City Planning Commission disapproves a handful of zoning bills

It was standing room only when Tuesday’s meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission started, but by the time the Commission reached the ninth item on its 16-item agenda, about half the crowd had dispersed. That item was Zoning Bill No. 110563, which would amend the zoning code to “permit non-accessory outdoor advertising signs in the area bounded by North 6th, North 7th, Spring Garden and Willow streets,” one city block in Callowhill. The bill was introduced by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco in early September. 

No one at the meeting spoke in favor of that bill. The bill was presented by PCPC staffer Larissa Klevan, who pointed out that it was likely to affect only a single building at the corner of 7th and Willow streets. Moreover, extra stipulations in the bill would require that any permissible sign in the area be at least—yes, at least—7,000 square feet in area, that the bottom of the sign be at least 30 feet above grade, and that it not be placed on a historic building. “Our staff recommendation for this bill is disapproval,” Klevan said. “As the legislative findings of the zoning code, section 14-1604 … state, ‘The excessive number of outdoor, non-accessory signs in the city contribute to visual clutter and distract from the aesthetic beauty of Philadelphia …”

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger pointed out that the building that would be affected by this bill had just such a large sign on it at one point in the past, and it was removed. Stephanie Kindt of SCRUB then testified in support of Klevan’s testimony, and gave a brief legislative history of the sign in question. Kindt said that several courts had found the sign incompatible with different laws. Kindt also said that SCRUB conducted a soon-to-be-released studied which found that large, non-accessory signs are detrimental to property values in the communities surrounding them.

Rich Thom, chair of the Developments Committee at Old City Civic Association, also testified in favor of disapproving the bill. “I don’t think that the City should be encouraging a property owner to in fact slap on this size of a non-accessory sign in a district where we’re trying to encourage development—all kinds of development—good, quality, mixed-use development,” Thom said. “This makes no sense.”

The tenth item on the PCPC agenda concerned Zoning Bill No. 110662, which would amend the portion of the code that deals with the Germantown Special Controls District. Despite a healthy amount of controversy surrounding that bill—in particular its effect on the proposed construction of a dollar store in Chelten Plaza—only three witnesses testified on the issue. The Planning Commission elected to disapprove of the bill. Read PlanPhilly’s full story on the Chelten Plaza bill here.

The Commission’s last zoning issue of the day related to two zoning bills, Nos. 110636 and 110681. Both these bills were introduced by 5th District Councilman Darrell Clarke, and both would expand overlay controls in parts of North Philadelphia. The overlays that these bills would expand are the North Central Community Special District Controls and the Yorktown Special District Controls, respectively. PCPC staffer Marty Gregorski explained that these bills were introduced in an effort to regulate student housing, an issue which Councilman Clarke has been pushing for some time. The bills would prohibit multi-family housing in the areas of the proposed overlay expansion.

“We understand that there are problems with student housing,” said Gregorski. “We understand that there are frustrations in dealing with the behaviors of students in regard to noise, trash, property, parking … However, to create a district this large which prohibits any multi-family housing, we think, is excessive, and we are recommending disapproval.”

With no witnesses speaking either in support or protest of those bills, the Planning Commission voted to disapprove.

Zoning tally for the day: four up, four down. The Planning Commission’s recommendations do not, however, have the weight of law. The fate of each of these bills will ultimately be decided by City Council.

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