New zoning code could limit neighborhood input

In Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, the most talked-about part of the city’s proposed zoning code is the community review process.

Under the draft, Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) — quite simply, neighborhood groups that register annually with the city — will be told about projects going before the Civic Design Review Committee (CDRC) by the Planning Commission.

(Confused? Read about when RCOs will be notified in the Zoning Code Commission’s draft (pdf), and when the CDRC is called upon on PlanPhilly.)

The CDRC, meanwhile, is a group of architects, planners, designers and one community member who will provide a non-binding recommendation to developers about large-scale and significant projects.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

RCOs have 21 days after being notified by the Commission to meet with the developer, and 30 days after that notification to document the meeting to the CDRC. Only one meeting is required under the new code, though RCOs can request more.


Chestnut Hill Community Association

Walter Sullivan, president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, isn’t happy about this time frame.

“Our principal concern is that we have an elaborate review process that was forged over decades, and this proposal would gut that process,” he says. “The 30-day period would not work.”

Currently, the Community Association’s review process is at least 38 days long.

Another concern of Sullivan’s is the CDRC, which will include only one community member — and his neighborhood is home to both the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chestnut Hill Residents Association.

“If the Residents Association came forward and suggested that we should represent the community in alternate years,” says Sullivan, “we would oppose that vigorously.”


Chestnut Hill Residents Association

Ron Recko, a founding member of the Residents Association, is also critical of the CDRC.

“The new code is not going to give a sufficient voice to the people,” he says. “I think the Community Association is primarily interested in business. So if only they have a say, it leaves the neighbors out.”

In the proposed code, all RCOs still have the freedom to support or oppose projects going to the CDRC.


West Mt. Airy Neighbors

Lizabeth Macoretta, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, is much more optimistic about the community review procedures. She sees the CDRC as beneficial to neighborhoods that aren’t as organized as her own, since the committee must include one community member.

“We’re very active here in Mt. Airy. But for areas that don’t have our resources, development might be happening without community input,” she says. “That won’t happen with the new code.”

Macoretta argues that people ought to consider how the new zoning code affects all of Philadelphia, not just where they rest their heads.

“I love Mt. Airy,” she says. “But I believe in being a citizen of Philadelphia, and we’re only one of some 140 neighborhoods in the city. We have to look at what is the good for the whole city.”


Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission is currently finalizing a whole new draft of the city’s zoning code (pdf), which will go to City Council next year. This article is part of a short series from PlanPhilly, which analyzes how the new code affects neighborhoods in the Northwest, and finds out what residents think about the changes.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal