Citizens Planning Institute equips NW Philadelphia community with tools to participate in city zoning issues

With the city’s new zoning code going into effect later this month, representatives of local civic organizations who could benefit from some of the changes have been gathering with planning officials to get ready.

At a workshop held Wednesday on the campus of William Penn Charter School, about 40 members of civic and neighborhood-interest groups gathered with Planning Commission representatives for a briefing on zoning basics and details of the new code, and to review the community engagement components it will require.

The group represented a slice of the nearly 200 organizations that have applied for designation as Registered Community Organizations under the new code. Over sandwiches, they listened to presentations by the Citizens Planning Institute’s Donna Carney and PCPC’s Octavia Howell, who also gathered questions.

Janice Loadholt was there representing A Concerned Civic Organization, or ACCA, a group formed last year in the Ogontz and Belfield areas during a fight against a proposed Resources for Human Development plan to house formerly transgendered individuals and elderly mentally disabled people at 5701 Kemble Ave. The proposal eventually was scrapped and relocated to another neighborhood.

“I never really understood zoning” or the public noticing process, Loadholt said, but learned a lot at the zoning session. To her, the changes in the new code and the community notification and engagement it requires from property owners and developers could have been helpful with the Kemble Park case.

“The neighborhood was basically caught unaware, so we came together as a community,” but felt outside the official process, she said.

The new zoning code is meant to streamline the planning and development processes with more predictability, fewer classifications and a reduced need for variances. At the neighborhood level, much interest has been about the RCO process, and whether various overlays — an additional layer of area-specific use and design restrictions — would stand.

Right now, the planning commission is in the approvals process for the would-be RCOs, who will be required to meet with property owners or developers on certain variance cases and large-scale projects. About 150 RCOs have been approved so far, Carney said.

The RCO groups will receive early notice of variance requests, and will have a required meeting with developers. They’ll also work with a newly-established Civic Design Review Committee, a seven-person group — six permanent members appointed by the Mayor, with a rotating seat for the local group affected by each application — charged with evaluating large-scale projects for factors such as walkability, contribution to open space, and neighborhood context.

“The goal is to keep new development in keeping with the existing neighborhoods,” Carney said. “So a development in South Philly looks like South Philly, and a development in West Philly looks like West Philly.”

As for the overlays, the ones affecting Northwest business districts such as Manayunk’s Main Street, Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, the Ridge-Midvale area in East Falls, and retail strips through Chestnut Hill and Germantown will now be included in a mixed-use designation called Neighborhood Commercial Area.

The East Falls Community Council co-hosted this event with the Central Roxborough Civic Association, but members from several other Northwest civics were there too, including Germantown Community Connection’s Ernest Freeman and Betty Turner, Greg Woodring from the Chestnut Hill Community Association, representatives from the Central Roxborough Civic Association, East- and West Mt. Airy Neighbors, the Penn-Knox Neighbors Association. There were some representatives from other parts of the city, such as the South of South Neighbors Association and the Newbold Neighbors Association.

The next stop in CPI’s Summer Workshop series will be 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 25, at Philadelphia Masjid Clara Muhammad School, 4700 Wylalusing Ave. More information and registration details are here

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story did not include Central Roxborough Civic Association as a co-sponsor of the event. NewsWorks has revised the article to reflect the group’s involvement in the workshop. 

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