Dept. of Kumbaya: Committee approves Clarke’s restructuring proposal

City Council is just about ready to ask voters to approve a sweeping overhaul of the city government’s planning and development functions.

On Friday morning, Council’s Committee on Law & Government approved a bill that, if approved on the November ballot, would create new cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development tasked with coordinating planning, zoning, development and housing. An initial version of the bill, dropped into the world by Council President Darrell Clarke last fall, was opposed by a number of developers and community groups at a committee hearing earlier this year. Many of those parties testified on Friday in favor of a new version of the proposal.

As amended in committee, the bill would create a new Department, with a director appointed by  the mayor. The director would be paid $150,000 per year. The Department would have three divisions.

  • The Planning and Zoning Division would house the Historical, Art, and Planning Commissions as well as the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is currently under the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections.

  • The Development Services Division would help developers navigate permitting and approval for large projects and coordinate various regulatory boards and commissions. It would be aimed at reducing burdens and delays on development projects, and would also coordinate with community groups that weigh in on development.

  • The Division of Housing and Community Development would replace the Office of Housing and Community Development, which was created as part of the Mayor’s office by Frank Rizzo in the 1970s. OHCD currently administers federal Community Development Block Grants. The new Division would also include a Housing Advisory Board, which would convene various housing-development stakeholders. It would be required to create a strategic housing plan with recommendations on how to increase and maintain affordable and market-rate housing in the city.

“The proposed structure takes many of the positive elements of the structure currently in place to facilitate a coordinated approach to development across City government,” said Luke Butler, Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger’s chief of staff, testifying on behalf of the Nutter administration.

Also testifying in support of the proposal were the Development Workshop and the Crosstown Coalition of civic associations, two groups which have been at odds on a number of development-related proposals over the years, but which joined forces to try to delay and have more input on Clarke’s proposed charter change. Clarke initially wanted the proposal to be on the primary ballot earlier this month. After the earlier hearing, he convened a series of meetings with interested parties, and two of his staff members helped shepherd the bill through that process.

Joe Schiavo of the Crosstown Coalition told the committee that the proposal could have benefitted from even more discussion, but thanked Clarke for setting up the meetings. He said the crucial step is that, once the proposal is adopted (if it is adopted), Council has to fund it adequately. Underfunding the new Department would prevent it from achieving its goals, and would mean squandered effort by Council and others.

Craig Schelter and Michael Sklaroff of the Development Workshop said that although they’d initially hoped Clarke would create a special commission to consider this and other charter changes, the informal input process he put together for this proposal had been effective. They said they’re supporting the bill.

Also testifying in support of the proposal were Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, Anne Fadullon of the Building Industry Association, and Darrell Zaslow of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia.

So, substantial consensus on that. Reform at L&I, still to come.

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