How special interests view the new zoning code

A zoning code does two things: it tells potential developers what they are allowed to build in a city, and it keeps some types of development away from other uses. Zoning may give a developer the right to build a row of three-story, multi-family houses in a certain neighborhood, for example, but it will bar him or her from turning around and building a strip club across the street.

In most cases, however, development proposals are not so blatantly obnoxious as putting naked people and alcohol across the street from homes. So in most cases, deciding which of these two things is more important—signaling what’s allowable or keeping things separated—is a matter of perspective.

The draft of the new zoning code that’s been prepared by  the Zoning Code Commission over the past four years claims to serve each of these purposes. It aims to “[promote] adjacencies of appropriate uses and conversely, [discourage] or [disallow] adjacencies of uses that should be separated,” as well as “[remove] barriers to enable responsible development to proceed ‘as of right.’”

These things are not, fundamentally, at odds. But uncertainty creeps in through the use of terms like “appropriate uses” and “responsible development.” Appropriate and responsible may mean one thing to a developer who wants to see investment, jobs, and economic growth in the city, but they will likely mean something else to a resident who’s enjoyed the character of a given neighborhood for 25 years.

Because of these different priorities, developers and community groups often wind up on different sides of specific zoning issues. Take Sky Plane Controls, a provision of the draft new zoning code that affects small portions of  the Center City Overlay District. The controls were implemented to prevent new buildings from obscuring too much of the “sky plane,” or how much sky a pedestrian can see while standing in the middle of the street and looking straight up.

As PlanPhilly has discussed before
, Joe Schiavo of Old City Civic Association thinks these controls are a smart way to protect neighborhood livability. He believes they should be expanded. Schiavo said the reason he supports Sky Plane controls is that they “ensure a greater sense of sky” for the pedestrian, and guard against the “cavern effect” that can overcome certain streets when too many buildings grow too high. He wants to see the controls expanded to north-south streets in Center City as well as the east-west streets they currently affect.

But Craig Schelter of Development Workshop thinks the provision should be eliminated. He called the Sky Plane provision “an academic notion,” “arbitrary,” “unworkable,” and “unintelligible.” Then he went on to tell PlanPhilly how he really feels.

“Our motto is, we should encourage investment in the city,” Schelter said. He said the Sky Plane provision is an obstacle to development. If the provision had been in place in the current code, Schelter said, the Comcast Center, among other buildings, would have not have been able to be built by right, and would have had to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance. “Essentially what you’re looking for is a variance from something that was arbitrary to begin with,” Schelter said.

Schiavo said that Schelter’s concern about the Sky Plane provision’s ability to stall development is overblown. He said that the Comcast building, for one, is only out of compliance with Sky Plane in a few small areas. If the provision had been in place when the Comcast project was proposed, he believes, the building still would have gone up without any major delays. “I believe that the architectural team could have made it remarkably similar,” Schiavo said.

Neither of these civic minded Philadelphians feels that the zoning code should be so onerous that it stops buildings like the Comcast tower from changing our city’s skyline. And that’s partially because the heart of each side’s stance is agreeable to the other side. Developers generally want residential neighborhoods to be comfortable places to live, and community groups generally want to invite new investment and development into the city. Both also want a coherent plan for the built environment. What’s in question is how such a plan should take shape.

Schelter made his position clear: “What I’m bringing to this discussion is a bias in favor of planning that gets you toward development,” he said. He feels that any kind of urban plan that doesn’t realistically and immediately invite new construction and new business is a poor urban plan. Schelter thinks things like Sky Plane controls, which are concerned with the experience of being a person walking around the city, should be confined to non-binding design guidelines.

“Aesthetic considerations should not be the basis for going to the Zoning Board of Adjustment,” Schelter said.

Schelter also takes issue with the portion of the draft that deals with the Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay because he feels it gives too much power to people who aren’t actively involved in development. A footnote in §14-507 of the draft reads: “Existing overlay controls have been deleted and this section is reserved for anticipated zoning standards that will be developed as part of the Master Plan.” Schelter thinks the plan for the Central Delaware, much of which is based around creating a vibrant public realm, is too abstract to be realistic.

“I’m not saying planning shouldn’t exceed our grasp,” Schelter said. “Planning shouldn’t exceed our grasp in such a way that we’re never going to get there.”

Developers and community groups work together to make every construction project in this city happen. And yet there is a fundamental gulf between their approaches to development. Developers tend to be interested in what can be done to build out certain portions of land, while community groups tend to be interested in what can be done to preserve or enhance the character of their neighborhoods.

“Capital and investment is like a river,” Schelter said. “It flows downstream. And if it hits an impediment, it doesn’t stop and build up. It flows around it.”

In the sense that the development community is most interested in removing impediments to as-of-right development, they will never see eye-to-eye with community groups.

Community groups are, for better and worse, impediments to as-of-right development. And that is by design. With important exceptions, witnesses who have testified before Council about the zoning code proposals over the past several weeks have supported passing the draft code.

But—just watch any of the videos posted on this website—they support with provisos. It’s those provisos that make it clear that developers and community groups have at least one common desire: more power to guide the evolution of Philadelphia’s built environment. City Council and the Zoning Code Commission simply have to decide how to divvy up that power.

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