‘Radio Times’: discussion about zoning, neighborhood issues

In advance of tonight’s third high-profile meeting of city developers and community groups, the second hour of Wednesday morning’s “Radio Times” call-in program on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia discussed citywide zoning and development issues.

Guests were Sam Sherman, a city developer currently focusing on infill projects who is the immediate past president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia; City Planning Commission chief and acting deputy mayor for commerce Alan Greenberger; and Penelope Giles, founder of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp.

The show, seeking to address the question, “Can Philly neighborhoods shape their own development,?” preceded tonight’s third and final “Common Ground” meeting, brought together by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Representatives from the first meeting with developers and the second gathering with community groups will come together for three and a half hours this evening.

Chris Satullo, executive director of news and civic dialogue at WHYY, sat in Wednesday for the show’s regular host, Marty Moss-Coane. Satullo has also been helping to moderate the Common Ground forums.

Satullo began with the main points of agreement and divergence: that while everyone agrees zoning reform is a much-needed, positive thing, almost everyone has differing ideas of what that entails. “It’s a question that right now is raising in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods a great deal of interest, energy and sometimes anxiety,” he said.

After giving a primer on what zoning is, for the benefit of civilians, Greenberger added, “What it doesn’t do is really talk about design. It doesn’t address, specifically, the qualitative issues of things that then get done within the city.”

Sherman said that the code, as it exists, does not allow developers to get a clear sense of what is, and what is not, allowed to be built.

“There’s a lot of vacant land in the city,” Sherman said. “Developers are attracted to that land because they can build new construction, typically – there’s a lot of rehab going on. But, one of the fundamental problems was that it was very unclear what the uses could and could not be. And if you wanted to do anything creative or different – subdividing an existing parcel or anything like that – it immediately kicked you into a situation where you had to obtain a variance.

“That … added a considerable amount of time to the overall approval process to get a project launched, and in our world, time is money.”

Giles said that the key issue is the effort on the part of the Zoning Code Commission to drastically reduce the caseload of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, by cutting down on the number of variances it must hear – thereby also “limiting the amount of community input.”

“Right now that’s the only way the community has a chance to give input, is if a project needs a variance,” Giles said. “How does the community stay involved?”

Listening in were many members of the city’s Crosstown Coalition of Communities, a group of neighborhood associations that formed last year representing Washington Square West, Logan Square, Old City, East Passyunk, Center City, Northern Liberties, South of South, South Broad Street and Society Hill.

“There are some real policy issues that are on the table that haven’t yet surfaced in the public domain, even though there’s a lot of private discussion underway,” Rob Stuart, of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), told PlanPhilly after the show.

Stuart cited concerns about consolidation of existing districts that are designated “commercial” and “residential,” just one of the 14 official recommendations presented to the Zoning Code Commission by the coalition in September 2009. Another is that the relationship and coordination between the activities of the proposed Design Review Committee and neighborhood groups must be clarified. The group also seeks an official definition of the word “minor” in the phrase “minor code variance requests,” suggesting that such requests be “limited to a single dimensional variance.”

“I think we need to ensure that there’s more than lip service paid to meaningful community group engagement,” Stuart said. “For many years, when the Planning Commission was not really a force, community groups have stepped up with very clear plans and guidelines for sustainable community development. That should be replicated in other places, instead of saying that neighborhoods are the problem.”

Sherman said he feels that developers are seeking “predictability” from community organizations.

“One of my biggest frustrations are the people who weren’t engaged in the process upfront, and then inject themselves into the process midway through, and suddenly you don’t have consensus anymore and you’re forced to go back and to start over,” he said. “The need for a variance is what drives us, and sometimes it feels like you’re on a treadmill where it never ends.”

As a result of some issues that arise during negotiations with a community, “the neighborhood may get nothing,” Sherman said. “You’re still left with either a blighted building or a vast tract of vacant land. The city and the neighborhood lose, and nothing gets built.”

Inconsistency, on the part of the city’s rules of the road, Greenberger agreed, is probably the biggest factor keeping developers out of Philadelphia.

Sherman also discussed parking issues (the “parking fetish” that exists among many residents, he said, adding that he lives in the city and does not own a car), mixed use development, and the increasing emergence and importance of walkability as a trend in neighborhood building. A veteran area builder, Sherman said that as bad as the city’s reputation is, a certain project could take, say, 18 months to complete. In many of the suburbs, he said, it could take up to five or even 10 years for approvals.

Combined with the current trend of urbanization, he said, that puts the city at a tremendous economic advantage.

“Anybody who loves Philadelphia is a friend of mine,” said Stuart, who has not yet met Sherman. “It does show that we can have a constructive dialogue. As Alan [Greenberger] said upfront, there is a lot of common ground. I think we should be pursuing excellence in terms of developer-community relations. Given the evidence, where neighborhoods have been proactive … it has made development better.”

Radio Times is repeated evenings at 10 p.m., and the show reference above is available anytime online here.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.

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