City Council committee of one holds hearing on Philadelphia2035

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell—who represents the 3rd Councilmanic District, covering parts of West and Southwest Philadelphia—sat alone at a committee table in Council chambers Friday morning for the duration of a hearing of the Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development, and the Homeless, which she chairs.

The hearing was the result of a resolution Blackwell introduced in late April which said, in part, that the Planning Commission’s long-term planning project, Philadelphia2035, was not adequately involving District Councilmembers.

Blackwell said at the time the resolution was about “transparency and inclusion.” She was uncomfortable with the way the Planning Commission was holding meetings in individual communities and coming up with land-use recommendations to be adopted by City Council. She said Friday morning that the process should be turned around: the Commission should talk to District Council members first and then hold community meetings and develop district plans.

Philadelphia2035 is the umbrella project covering the city’s first zoning code reform in 50 years, a new citywide vision, and 18 individual district plans, to be completed over the next several years. Read about the project here, and browse the citywide vision here.

Blackwell has struggled with parts of the plan in the past. Earlier this year, Council adopted an amendment to the zoning code’s rules for Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), which Blackwell sponsored after the issue was brought to her attention by Tiffany Green and Theresa McCormick, of a group called Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze. The amendment loosened the criteria to become an RCO, and also added some notification requirements that certain groups worry will cost them money.

Blackwell said that the RCO provision of the new code was too onerous for small groups, and that her amendment was introduced in the name of community inclusion and fairness, the same principles that led her to call for hearings on Philadelphia2035.

The hearing on Friday began with an overview of the project from Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, and a call from Blackwell for the Planning Commission to work more closely with District Councilmembers. Then Green and McCormick of the Point Breeze group testified that the new zoning allows too much by-right development, which they feel unfairly circumvents community involvement. Green also complained that the Planning Commission lacks diversity among its staff members, and that the new code is contributing to gentrification and the disenfranchisement of minority communities.

Planning Commission director Gary Jastrzab said that zoning is a tool used for controlling “the physical nature of buildings on lots,” and doesn’t have anything to say about the demographic spread of the people who occupy those buildings.

Representatives of the Planning Commission said they would hold meetings with Blackwell to explain new zoning district designations and their land-use recommendations, and also said they would hold more meetings with Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze as well as any other group that wants more information about the Philadelphia2035 project.

Blackwell said after the hearing that she was glad she held it, and that she believes the Planning Commission is staffed with well-meaning people, but she wants all its plans to go through City Council earlier and oftener.

“You can’t sit in the MSB [sic] and come up with what you think should go in my community when I’m answering to all the people there … Everybody got offended when we amended the RCO language, so I figured if I came in earlier this time they would know—let’s work together before we get there. I don’t believe in voting myself out of a vote. I’m not going to vote for all this change and then I have no say, and then I’ve got the community groups on my neck saying, ‘How did you agree to that?’”

Alan Greenberger told Councilwoman Blackwell that much of what she thought looked like new land-use classifications in her district was actually just a new coding system, and said he wants the district planning process to work at whatever pace District Council members are comfortable with.

Blackwell said she will continue holding hearings on the project periodically for the next several years. 

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