City Council and developers give feedback on zoning code rewrite

So it begins.

Three years in the works, Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) presented the rewrite of the city’s zoning code to City Council on Wednesday and on Thursday, real estate developers and members of the Commission gathered at the Union League to discuss the code. Pointed questions and comments at each event outlined concerns likely to drive feedback and revisions from developers and City Council members.

Led by Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger and Don Elliott of Clarion Associates, the presentation to Council detailed numerous changes designed to improve the clarity of the zoning code, to improve objective decision-making at the outset of projects and during the appeals process, to clarify the role and involvement of the public, and to balance the need for high-quality development and redevelopment while protecting the character and nature of the city’s neighborhoods.

According to Greenberger, the rewrite also addresses changing the legal use of what he called “the mosaic of spaces”—specifically, abandoned lots zoned for industrial use—in Germantown, Kensington, and some other parts of North Philadelphia.

“We’re looking to deal with things that are in some level of transition,” Greenberger said.

One new housing class added to the code is that of accessory dwelling units. The code revision will permit new housing units of up to 800 square feet to be built on the lots of detached homes and twin houses. According to Elliott, as people age and hope to stay in their homes, such units could provide additional income as rentals, or could become residences for caregivers.

Councilman Brian J. O’Neill, a member of the Commission and the only council member who attended the entire presentation on Wednesday, objected to the idea.

“I’m being blunt,” O’Neill said. “This is dead on arrival. My district has had only one request [about these units] and I’ve been there for a while. We’ve got a lot of complaints about these kind of situations, but never got a complaint asking for this kind of thing.

“I don’t want to see something like this kill what’s an otherwise good effort. This can be nuclear for this process.”

In another change, the code dramatically reduces the number of overlay districts governing zoning. Half of those districts eliminated by the new code are in Center City, where 14 special districts are to be consolidated into one rail-transit-oriented district. By introducing objective standards, the Commission hopes to reduce use variances as well, and to provide a consistent, predictable environment for building and renovation in the city.

Elliott discussed one way to offer developers predictability regarding community input: a new process called civic design review, or CDR.

“If you’re building a building over 100,000 square feet or 100-plus residential units, you go to design review,” Elliott said.

CDR will regularize input into the design of substantial new projects, involving a fixed group of architects, designers, planners, developers, and a rotating seat for representatives of the community where such a project is planned.

Karen Small, the community liaison for Council President Anna Verna, asked what happens if different neighborhood groups with stakes in such a project do not agree on a single representative to send.

“If the neighborhood groups can’t decide,” Greenberger responded, “the Councilman [of that district] will pick one for the panel.”

While CDR regularizes input, the commission is entirely advisory. The hope, according to Elliott, is that the revised code will make clear to both communities and developers what is and is not permissible to build on a given lot at the outset of a project. Developers, he pointed out, will be free to ignore the input if the project is appropriate to the site by law. 

On Thursday morning, the Urban Land Institute hosted a panel discussion at the Union League. Alan Urek of the City Planning Commission and Peter Kelsen of the ZCC discussed how the revised code addresses problems that multiple stakeholders have raised.

“The primary complaint,” Kelsen said, “that we’ve been hearing from the developer community, the investor community, and the neighborhood community is that you cannot predict land use trends [in Philadelphia].”

Nonetheless, numerous developers shared their concerns about the Zoning Code, past and present. Farah Jimenez, the CEO of People’s Emergency Center and one of the panelists, hoped that the revised code will serve its core purpose and serve it well.

“One of my concerns is that because it’s a values-based document,” said Jimenez, “we don’t go beyond its pure role, which is to tell the developer community what can be built, not what should be built.”

Bart Blatstein of Tower Investments was also a panel member, and he opened his remarks with a literary analogy.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland,” he said. “You go down to L&I, you hope you get the right examiner, you hope they interpret the code the right way, and you keep your fingers crossed and smile.”

While admitting that the revised code addresses some of the past problems developers have encountered, Blatstein said, “This document does not take into account what the business community thinks and what the lending community thinks,” and speculated that the new code will provide many jobs for lawyers and planners in the years to come.

“It’s always depressing to hear Bart speak about the problems of development in the city,” said Councilman Bill Green, who serves on the ZCC and also spoke on the panel.

Explaining that the Commission is a political body composed largely of political appointees, Green said, “We are going to go through a very political process over the next two to three years. Even if we pass the zoning code in the spring of 2011, which I think is optimistic, it’s going to take years.”

Following a discussion with John Landis, the chair of the department of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Praxis hosts this publication), the floor was opened for questions, and developers continued to express concern about the process.

John Westrum, a member of the ZCC and the CEO of Westrum Development, pleaded with the developers and planners in the room to give the Commission feedback.

“This is our chance as a developer community,” Westrum said, “to rewrite central portions of the code. Rather than complaining about it when this gets passed—this is your chance.”

Despite Westrum’s encouragement, the developers who questioned the panel focused on one main complaint: they need more time to review the new code. The code was released on September 8; public comments close on October 12.

David Ricci, one of ULI’s vice chairs, asked Peter Kelsen for a commitment from the ZCC to extend the period for public comment.

“There’s not enough time for land use professionals to absorb this,” Ricci said. “Less than five weeks is not enough to get it done.”

“We want full participation,” Kelsen replied. “Stay tuned.”

Craig Schelter, executive director of Development Workshop, Inc., reiterated Ricci’s worry. According to Schelter, the Central Delaware Advisory Group, Penn Future, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and other groups sent a letter this week to Eva Gladstein, the executive director of the ZCC, requesting an extension of the public comment period.

“Until you read the language,” Schelter said, “you don’t understand what the implications are. We believe that 60 days will be necessary.”

“As I said a minute ago,” Kelsen answered, “stay tuned.”

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