Divided Planning Commission recommends zoning change for Norris Square

By a split vote of 5-2, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission recommended approval Tuesday afternoon of a bill that would change the zoning designations of certain residential units in Norris Square.

The bill, introduced by 7th-District Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez, converts all R-10 parcels between Front, York, 2nd, and Berks streets to R-10A, as explained in a PlanPhilly story last week. Multi-family housing is allowed by right in R-10 districts, while R-10A is restricted to single-family housing.

Councilwoman Sánchez has said she introduced the bill partially in response to a growing number of conversions from single- to multi-family housing in the neighborhood and their potential to drastically increase the density of the area. But she also admitted that the bill was inspired in part by her opposition to the planned redevelopment of St. Boniface by the Norris Square Civic Association (NSCA). Sánchez considers NSCA’s plans for St. Boniface, which include 15 co-op residential units, an “overutilization” of the site.

Before Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, members of NSCA and other residents of Norris Square showed up outside the City of Philadelphia building to publicly air their opposition to the zoning change. The group carried homemade signs and chanted slogans like, “St. Bonnie’s plan is moving on,” and “Don’t dictate, educate.”

Some community members say the bill is a blatant attempt at spot zoning by Councilwoman Sánchez. Others say it is an imposition of one Councilperson’s political will on an entire community. Many wonder why the change is being introduced now, and want a clearer explanation of how it will impact Norris Square.

“My urge to [the Planning Commission] is that they wait,” said Maria Camoratto, the real estate director for NSCA. “Why rush into new zoning when the community clearly doesn’t understand, doesn’t, possibly, agree? My desire is for them to table the bill until they can do a full community input, community public hearing, community meetings.”     

To be clear, the Planning Commission does not have the authority to table Sánchez’s zoning bill. The Commission’s role in all development-related bills before City Council is merely advisory; Council alone will decide whether to pass the bill regardless of the Commission’s recommendation.

Nonetheless, it seemed for a few moments that the Planning Commission might delay making a recommendation. After hearing about an hour of testimony, mostly in opposition to the bill, Commissioners seemed to think it might be a good idea to have a more involved community engagement process before moving forward with the zoning bill. But none put forward a motion.

Before the meeting, Planning Commission staff member Martin Gregorski told PlanPhilly that he planned to recommend approval of the bill partially because it would not, he said, affect the redevelopment of St. Boniface. NSCA pulled zoning permits last week, which, Gregorski said, would allow the project to be “grandfathered” in to any new zoning designation. (Though multi-family housing is allowed by right in R-10 districts, developers need to obtain Use Registration Permits from L&I in order to build multi-family dwellings. That process is less onerous than going to the ZBA for a variance.)

Prior to the Commission’s vote, Gregorski clarified, “If you have a permit by when this bill goes in, you can still do whatever you were going to do when this bill passes.”

The Councilwoman has 30 days to oppose the issuance of those permits, which she told PlanPhilly she “absolutely” would do.

Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger asked whether the Councilwoman and the community would be able to hold a non-confrontational meeting regarding the zoning change as a follow-up to the confrontational meeting held last week. NSCA director Patricia Di Carlo said yes, it was possible; Councilwoman Sánchez said no, it was not. While Sánchez agreed to hold another informational meeting, she said she didn’t trust DiCarlo and NSCA not to disrupt it.

“I’ve disrupted many a meeting in my day,” said Sánchez.

After the meeting, some members of NSCA said they doubt whether Sánchez will hold another community meeting now that the Planning Commission has recommended approval of her bill. One community member predicted Sánchez would forgo another meeting because she now doesn’t need the full community’s approval, though in reality, she never did.

The Planning Commission came to its recommendation feebly.

“I feel,” said Commission Chairman Greenberger, “and I’m getting a sense from the rest of the [Commission] that you feel as though it would be valuable to this Commission to have better information on the broader subject …”

But as the Commission appeared poised to delay a recommendation, Commissioner Brian Abernathy spoke up, saying it was the Commission’s job to look at both sides of issues that come before it and take a position.

“When I weigh the pros and cons of this proposal, I don’t see many cons,” Abernathy said. “I see lots of pros.”

Abernathy said he felt Sánchez was making a genuine effort to inform the community about the effect of the bill, and that the Commission would be taking the “easy road” by putting off a recommendation on the bill. He made a motion for approval of the staff recommendation, which was seconded and called to a vote. All voted aye except Nancy Rogo Trainer and Commission Vice-Chairman Joseph Syrnick, who remained opposed.

Pat DiCarlo of NSCA said she was disappointed by the Planning Commission’s recommendation, and by what she described as a hasty remapping of Norris Square. She said any rezoning of the neighborhood should be done through the remapping of the Lower North district as part of the Philadelphia 2035 plan.

“It’s never a lost cause to voice your opinion,” said Maria Camoratto, prior to the Commission’s vote. “The community wants to put forth their opinion and they want their voice to count. The Councilwoman, as well as the Planning Commission, as professionals and representatives of the community should, we hope, hear the voice of the community, and that’s why we’re here … The Councilwoman can move forward without the support of the Planning Commission, but we hope that she will come to the table to see our point of view.”  

In the end, Councilwoman Sánchez can move the bill forward with the support of the Planning Commission. And as far as St. Boniface is concerned, Sánchez has made it clear she will do everything she can to impede its progress.

“I will challenge it, I will appeal it, and I will run down the clock on them,” Sánchez said.

It’s hard not to wonder what portions of the Norris Square community are represented by NSCA and by Councilwoman Sánchez, and what portions are left out by both.

Naturally, both parties claim to represent the entire neighborhood, NSCA as a decades-old Norris Square institution, and Sánchez as the duly elected Council person.

Perhaps most importantly, each side accuses the other of being disingenuous, anti-democratic and non-transparent. Sánchez says that NSCA does a poor job of sharing its plans with the community at large and is concerned only with developing the projects it decides to dvelop. NSCA complains that Sánchez won’t reveal who in the community supports her bill and accuses her of hiding her real intentions for introducing it.

On the non-transparency accusation, at least, it seems that both sides are right, and neither has the high ground.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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