Cutting through the Zoning Code: A look into the ZCC’s work plan committee minutes

Who knows what revisions lurk in the heart of zoning reform? The Shadow! No, wait, it’s the minutes from work plan committee meetings. Lucky for you, Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission posted to a compilation of those minutes, culled from two dozen meetings that took place between January 2010 and January 2011. Luckier for you, PlanPhilly rooted around this 70-page compilation to find out which commissioners have been particularly influential and to see how decisions were reached on a number of hot-button zoning issues, including civic design review and use regulations.

The work plan committee is an especially significant part of the code revision process. The bulk of regular ZCC meetings are handed over to discussing this committee’s work and to presentations by lead consultant Don Elliott, whose presentations on code revisions detail the results of collaboration between city staff, consultants, and this committee. None of the consultants attended work plan meetings, but Eva Gladstein and Natalie Shieh from ZCC regularly presented code changes and options to commissioners. Michael Fink, deputy commissioner of Licenses and Inspections, and Bill Kramer, director of the development planning division of the Planning Commission, both attended nearly every meeting and provided feedback from their respective arms of government. The law department’s Andrew Ross, often accompanied by Larry Copeland, also attended nearly every meeting and gave committee members legal guidance as they discussed potential code revisions.

A review of the minutes shows that while 22 different commissioners attended meetings of the work plan committee, a number somewhat inflated by commissioners who have since left either the ZCC or the committee, and by newer members such as Glenn Romano (of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce) and Graciela Cavicchia (of The Reinvestment Fund), who began regularly attending meetings after their respective appointments. Based on meeting attendance and participation, a cluster of commissioners—and in two cases, their representatives—have played an especially prominent role in the rewrite of the city’s zoning code:

  • Robert Barrilli, an aide representing 10th District Councilman Brian J. O’Neill.
  • Michael Johns, the general manager of community development and design at the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
  • Stacey Graham, a legislative aide to Councilman At-Large Bill Green.
  • Peter Kelsen, chair of the committee and a partner at the law firm Blank Rome LLP.
  • Greg Pastore, the zoning committee co-chair of Bella Vista Town Watch.
  • Andrew Toy, who has since resigned from the ZCC and is currently running for a City Council At-Large seat.
  • Daniela Holt Voith, an architect and principal in Voith & Mactavish Architects.

The summary phrase “the Committee discussed . . .” appears throughout the minutes. While it’s no substitute for being a fly on the wall during those discussions, the minutes do show how committee-level work ultimately drove discussions at the regular ZCC meetings. According to these minutes, the ZCC’s work plan committee spent the past year primarily discussing major ongoing issues with the code revision, potential revisions to each of the three draft modules, and to the draft consolidated code after it was published in September. Of particular note were discussions focusing on civic design review (CDR) and changes to use regulations.

Under the new code, CDR will be the process that reviews the public impacts of especially large projects, or projects that are out of context for the zoning districts that surround them. The ZCC has repeatedly emphasized the advisory nature of CDR, which will be a required process, but not a regulatory process—as PlanPhilly previously reported, CDR is a process without a decision. At an April 2010 meeting, Barrilli asked whether L&I would issue a permit if a developer ignored the feedback from the design review committee. According to the minutes, “Commissioner Kelsen responded that the committee is completely advisory, so the project will still be by-right and L&I will issue the permit.”

Even with a strictly advisory design review process, the attention paid to CDR seems to have prompted some of the extensive discussion about public notice. Along with CDR, the new code introduces the concept of registered community organizations (RCOs), which will represent communities affected by large projects. Meetings with RCOs are required not only for CDR, but also for projects requiring special exception approval (needed for uses of questionable suitability for a neighborhood) or zoning variances.

Discussions of uses reveal a detailed level of conversation about potentially controversial changes to the code. At the April 23, 2010 committee meeting, a review of use regulations focused on group homes and community homes. These type of residences provide homes and support for disabled individuals, and at the meeting, Gladstein, Kelsen, and Graham all emphasized that the term “disabled” is a broad term under federal housing rules, spanning drug addicts to disabled children. And while different kinds of homes may indeed have different impacts, the Federal Fair Housing Act requires that residents have the same rights to housing as others. Hence, family community homes of up to three residents will be permitted by right in all residential districts and all commercial districts except CMX-1 and CA-1. Homes of up to eight residents are permitted by special exception in those same districts. Group community homes of more than eight residents are now permitted by right in all commercial districts except CMX-1 and CA-1.

The role of city staff also becomes readily apparent in the work plan committee discussions. A code is useless if it is not enforceable, and in September meetings, Michael Fink from L&I guided the discussions that eliminated the “Special Assembly  Occupancy” use category. He pointed out that L&I would not be able to enforce the regulations based on whether a venue had a cover charge, and that the city code already had a definition that was used for licensing nightclub-type establishments—and Fink proposed revising the code to point to that definition. And in the redline edit, that change occurred.

The removal of a restriction on tobacco sales shows how committee members presented different facets of a problem, and again how city staff guided this choice. The draft code prohibited tobacco sales within 500 feet of schools. Fink argued that such a restriction was better suited to the health code; he, Kelsen, Pastore, and Lynette Brown-Sow (the chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment) all agreed that the zoning code should not regulate individual behavior. Ross, of the city’s law department, suggested the city would have to pass the tobacco restriction as a separate ordinance in order to defend it well. And in the blueline draft, tobacco regulations were removed.

The sexiest read? Nope, and you shouldn’t expect otherwise from meeting minutes. But the searchable PDF show’s how, in addition to liberalizing group homes, cutting tobacco restrictions, and establishing procedures for formal resident-developer meetings, the work plan committee also drove the ZCC’s discussions of density, of the troubles with take-out restaurants, and of the need for the new neighborhood commercial zoning district, CMX-2.5. 

One more X-Change is scheduled. All meetings will be held at 1515 Arch Street, 18th Floor:

  • Stakeholder X-Change on Parking and Signs, Tuesday, May 3, 8:00 a.m.

The next full meeting of the ZCC will be held Wednesday, May 11, 8:00 a.m., when the commission is scheduled to vote on whether to send its preliminary report to City Council.

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