City Council briefed by ZCC

Preparing both itself and Philadelphia City Council for the next stage of zoning code reform, Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission reported on its work at a special City Council briefing Thursday afternoon.

Eva Gladstein, ZCC’s executive director, gave a brief presentation outlining the process so far, moving from the charter mandate through an overview of the ZCC’s work thus far to civic engagement data. Discussing next steps, the reality that major legislation was being prepared clearly set in.

Markedly more Council members were in attendance than at the last Council briefing, which took place in September, and concerns to particular members and specific districts arose. Councilwoman Marian Tasco worried about whether the code would protect the character of residential areas of her district, the 9th. James Kenney, Councilman-at-large, expressed surprise that the body would have to vote on the entirety of the zoning code as proposed by the ZCC, without modification. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell of the 3rd District was not pleased by what she interpreted as the erosion of Council’s power. Councilman Brian O’Neill, of the 10th District, asked again to see tables that compare which uses are changing in which zoning districts. And Councilman Green pushed for more time for public review of the most recent draft of the zoning code.

(Green’s request was granted Monday. The ZCC vote is no longer scheduled for February 9, but at the first ZCC meeting after that date.)

“It will take me this weekend entirely to go through the redline, and the blueline, to understand truly what changes we have accepted and rejected,” Green said. He showed the other members of Council the printed packet of the most recent round of comments and the 45-page change memo. Green reiterated his worry about city residents and stakeholders feeling slighted if as, he deemed, the ZCC were to rush to a vote on Wednesday.

“We have had a very open and transparent process,” Green said. “What I’d like to suggest is that we continue being open and transparent. I don’t want anyone after 18 months to be able to say to us, ‘I just received the blue line. It didn’t address all of my comments. [You] were voting on this before I had the opportunity to address the commission on this last draft.”

“I’d like to use [ZCC’s meeting on] the 9th for final public comment on the final blue line, so that we can then have the benefit of that final input before we would vote at the next hearing.”

Councilwoman Marian Tasco asked Gladstein if she was aware that City Council would be receiving the code recommendations during the annual budget process.

“We’ve been under continual requests to provide more time, which we’ve done on numerous occasions,” Gladstein said, explaining that the ZCC has extended its period for public comments and pushed back its timeline to accommodate them.

“I think there is a feeling that we have done a lot of work,” Gladstein said, “and a lot of comments that we’re getting are duplicative, and we’re not receiving a lot of new information. It’s our hope that by having the document before City Council, that will add some additional gravity to it and we will start to get some new information, because we think that’s necessary.”

Councilman Green jumped in, reminding his fellow councilpeople of the 45-day window in which they must hold hearings after receiving the ZCC recommendations, and reiterating his pessimism that Council would quickly take up the matter.

“It’s extraordinarily unlikely that real work will begin on this until the fall,” Green said, “given the budget process we’re about to undertake.” He encouraged giving more time to let councilpeople speak to their ZCC appointees—each district councilperson appointed one Zoning Code Commissioner—to learn more about the state of the code prior to a ZCC vote.

Councilman Frank DiCicco of the 1st District took the position that no law ever will make every stakeholder happy.

“This reminds me of legislation we would do on a district level,” DiCicco said, “when all parties have the oppportunity to comment on a proposal. You never really get everyone to agree. From the comments I’m hearing from civic associations, it seems the same questions they had two months ago are still the same concerns they have today.”

Councilman Green said he agreed with the sentiment.

“However, we’re giving people documents today that go out to community organizations, developers. There are changes that came out in the most recent round of comments. We will be voting without the benefit of public input on those changes if we vote it out February 9,” Green said.

“I guess that’s where we disagree,” DiCicco replied, “because that same opportunity for public comment will be had here at City Council.”

Green said he wants to move forward soon, but felt strongly about accommodating public comments on the final draft. “I’m ready to get it done,” Green said. “I’m just saying February 9 is not the date. It should be the next meeting [of the ZCC].”

Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller inquired about the role of city planning. Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, explained that once a new city plan is adopted, each planning district will go through a remapping process.

While the ZCC submits a plan for zoning revision that must be approved by the Planning Commission, this revision only will convert current zoning districts to new ones, with two exceptions. Rezoning some areas to CMX-2.5 and IRMX districts will be proposed along with the submission of the recommended code to Council.

Members of the Zoning Code Commission also spoke in support of the revised code. Stella Tsai, the head of the ZCC’s Civic Engagement Committee, reiterated DiCicco’s comment that City Council is a venue for future comment, and referred to the ZCC’s initial recommendation—whenever it should come—as the “preliminary draft” so called in the charter amendment. Zoning Code Commissioner Anne Papageorge agreed that it was time to move the code to Council.

“I think that there has been a lot of time for people to submit their comments and to raise their issues. At some point, you have to cross the line and allow the public process—the political process—to have its time. I think we need to move into the next stage, where we allow you to debate some of the remaining issues and concerns,” Papageorge said.

Commissioner Greg Pastore, the zoning code chair of Bella Vista Town Watch and DiCicco’s appointee to the ZCC, anticipated a sea change in how people will approach development following adoption of the new zoning code. “The development and use standards are more reasonable, so property owners will seek to conform to the code rather than circumvent it, which is what we have now,” Pastore said.

