Taking a “proactive” approach to land use plans in East Falls

The East Falls community has embarked on a year-long land use plan with Philadelphia University, Drexel University and the William Penn Charter School.

At a meeting on Monday, the East Falls Community Council voted unanimously to take on this project. Its raison d’être is to make the planning process between these institutions and community members more predictable. Now, the two groups usually meet only when a zoning variance is needed, which leads to piecemeal, last-minute planning.

“Right now, there’s no set process,” says Matt Wysong, the Northwest community planner for the city’s Planning Commission. “Neither side knows what the other wants until variance time.”

Currently, all three schools are zoned either “residential” or “commercial,” and the city hopes to eventually rezone them as “IDD,” an institutional district. To do this, the schools must submit master plans to the Planning Commission. As part of this project, community members will meet with the schools throughout the next year in order to understand how their master plans will affect the East Falls neighborhood — long before zoning variances are needed.

“It will allow residents to voice their concerns regarding institutional growth, while at the same time allowing the institutions to express what they need to do to grow and stay competitive in the 21st-century economy,” says Wysong.

In November, the community hopes to submit its land use plan to the Planning Commission. If the Planning Commission accepts it, they’ll then use it to guide the eventual district-level planning for that area, which is part of Philadelphia 2035, the first comprehensive citywide plan since the ’60s.

“Rather than being reactionary,” says Ted Swenson, an East Falls Community Council chairperson, “this will allow us to be more proactive in terms of where we want to go as a community.”

To create the land use plan, the community will form an advisory committee, made up of East Falls Community Council members, Wysong and other neighbors, whose job is to organize public meetings and submit the final report to the Planning Commission.

Also, a planning team, which will be composed of 24 to 30 community members, will take tours of the schools, identify the concerns of neighbors and institutions, and then create the land use plan. The community is still in the process of forming this team.

On Monday, one neighbor asked how this project would deal with, say, an institution wanting to expand by 1,000 students. Tom Sauerman, the president of East Falls Community Council, explained, “We’re going to get their long-range plans,” so the institution would have to spell out how such an expansion would affect parking, housing and other issues long before it began — thus giving the community plenty of time to react to it.

Another neighbor asked if two famous Fallsers — former Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Chaka Fattah — would affect this land use plan behind the scenes. Meg Greenfield, an East Falls Community Council chairperson, assured the group that the politicians would only have a say if they attended meetings “like any other person.” She then joked that former Gov. Ed Rendell’s feelings would surely be hurt if he knew he was left out of the group of famous Fallsers.

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