Exit interview: Andy Toy, former Zoning Code Commissioner

Andy Toy’s resume made him a natural fit for the Zoning Code Commission.

He has degrees in economics and public policy from the University of Pennsylvania. He worked for the city’s Commerce Department and developed Philadelphia’s program to rehabilitate brownfield sites and restore them to use. He was a program officer at the Local Initiatives Support Commission, which supports the economic redevelopment work of Philadelphia’s community development corporations. After losing a campaign for an at-large City Council seat in 2007, Toy headed to The Enterprise Center, where he now directs the Retail Resource Network, which supports the development of local retail businesses. He serves on boards ranging from the Chinatown Development Corporation, to the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, to the neighborhood association in Logan Square, where he lives.

And he’s hoping that in this election cycle, his resume will be a natural fit for City Council. He resigned from the ZCC in December, to launch another run at an at-large Council seat.

“In terms of the at-large seat, we need to have people who are willing to look at the tax structure and the zoning code, issues like that,” Toy said. He said he would like to see a revision in how property is taxed, to spur more productive land use in Philadelphia.

“I’m a big believer in land value taxes, to try to push more of the tax rate to the land and encourage people to develop their properties,” Toy said, “and discourage people from speculation and holding on to their properties.”

Councilman Darrell Clarke appointed Toy to the ZCC, and while Clarke represents the 5th District, Toy said, “He was very gracious in terms of allowing me to look at how the code should be improved as a code for the whole city.”

Toy spoke generously of his work with fellow commissioners, as they considered how to develop the new code.

“What was great about it was this sense of compromise and working together,” Toy said. “It was really about a group of people sitting together and hashing things out. My view wasn’t the one that was always taken for sure, but I’m pretty satisfied that we came to reasonable accommodations to a lot of people.”

In addition to what Toy argued was a general streamlining of the zoning code, he said two aspects of the new code most pleased him: Civic Design Review (CDR) and the introduction of an affordable housing bonus for builders in Center City. He praised CDR for formalizing neighborhood feedback on development projects that are especially large or out of scale with the surrounding community.

Many affordable housing advocates would like to see some kind of mandate in the code, but Toy maintained that incentives permitting larger, and potentially more profitable, buildings are the most exigent way to foster affordable housing. Toy said that some developers “will try to take an easier way out, which is to put some dollars into a trust fund, and the housing will be built somewhere else.”

Nonetheless, he hopes to see more mixed-income housing development.

“I’m a big believer that we don’t want to put all the affordable housing in one neighborhood. It’s good public policy to incorporate that [housing] into each development as it goes forward,” Toy said.

“We’ve been able to encourage that in Chinatown, and there’s been movement on some of those projects—so it is doable.”

Toy expressed confidence that the ZCC soon will forward the revised zoning code to City Council, but worried that there could be a long wait for a council vote.

“I’m not confident that Council will adopt it before the election,” he said. “It seems to me that a portion of the council people have been paying attention. But some haven’t been paying close attention to the work of ZCC. They’ll have to be brought up to speed. Because of the size and scope of the changes and the work that we’ve done, they may not be able to look forward just because some of them haven’t been paying attention.”

Befitting a political figure, Toy declined to identify those council members whose attention to zoning may not be very keen, saying only, “Not all the council people have been coming to all the meetings, or some of the community meetings in the districts. Some are more aware of all the changes than others. There’s going to be some informing of people that needs to happen.”

He did express another concern, a structural issue identified by a number of observers: when City Council returns later this month, the attention of members will turn to the city budget. Toy hoped that Council will not put the revised code on a back burner.

“That will be a big issue,” Toy said, “but they need to be able to look at the budget and do other things as well. It’s going to be hard. Because it’s an election year, there’s also the issue of the fear of change. The status quo is the easy way out, I think.”

Toy said that the 2007 charter amendment authorizing the ZCC and revised code was a mandate from voters: to fix Philadelphia’s troubled zoning laws and cumbersome administration, and to do so quickly.

“I’m hopeful that everyone understands that there was a clear message from the voters that we needed to do this. It took us three years to get here. Anyone who wanted to be engaged [had the chance]. There’s the chance that somebody who wasn’t might jump up at the end and say ‘I didn’t know!’ But that’s the nature of this kind of process.”

“We went to communities again and again,” Toy said. “The question is whether the council people feel that because there’s one or two people who aren’t happy about one small issue, whether that should bring the process to a grinding halt. That would be a big mistake, given how much time has been spent engaging communities and giving people the chance to give input.”

Even now, time is left to offer feedback. The ZCC is soliciting “short, targeted comments and recommendations through January 21, and is scheduled to vote on the referral draft of the revised code—the draft that will be sent to City Council—on February 9*.

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

*Originally, this story stated that the ZCC vote on the revised code was tentatively scheduled for January 26. The vote is now scheduled for February 9.

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