He also was the first to mention a part of the charter amendment that removes Council’s ability to make edits. “Council will live with the code, so as a Commission, we understand that it’s a very different dynamic,” Pastore said, referring to City Council’s inability to modify the code sent to them by ZCC before Council chooses whether to enact, reject, or table the new legislation. The process, by the charter amendment, keeps Council’s hands off the language and provisions of the code except insofar as the ZCC integrates councilpeople’s feedback.

“It probably really is time to move this into Council,” Pastore said.

Green emphasized both that Council would need to extend the mandate of the ZCC, and like Pastore, that Council would have to vote on the entire code when ZCC delivers its final version.

“The Commission is officially expected to end June 30 under the law. There is virtually no chance that we are going to put our hearing before June 30, no matter whether we allow time for comments on the final draft,” Green said.

“We are going to have to extend the life of this commission by statute or by resolution, so I think we want to get that in soon, because when we issue our final recommendations, the commission has to be around to issue a final report, on which we will then vote, up or down, with no changes,” Green said.

Councilman James Kenney seemed surprised that Council would not be able to modify the legislation, and asked DiCicco, who worked on the language of the charter amendment, if it had that intent. DiCicco chuckled. “Well, yeah, I guess it did,” he said.

“The thought at the time is that there would never be consensus,” DiCicco said. According to DiCicco, the all-or-nothing vote required of Council allowed the ZCC to apply the expertise of its commissioners separately from the political process.

Kenney expressed displeasure that Council couldn’t vote on what he called the “good parts of the code, five or six or ten at a time.”

Because of the up-or-down nature of the vote, Gladstein indicated that the ZCC may be likely to heed City Council’s suggestions.

“It’s incumbent upon the commission to listen very carefully to Council’s recommendations, because there’s the two-step process,” Gladstein said.

Losing power—both through the code revision process and through the code iteself—did not sit well with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. “I never feel that we should vote for anything that undermines our power. I wouldn’t have voted for any of it had I known that we would give our power away,” Blackwell said, although she praised the work of Gladstein and the ZCC.

“I think you raise a good point,” DiCicco interjected. “You say you never want to vote for something that would take away your power. But there are people on the other side of the spectrum who feel as though you—us—have too much power. And the power belongs more with the community, or with developers. The process has been going on for three years. You’re never going to get 100%.”

“We may want to change what we do, or how we do it,” Blackwell replied. “We changed who has what power, commissions, hiring, we’ve changed that. So we do that. But with specific areas like the zoning code, or any other specific areas that we have to deal with, as long as our voters, businesses, et cetera come to us, we have to be able to have the authority to deal with it.”

Councilwoman Marian Tasco worried that the new changes would result in single-family homes being altered into multi-family buildings. “I want to know how the community gets inolved with [the remapping process],” Tasco asked, citing her desire to protect residential neighborhoods and quality of life in her district.

O’Neill, who also serves as a Zoning Code Commissioner, jumped in, explaining that he and Tasco had discussed how many changes to the new code will begin not after remapping, but on the effective date of the legislation. “Some changes will occur that don’t require remapping. Every district councilman should take a look at these. “These are the changes that are being done. They not may appear big in the scheme of things, but they are enormous for a district councilperson, or a community group, or a particular resident or block of residents. And it really involves commercial and industrial as well,” O’Neill said.

At numerous ZCC meetings this fall, O’Neill has requested a table or chart comparing extant uses in the zoning code with future uses, in order for district councilpeople to quickly understand what will be changing in their districts. He repeated that request.

“We’re working on that chart. One of the issues has been that we’re continuing to modify these tables of what’s being permitted because of wide feedback from community members,” Gladstein said.

“We have a template for a chart that you received, that will show what the permitted uses are now, what the new name of the district is, and what the permitted uses will be, so you can compare and see if there are any unwanted changes. Because the whole system as to how we handle uses is different, if there’s a change that’s important to the character of the neighborhood that’s important to you, we want to hear back.”

Because those charts and uses are still being revised, Green reiterated his desire to delay the ZCC vote. “In my view that’s what’s exactly why I want to let things stand still for a month so that people can take the time to focus on this before we as a commission make a recommendation to Council about it,” Green said.

Tasco pointed out that the ZCC is not required to include City Council’s recommendations in its final report. “It says you may; it doesn’t say you will,” Tasco said.

Councilman Kenney asked how many votes are needed to approve the new code, once it comes to City Council.

 “I think it’s a simple majority,” Gladstein said.

Kenney expressed concern about how a simple majority vote could affect districts where the councilperson or neighborhood organizaitons were not comfortable with the code; Gladstein reminded him, and other Council members, that the process is one required by the city charter, following the 2007 amendment that authorized the zoning code revision.

“The commission is smart. Each council member has a representative on the commission. I don’t think the commission wants to fail in its work,” Gladstein said.

The next meeting of the Zoning Code Commission is Wednesday, February 9 at 8:00 a.m., 1515 Arch Street, Room 18029.

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