2017 was Gary Jastrzab’s 37th year at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission; it’s also his last. Jastrzab joined the institution right out of the University of Pennsylvania’s planning school in 1980, under the newly elected Mayor Bill Green. As of July 7, almost four decades and six mayors later, he’s left his post as the executive director.
Jastrzab served under mayors who were devoted to city planning as well as mayors who proved less amenable to the commission and its mission. As of July 1st, almost concurrent with his retirement, the agency officially becomes part of the new Department of Planning and Development.
This interviewed has been condensed and edited for clarity.
PlanPhilly: How have mayoral attitudes to the Planning Commission changed over the course of the six administrations you’ve served under?
Gary Jastrzab: Mayor Nutter was probably the strongest proponent and provided the political will to really allow us to do our work. He really wanted the commission to return to its glory days as one of the preeminent planning agencies in the country again. Mayor Goode was also a fairly strong proponent. Under Goode, the 1988 Center City plan was done, following discussions about Liberty Place and building higher than William Penn.
There were other mayors who felt planning was more of a distraction or maybe an impediment for them. Ed Rendell didn’t have as much patience for planning. I don’t think he was as strong a supporter because he was much more interested in getting the economy going and getting the fiscal situation stabilized.
PP: How have the changing relationships between different mayors and council effected the Planning Commission?
GJ: We’ve always had a pretty good relationship with city council. We have some major disagreements on things like parking ratios, but for the most part we work well with council staffs in terms of the remapping legislation. We do a lot of the grunt work for that, the research, and the writing of the bill so it fits properly into the zoning code.
We’ve always been the experts. We aren’t coming at something with an agenda that criticizes an individual council member. We are here to help them do what needs to be done. We give them advice and they can choose to take it or not.
PP: What charter changes would you like to see to support the planning commission?
GJ: At a recent Civic Design Review meeting, a proposal we were seeing for the second time, the development team refused to take any advice. The applicant didn’t change anything their second time back because they knew it was advisory. I think there might be some thought given to putting more teeth behind the Civic Design Review committee’s recommendations. We’ve talked about that in-house quite a bit over the last several years.
But it’s a very fine line. Most of what the planning commission has always done is make recommendations. There was a period of time where the commission was actually given the authority to do final approvals or disapprovals on the Delaware River waterfront. One of the early versions of the Central Delaware overlay actually called for the commission to give thumbs up or thumbs down on specific proposals. No one ever took it to court but there was a lot of question over whether that exceeded our authority in the city charter. But it was legislation passed by city council and for about 18 months we had that authority.
PP: When the Philadelphia2035 process began, the trajectory of the city was different and much more uncertain. Would you update its Citywide Vision to reflect today’s environment?
GJ: I think the Phila2035 vision still applies. A lot of the goals were generational or even two-generational. We created what we hoped would be big transformative ideas for the city that a range of interests could get behind. Then we focused on the 18 planning districts. The goal is to have the 18th district plan adopted by the commission by fiscal year 2018. After the district plans we’ve followed up with implementation, and one of the implementation aspects is zoning remapping. Where are the areas that can carry more density that are near transit? Upzoning that in a way that will promote additional development.
My favorite example of that is the area from 30th Street Station west to 40th street and even beyond. It’s very well served by transit, but it’s not zoned to the highest zoning classification. I’m hopeful and confident that we’ll be able to see that area upzoned in a way that makes the connection between Center and University City and continue that expansion to the west.
PP: Why have there been inconsistencies in the pace of remapping in different sections of the city?
GJ: When we do remapping, we work with city council offices and community groups in the area. in a lot of cases there are very proactive and sophisticated neighborhood groups who are on the same page in terms of what they would like to see their neighborhood become. In some cases, there are council people and their staffs who are knowledgeable about zoning. Working with those groups is pretty easy.
In other cases where there might be neighborhood dissension or less familiarity with how zoning actually works. Some council people have been a little slower to adopt the remapping suggestions. So we’ve remapped about a third of our recommended remappings at this point.
PP: Has councilmanic prerogative affected the implementation of the Citywide Vision and the Planning Commission’s mission?
GJ: The zoning remapping program may be one of those. In some districts, we maybe didn’t make as much progress as we hoped for.
Sometimes zoning overlay districts are created that we don’t necessarily agree with. But our role is always to assist so we will help with the actual writing because we know how to fit it into the code really well. But just because we write a bill doesn’t mean we agree with it.
We’ve seen zoning overlays created that prohibit uses in commercial corridors for reasons we don’t always understand. Uses we think would be good for a commercial corridors—like daycares, nail salons, and barber shops. As a general principle, we don’t like those kinds of overlays or other carve outs in the zoning code. One of the major reasons for the new zoning code was to create rules and regulations that everyone could live by and could be applied citywide. Now we are seeing little changes being made here and there.
PP: What will your personal legacy at the Planning Commission be?
GJ: I think we’ve institutionalized the planning process again, which I think had fallen into disrepair. Recently, we’ve had mayors who were strong proponents of planning. We’ve established a process for educating community groups. We’ve created a comprehensive plan with big ideas and 18 very specific plans. I’m hoping we institutionalized that process. I think the needle has been moved in a more progressive direction over the last decade.
I think the quality of the staff here, while always good, has increased over the years too. We’ve been able to hire a lot of younger, energetic people with new and exciting ideas who are deeply committed to the city. Those people are going to remain in place.