives we want to retain while providing a roadmap for future enhancements and developments in the area,” Toy wrote in the prologue to the report.

A note from Greenberger is included a page later, in which he calls the Parkway Plan “a remarkable effort by a local civic association to articulate a vision for development in their neighborhood,” and that it represented an “extraordinary level of cooperation and collaboration” with the Planning Commission.

He added: “Inevitably, there are some disagreements between the Plan’s authors and the Planning Commission on specific recommendations for specific sites. Rather than gloss over these differences, they are noted in the Plan.”

Funding for the effort was credited to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce.

Coming up
ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein said that October will likely be the month for a public meeting, after consultants’ official recommendations for the Zoning Code re-write are released. That month’s meeting will be an evening session at a to-be-determined Center City location.

There will be no August ZCC meeting, and September’s monthly meeting must be changed to a date not yet determined.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.


ZCC: http://www.zoningmatters.org

Logan Square Neighborhood-Parkway Plan (executive summary): http://www.lsnaphilly.org/display/EXT/Home

The VIC Group: http://www.vicgroup.com/VICWeb/default.htm

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