City Council adopts a new zoning code

“Having been read on two different days,” said outgoing City Council President Anna C. Verna, calling for a vote on zoning reform legislation in Council’s last session of the year Thursday morning, “the question now is: shall the bill pass finally?”

Though it’s part of the formal introduction to any Council vote, “two different days” is actually a shocking understatement in this instance, considering the true number of occasions on which the bill—and the updated, 400-page zoning code it contains—have been read.

Nonetheless, countless times having been read, tweaked, explained, clarified, organized and reorganized, augmented, printed, reprinted, posted and reposted, reread, re-tweaked, condensed, set aside and picked up, messed with, talked about, fought over, doubted, praised, questioned and defended, the code passed, finally.

Four years of Zoning Code Commission revisions are ended and, eight months from now, the new code will be active. The vote was unanimous, 17 votes to zero.

“This is huge,” said outgoing First-District Councilman Frank DiCicco after the meeting. DiCicco sponsored the original legislation creating the Zoning Code Commission four years ago.

“You’re talking about a document that’s been sitting around for fifty years, is over 600 pages, and when you have as many people who were involved in this process, not only at the government level but at the local and civic level, you know there’s going to be some changes and recommendations made. It might be a little bit more thick than I would have liked to have seen it, but I think it’s a good first step, and we’re going to have to see how this plays out over the next year or two.

“Some of the stuff that’s in there may work, some of it may not. Amendments will be made. That’s how it got to 600 pages, because amendments get put in as things change … But it will work. I think it’s a very good first step.”

At-Large Councilman and former Zoning Code Commissioner Bill Green echoed DiCicco’s sentiment that zoning reform is merely the first phase in a larger effort to invite development into the city. Green said, as he has said before, that the more important step is remapping the city, plot by plot, so that the zoning maps accurately reflect the varied character of post-industrial  Philadelphia. Green said he would fight, in the next Council, to make remapping a priority in the budget and to give the Planning Commission the extra resources it needs to finish the remapping efficiently. “We’ll sap the energy very quickly if we don’t do the remapping,” Green said. 

Probably the Council representative who worked more closely on zoning reform than any other Council representative was Green’s legislative aide, Stacey Graham. Graham said the biggest improvement of the new code over the old is its clarity. “I think the biggest accomplishment is the ease in access and user-friendliness of the code,” Graham said. “It will prevent a number of delays. It will prevent a number of cases going to the ZBA. It’s more straightforward and user-friendly for laypersons as well as attorneys, and the reduced cost to doing business in Philadelphia is immensely impacted by this new code.” 

Eva Gladstein, former executive director of the ZCC, agreed. “You can understand it,” Gladstein said. “It can be a tool for everybody, and not just for a few folks.” 

In addition to clarifying the code, Gladstein said she was particularly happy with  the level of citizen engagement during the four-year reform process, pointing to high attendance at ZCC meetings and the huge amount of feedback the Commission received after issuing earlier versions of  the draft. “The engagement of people in this process – I thought that was pretty marvelous,” Gladstein said.   

Gladstein said another highlight of the reform process was codifying the role of community groups in the development process. The new code formally recognizes and requires the participation of civic associations and other Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) in projects impacting their neighborhoods. 

Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, said that the zoning reform project was a “good-faith effort” to improve the development process in the city. He said the passage of the new code is “terrific,” and “a great step forward.” But he cautioned that the new code alone won’t necessarily change the behavior of L&I or the ZBA, two administrative bodies that will implement it. 

“There are many tones that these bodies can set and still abide by the zoning code,” Ruben said. He added, “It’s possible that we could have a more permissive code and the same level of variance … The code by itself cannot make any of these bodies take particular decisions.” 

Ruben said that the parcel-by-parcel remapping process would be the true test of how much say community groups will have on development in the future. He said the remapping would be mainly performed by the development division of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, which he said “has often been a black hole where community concerns go to die.” 

“I’m not worried, and I’m not not-worried,” Ruben said. 

For his part, former ZCC commissioner Peter Kelsen is optimistic that the relevant city agencies will respect the spirit of the new zoning code as they issue zoning permits, make recommendations, and grant variances in the future. “We made sure in the Work Plan Committee and in the Zoning Code Commission generally to have representatives of the Planning Commission and L&I at every meeting,” Kelsen said, “and I’m absolutely certain that they are going to do the right thing by the new code.” Kelsen added that he is “absolutely delighted” by the final version of the new code passed by Council on Thursday. 

Stacey Graham also said she believes City Council and other administrative agencies will honor the reformed code. “The public has been involved in this process throughout, from all sides—from citizens, developers, individuals who represent the financial interests of developers in getting projects done,” Graham said. “We’ve had vast input from every constituency and stakeholder group, and therefore, it facilitates a buy-in. And I think that we have a sense of ownership in this community for this code, and a desire to see it work and to give it the benefit of the doubt, and to work with Council, to work with L&I and other administrations toward resolving any bumps in the road.” 

No one who spoke during the unusually short public testimony portion of Thursday’s meeting spoke about zoning reform. Much of the session was ceremonious, as it was the last Council meeting for six longtime Council members: Frank DiCicco, Anna Verna, Jack Kelly, Donna Reed Miller, Joan Krajewski, and Frank Rizzo. Councilwoman Marian Tasco introduced six resolutions honoring and thanking each of the outgoing Council members.

After Council had finished the legislative business of the day, Mayor Michael Nutter appeared and gave a short farewell speech for the six Council members who will not return in January. But before he did, he gave a nod to the now-complete zoning reform effort. 

“Let me first say,” Nutter said, “for all the matters that you took up today, I do want to be one of the first to commend you for the unanimous vote to dramatically change this great city by the work that you did with the revisions, the reworking, the total revamping of the Philadelphia zoning code. Congratulations.”

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