City Council and community members talk zoning at 400 North Broad Street

The seats were filled, the refreshments were all but consumed, and the topic was—you guessed it—zoning. In a community forum co-sponsored by PlanPhilly, the Daily News and PennPraxis, the viability of Philadelphia’s zoning code reform project was tested Tuesday night.

The consensus? It’s viable, but far from certain.

City Council members Frank DiCicco, Bill Green and Darrell Clarke sat on stage with Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger and Penn Praxis’s Harris Steinberg and explained their positions on zoning reform. All agreed that they were closer to consensus now than they were half a year ago, but they also agreed that some issues remain unresolved. And while Councilmen Clarke and Green said they would prefer to pass a new code before six new members join City Council early next year, it was more important, in Clarke’s words, to “get it right than to get it done.”

Steinberg started the discussion by asking Alan Greenberger, a member of the Zoning Code Commission and former director of the Planning Commission, to “frame the issue.” Greenberger gave a brief history of zoning in the United States and a review of what’s happened to date in our city’s zoning reform project, which began four years ago. He said that zoning was first used in the 1920s as a way to keep big industry from having too vast an impact on residential neighborhoods. “It’s very much about things that need to be separated,” Greenberger said.

Steinberg then asked each Councilman to describe his own “zoning story,” and talk about how close or far Philadelphia is from passing a new code. First District Councilman Frank DiCicco co-sponsored the bill that put zoning reform on the ballot. Nearly 80 percent of Philadelphia voters approved the formation of  the Zoning Code Commission in 2007. DiCicco, who will be replaced in Council next term, encouraged his fellow Councilmen—and the audience in general—to support the passage of a new code before the end of the year. He said that any new code would not be set in stone, and Council would maintain its ability to amend it at any time. And while DiCicco admitted that the draft code is imperfect, he believes putting off its passage until a new Council is in place would be irresponsible.

“If we do not get a zoning code reformed in this Council session,” DiCicco said, “it will probably never happen in the next decade.”

At-Large Councilman Bill Green thanked DiCicco for his work on zoning reform, but disagreed with his emphasis on the importance of passing a new code this year. “I will take exception, and umbrage, for my future friends and colleagues,” Green said, “and say that I believe a freshman City Council member can tackle zoning issues and the zoning code.” Green went on to say that during his four years on the Zoning Code Commission, he always believed that the new code would be implemented through a remapping process in each neighborhood in Philadelphia. He said he was surprised when the Commission decided to instead adopt an automatic conversion plan in its majority report, which would make the draft effective citywide all at once. The minority report, which Green supported, called for the zoning code to be implemented in phases, after each neighborhood went through remapping. In a memo released earlier this month, however, Green backed away from that stance. He is now pushing a plan which includes automatic conversion to the new code, but with certain potentially harmful uses prohibited or permitted by special exception until neighborhoods are remapped.

“The new zoning code is great,” Green said. “It meets the goals set out in the charter, and it is great in theory. But it was never discussed at anything but the 30-thousand-foot level.”

Councilman Clarke was the only panelist who will be representing a single district, the fifth, next Council term. As a result, his comments about zoning reform were more specific than his fellow panelists’. Clarke described his district as the most diverse in all of Pennsylvania.

“We [in the fifth district] experience all types of development,” Clarke said, “so we experience all types of zoning issues.” Clarke reiterated a concern about student housing he’d expressed in a Council hearing on the draft code last week. He said that some residential areas in his district—specifically neighborhoods near Temple University—are experiencing an influx of student housing. He said that student housing can be disruptive to certain communities, and hopes that the ZCC can find a way to address that issue in the draft. He agreed with Green that neighborhoods deserve the opportunity to remap their districts before certain uses are permitted.

“It’s important for us to move the code along,” Clarke said, “and subsequently the remapping, because I don’t think any of this is going to work until we do the remapping in a meaningful and thoughtful way.”

Alan Greenberger said that the vast majority of the draft is simply “cleaning control,” streamlining what is currently a labyrinthine zoning process, but he acknowledged that some issues remain controversial. “I think every single one of you has something in this code you don’t like,” Greenberger said, addressing the audience. He then reviewed the draft’s provisions on community input in development. Greenberger said that the section on Registered Community Organizations was created to reward groups that organize by giving them early notice of major projects in their neighborhoods. But he also said that the draft would not take away any rights from individuals or impromptu groups that want a say on what goes into their communities.

Harris Steinberg then asked the panel if unintended consequences of passing a new code were enough to keep the reform from happening.

“I don’t want to suggest that I’m not prepared to support this, because I think we need to change it,” said Councilman Clarke. But he said that improving the code so that it satisfies all stakeholders was more important than passing a new code in the next few months.

DiCicco argued that no new code would ever be perfect, and that there would always be people who are displeased. He then clarified that he didn’t think new Council members were incapable of tackling zoning reform, but rather that their main interests would be in pleasing their constituents to gain political support for future elections. “That’s the political process, and that’s fine,” DiCicco said. “There’s nothing immoral or corrupt about it. That’s what we do. I think we should do the heavy lifting, is what I’m saying.”

The panel briefly debated a handful of specific issues. Councilman Green said that, with automatic conversion to the new code, certain noxious uses, such as adult bookstores, would be permitted in eight-and-a-half percent of land in Philadelphia. Greenberger said that such regulated uses would be no more permissible under the new code than  they are under the current code. Councilman Clarke said he wanted an opportunity to work on provisions for takeout restaurants, saying that while they may be generally desirable in most commercial corridors, they end up creating serious nuisances in certain areas. Alcohol sales, he pointed out, are controlled by the state and not the City, and there is no legal way for a municipal zoning code to regulate that particular type of takeout. Therefore, Clarke said, it would only be appropriate to curtail takeouts altogether in certain areas.

The panel then took questions from the audience, nearly all of which related to specific neighborhoods. Logan Square Neighborhood Association president Sam Little stood up to comment about the issue of overlays. He said that what overlays do is require conversation between community groups and developers, not hinder development. Little said that his neighborhood, which currently has overlay protections, has about $750 million in development currently underway. He said that an overlay is not necessarily an economic disincentive for development.

The panel also took questions and comments from representatives of the Old City Civic Association, Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, and the Diamond Street Historic District, among others. Council members agreed to talk with each other and members of the ZCC in advance of the next hearing on the draft, which is scheduled for September 27th. Eva Gladstein said after the meeting that she believes there is “still a will” to pass a new code this year, but  that it will take earnest compromise between stakeholders. She said that the Commission has plans to speak with individual members of Council prior to the next ZCC meeting, at which point the Commission may take official action. That meeting is scheduled for October 12th.

PlanPhilly caught up with Kiki Bolender, an architect and co-creator of the “Common Ground for Building Our City” report, after the forum. Bolender said she was “surprised and disappointed” at the tone of the questions from some community members. She also said that she felt Councilmen Green and Clarke were threatening to block passage of the code. Bolender described these problems as symptoms of a “win-lose mindset” among Philadelphia’s zoning reform community. She said that many of the people who raised questions at Tuesday night’s meeting have been talking about the same issues for years, and that there has in fact been “tremendous accommodation” of many of these groups’ concerns.

“The key thing to citizen involvement in the new code is getting beyond the win-lose mentality,” said Bolender, “and taking responsibility for one another.”

 Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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