New zoning code seeks new balance for city

    Zoning matters.

    It affects everyone in Philadelphia. It governs the size of your house, what your block looks like, where you shop, and where you work. 

    It can prohibit certain types of development and encourage others. 

     

    Good zoning sets clear rules and expectations about land use, stabilizes neighborhoods, protects parks, and encourages investment and jobs.

    Philadelphia is about to complete its first comprehensive re-write of its zoning code in 50 years, and the changes in it will create a platform for a more sustainable city for future generations.

     The Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) was created in 2007, when 80 percent of the voters approved an initiative to fix a confusing zoning code and a broken approval process.   The 31-member Commission includes community leaders, business and labor representatives, developers, planners, architects, lawyers, and city officials.

    Having such a broad cross-section of members enabled the ZCC to reach out to diverse communities, hear the many voices in this city of neighborhoods, and work to strike the right balance on contentious issues.  (Click here to see a list of zoning commission members.)

    A badly broken system

     The current zoning code has been amended thousands of times as communities and elected officials tried to fix problems relating to specific projects or areas of the city, resulting in a confusing and sometimes conflicting jumble of regulations. 

    Thousands of projects—ranging from home repair work to the construction of skyscrapers—were delayed by having to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  For residents, property owners and investors, the code has been an impediment to an orderly and understandable development process.

    To prepare for the task, the commission examined models from other cities and states, and looked at development approval processes. With the help of national and local experts, the Commission conducted a comprehensive analysis of the existing zoning code; consulted with community and professional code users; and heard from thousands of citizens about their priorities, concerns, and hopes for the new zoning code.

    From the very beginning, the ZCC worked hard to engage the public in the process.  Each of our 37 meetings (and counting) has been open and dozens of citizens have regularly attended.  The meetings have been broadcast on the City’s cable channel and covered by the media.  Our website, www.zoningmatters.org, is full of information about the zoning code and our code reform process.

    In addition, the ZCC hosted more than 30 meetings in neighborhoods to keep Philadelphians informed about our progress and seek their feedback.  We have interviewed hundreds of code-users and met in small groups with many civic associations.   We spent three months last winter working with civic associations and the development community on the challenge of structuring a new system for public input into the development process. This “Common Ground” project was carried out by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, with WHYY as the media partner.

     We have heard from many diverse voices, and from every corner of the city.  We have heard from folks who are experts in the zoning code because they care about their neighborhoods and volunteer their time to civic associations, from professionals who use the code in their daily work, and from entrepreneurs who invest or want to invest in Philadelphia.

    A host of balancing acts

    Our goal throughout the process has been to weave this input into a zoning code that helps neighborhoods and the City as a whole achieve its vision for the future.

     We have spent many hours trying to find the best way to give residents a voice in development projects while protecting the rights of property owners, creating appropriate development standards without stifling the creativity of developers and their architects, setting uniform regulations while preserving the character of our diverse neighborhoods, and creating a code that is easy to administer while providing the flexibility for change over time.

     These are just a few of the many balancing acts we have had to perform.  The resulting changes to the new zoning code reflect the common ground we all share in wanting neighborhoods to grow in a fair, equitable and sustainable way. 

    We are confident that we have created regulations that can help bring investment and jobs to the city, preserve our cherished historical and natural resources, and support the continued engagement of our citizens in planning for our future.

    The coming steps

    The ZCC released a draft of the code on Sept. 8, and has conducted 10 open houses across the city to make citizens aware of the key provisions and seek their feedback. On Nov. 12, we received over 300 pages of comments from 50 individuals and organizations in response to our request for written input on the draft code. A revised draft of the code will be published the week of Dec. 6 on our website.

    The new code will move to City Council at the end of 2010 or the beginning of the new year, when Council members will schedule a public hearing, have the opportunity to request changes of the ZCC, and will vote to approve or reject the ZCC-recommended revisions.

     As we work for approval from Council, we look forward to a Philadelphia where the rules for building are clear and the process is transparent. We will all welcome this outcome.

     Eva Gladstein is executive director of the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission.

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