Developers, community groups to meet with ZCC in January

Dec. 4

Opinion / Tossing out communities with the zoning code

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Formal workshops between civic associations, CDCs, developers, city planners and members of the Zoning Code Commission will take place in January, backed by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects and with funding expected from the William Penn Foundation.

Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Greenberger said that he and Zoning Code Commission Executive Director Eva Gladstein “thought that we didn’t have an organized dialogue, with community groups, with developers, with CDCs (community development corporations). We thought the smart thing to do would be to try and figure out what the process should be moving forward – what we should codify in the new zoning code by way of process.

“We’re going to have a code that has far fewer variances and that means more projects of-right. We knew this would be arguably the most complicated issue of the new zoning code, so we were talking about having an organized kind of conversation about this.”

Coincidentally, Greenberger said, the Urban Design Committee of the AIA was talking about the same thing with the William Penn Foundation – with the latter possibly funding a formal series of such workshops. The amount of funding is not yet known, but it would flow through the AIA, Greenberger said.

“We’re still in the formulative stages of the work,” said Harris Sokoloff, who directs the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. “We’re proposing to do three workshops, or deliberative forums. The goal is to give deliberative input to the Zoning Code Commission.”

The timing is intentional, as the ZCC is currently working on the administration and procedures section of the new code. Sokoloff said the workshops are intended to foster a narrative about the project review process. Questions such as what kinds of meetings should occur (once the new code is complete), what kinds of projects ought to be reviewed, proper public notice and how the results should be documented are among those that the participants at the workshops will attempt to provide input to, he said.

The first meeting (on January 19 or 20) would be for developers; the second is planned for leaders of civic associations (tentatively set for January 23).

“The third will be some sort of combined meeting – where the first two will be consolidated into some set of directions for recommendations,” Sokoloff said. “A set of criteria, standards, a set of broad best practices. We’ll then give input to the [ZCC] with the expectation that whatever we give to them, they will respond to, formally, in one of several ways – ‘Here is what we heard you say, and we’ve used that in the following ways.’”

But another goal is to have the ZCC explain what results from the forums that it cannot accommodate – and why, Sokoloff said.

“As Harris will tell you, they’re not looking to write the zoning code for us,” Greenberger said. “They are looking to get us feedback, and hopefully, from these various groups we can find enough common ground about the expectations, so we can craft sensible regulations involving process.”

“I do still believe that there’s a way to have projects that are of-right where entitlement is not in question, and at the same time, if the project has a significant impact, that you can have an organized dialogue with community groups about it. I really believe that’s possible and useful to all parties.”

Greenberger, like Sokoloff, said details about the workshops are far from worked out. “Hopefully there might be more common ground than everybody thinks,” he said. “None of these groups are homogenous – we recognize that.”

Crucial to the summit might be the involvement of CDCs, Greenberger added. CDCs straddle a unique position of being a developer but also a community advocate.

Perhaps more critical will be who among the private developer community shows up.

Who’s coming?
“We haven’t been asked to participate yet,” said Craig Schelter, who leads the Development Workshop, a group that will almost certainly be represented at the January meetings. “But the interesting thing for me is when [the ZCC] presented the quote-unquote unbiased public perception of the 975 participants who came up with 21 draft recommendations in eight key change areas. What amazed me was that none of the eight had anything to do with adding to the tax base or creating jobs.

“We did respond to the [ZCC] with a letter based on their 98 pages of recommendations generally hitting the high spots of that, and now we will delve more deeply into the change memo …  not the least of which is this notion of remapping concerns from community groups. On the development side, we’ve said we need the Planning Commission to go over some of these plans, as far as what they accept and what they reject.”

“My understanding is that the ZCC wants a good-faith, open dialogue,” said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. “My hope is that there will be a full and representative sampling of the development community and that they participate fully – and not just the Development Workshop, which in my opinion is not at all representative.”

Ruben’s gripe with the Development Workshop is that it is not clear who and how many developers are truly represented, because membership is not divulged.

“Being in a discussion and refusing to say who you’re representing is no better than being unwilling to say your name,” he said. Ruben said he hopes that groups like the Building Industry Association become more prominent in these kinds of conversations, adding that their membership is interdisciplinary and open.

“From the civics’ perspective, it is essential for people to understand exactly how they work,” Ruben said. “If there is an idea floating around that civic associations need to be placated and that fundamentally they are obstructionist, this is never going to get anywhere. … And the burden is on us to disabuse people of that notion.”

Permits for neighborhood associations?
“We are actually going to enter into a dialogue with developers, formally,” said Planning Commissioner Natalia Olson-Urtecho. “I don’t think that the civic associations are aware that they often have the same issues as developers.”

Olson-Urtecho believes neighborhood organizations and civic associations should be licensed, or submit to a permitting process. In the past, “I don’t think any of the civic associations have helped” to foster the kind of discussions hoped for at the January meetings.

Cross-city coalitions, such as the newly formed Neighborhoods Matter group, are “exactly why the system has failed,” she added. “That is why I really think we should have a set of rules, and a process that all the civic associations should adhere to – why not get permits? It has to stop somewhere.”

“Civics get together for a reason – we want to speak with one voice,” said Ruben. “It’s been a very common occurrence over the past few years. Being for or against” a coalition like Neighborhoods Matter is a waste of time, he said, because that kind of cooperation and resource-sharing is only getting stronger within the city.

That said, he agrees with Olson-Urtecho on the topic of certification of individual neighborhood associations.

“Permitting is an excellent idea,” Ruben said, adding that it was actually a recommendation his and other groups suggested in October. “It’s a perfectly reasonable requirement for the city to have.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Schelter said he’s inclined to disagree.

“My initial reaction is no,” Schelter said about giving permits to civic groups. “I say this based on some of the specific cases I’ve had – one where 32 abutting neighbors are saying they are in favor, and then the civic association comes along and said they knew better. …

“They vary so dramatically,” he said of the groups. Certification “doesn’t assure what I would feel is a rational approach. You also have ones where you have ward leaders throwing their weight around.”

“There needs to be actual discussion of what the groups are doing now,” said Rob Stuart, an active member of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “I think there’s a myth that civic associations are capricious and arbitrary and a so-called ‘drag on development,’ and frankly that’s inaccurate. Neighborhoods do matter, and the character of the city is a product of neighborhood involvement in zoning decisions. If it had been left up to the planners, South Street would have been an expressway.”

Greenberger said Olson-Urtecho’s suggestion will be considered, but “not to advocate for this, necessarily” – only to look into the possibility and weigh the pros and cons. “There are jurisdictions, and New York is one of them, where civic associations are certified,” he said. “Otherwise you’d be dealing with 5,000 groups … we have some of the same issues. It’s not entirely clear who we’re dealing with.”

Asked if the civic association certification question would be discussed at the workshops, Sokoloff said, “If somebody raises it, it will be put on the table.”

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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