Exchange at the X-Change: ZCC stakeholder discussions kick off

After 44 public meetings and 36 neighborhood meetings, Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission launched another round of outreach: a seven-meeting series of “Stakeholder X-Changes” that began on Wednesday. Over three dozen people—many of whom represented organizations from communities under a high degree of development pressure—crowded a small twelfth-floor conference room overlooking Center City, a fitting aerie in which to discuss the future of zoning in Philadelphia.

Wednesday’s agenda included public notice for ZBA hearings and civic design review, required neighborhood meetings and the role of registered community organizations (RCOs), and the civic design review process itself.

The format of this meeting was akin to a roundtable discussion. In this setting, members of the community helped each other understand the impact of the code revisions. For example, when one attendee argued for notification of all zoning changes, Gladstein explained that changes requiring City Council action have their own public process, and Joe Schiavo of the Old City Civic Association jumped in to explain the rationale of civic design review.

“[The ZCC] has created a threshold, just at a certain number of square feed, that trips this process” of further community review of substantial projects, Schiavo said.

Gladstein and Natalie Shieh, the ZCC’s program coordinator, said that they were especially pleased by the discussion among meeting attendees, which primarily focused on the role of registered community organizations and the processes in which such organizations will participate.

“The groups must be focused on the physical environment,” Gladstein said. ‘The criteria will be in regulations promulgated by the Planning Commission, so they will have the force of law. But it gives us the ability to be more flexible than if they were in the code, when they’d have to be changed by ordinance.”

Two of the rights that RCOs will have include direct notice from property owners when a project requires a ZBA or CDR hearing, and a required community meeting with that property owner or developer. Only one meeting is required, though, which prompted extensive discussion of meeting mechanisms.

“Where there are overlapping community groups, does that mean there needs to be one letter?” asked Amy Miller of the East Kensington Neighbors Association.

“No,” Gladstein replied. “There’s no requirement to get to a yes or a no decision.”

Judy Stepenaskie, the vice president of Residents of Shawmont Valley Association, asked what happens if a development outside the area an RCO covers affects that area.

“Is this affected by standing? Say the development isn’t in the boundaries of your organization, but may affect you,” she asked.

“There’s nothing to stop your organization from going to a public meeting,” Gladstein replied, emphasizing as she did throughout the session that RCO meetings with developers are to be public, and publicized—so other organizations and residents are within their rights to attend and comment.

“What happens with strong opposition to a project at the RCO level and at the CDR level? How will the Planning Commission handle a project that a community isn’t interested in having?” asked Brian Wilson, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker in Philadelphia.

Gladstein explained that the Planning Commission does not always have its way with ZBA.

“ZBA’s job is to exercise judgment, but I’m sure there’s been experiences by people in this room where the ZBA has ruled against them. And CDR is a way to have the public weigh in on projects with an impact on the public realm. It will be a factor for [ZBA] to consider, but the recommendation is just that—a recommendation,” she said.

Getting appropriate feedback to ZBA was the focus of a lengthy argument by representatives from Northern Liberties and Kensington. Both neighborhoods are under development pressure, and representatives from both argued that one meeting may not be enough.

Larry Freedman, of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA), contended that two meetings were almost always required in order to reach a satisfactory agreement with a developer.

“The 45-day timeline [for required meetings and documentation] should start from the first meeting. Then there’s time to send in a really informed position. We don’t go down to ZBA and say yea or nay. It’s not about yea or nay. The ZBA much prefers the fighting to happen beforehand,” Freedman said.

Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop, the most prominent representative of development interests in attendance, said that a lengthier timeline would be problematic for investors bringing money from outside of the city.

“I haven’t had a case where I haven’t had multiple meetings with community organizations,” he continued, arguing that further increasing the minimum timeline for meetings would harm development. “It’s totally unacceptable that you’d have to wait for 90 days. If it’s a matter of right [and has to wait that long], investment will go to other cities.”

“People of good will who want to finish a project will work it out. The question is what are the minimum requirements,” Gladstein said.

Henry Pyatt of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation suggested that perhaps the issue was informing neighborhood residents about project details prior to the required meeting.

“One of the reasons you’re looking at two meetings being valuable is that the first meeting is to learn about the project, and the second is where people express their opinions,” Pyatt said.

Sam Little, of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, proposed that incentives be built into the code to accelerate development timelines if RCOs and developers can come up with “win-win situations.”

“What we’re talking about here is a fundamentally oppositional process. Most of the successful work is where you have mutual respect,” Little said.

Matt Ruben of NLNA agreed.

“The process isn’t just about meeting the neighborhood timeline. If you have one meeting, you don’t have interaction or a good dialogue. Do you want the ZBA to use a hatchet to split the difference, or do you want to use a scalpel at the neighborhood level? A second meeting with communities is essential,” Ruben said.

The largest issue at the meeting seemed to be a conceptual one: that of-right projects—those that conform to the new code—will be truly of-right. Zoning Code Commissioner Greg Pastore appealed to neighborhood groups to think about the zoning code not as a tool to oppose projects, but as law that will guide development and protect zoning districts once the renaming and remapping process is complete.

“The whole goal of this thing is to have fewer variances. They’re supposed to be less common and more minimal. Zoning is not about what neighborhoods like or don’t like about something at the neighborhood level. It’s a relief valve. That makes a lot of people nervous at the neighborhood level. Being fearful about getting steamrolled by some giant project—that’s what the code is about, not letting that happen,” Pastore said.

Wilson, the real estate agent, told PlanPhilly that he had many of his questions about the code answered during the meeting.

“I have a better idea of how the process works with local organizations, and from the design community standpoint, of how to get variances through ZBA,” he said. According to Wilson, the current code’s lack of clarity in the code has been a challenge when explaining to investor-buyers what they can do with a property. The revision, he hopes, will improve that process.

“It’s going to help me to help current and future clients make investment decisions,” he said.

Six “X-changes” remain:

  • Tuesday, March 22, 5:00 p.m. Focus: ZBA Hearings, Appeals, Variances, Special Exceptions
  • Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 5:00 p.m. Focus: Districts and Overlays
  • Tuesday, April 5, 8:00 a.m. Focus: Uses
  • Tuesday, April 19, 8:00 a.m. Focus: Dimensional Standards
  • Wednesday, April 27, 5:00 p.m. Focus: Other Development Standards
  • Tuesday, May 3, 8:00 a.m. Focus: Parking and Signs.

 All “X-Changes” will take place at 1515 Arch Street. 

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