Despite impassioned testimony in opposition Wednesday morning, City Council’s Committee on Rules favorably recommended a bill that would change the zoning designations of some parcels in Norris Square from multi-family to single-family residential. The Committee also suspended the rules of Council to allow the bill to get a first reading at the next Council session, which is Thursday morning.
Wednesday’s recommendation from the Rules Committee all but assures that the bill will be enacted by City Council before its summer recess.
By way of overview, the bill, No. 120214, was introduced into City Council by 7th-District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez on March 15th of this year. The bill proposes changing the designations of all R-10 parcels between York, Front, Second, and Berks streets to R-10A, a classification which allows only single-family residential uses by right.
Three weeks after introducing the bill, the Councilwoman held a community meeting, along with members of the City Planning Commission, to explain its impacts. That meeting was contentious, with Sánchez saying it was hijacked by members of Norris Square Civic Association, whose plans for the redevelopment of the St. Boniface site on Norris Square Park into 15 co-op residential units would be disrupted by the bill.
Shortly thereafter, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the bill, by a vote of 5-2. Before that vote, members of NSCA and other Norris Square residents protested the bill outside the City of Philadelphia building, saying it was being pushed through without their understanding its ramifications. The bill could have moved ahead even if the Commission had disapproved it, but its recommendation certainly didn’t slow it down.
Since that meeting, Councilwoman Sánchez released a letter outlining alternate plans for the St. Boniface site, and criticizing NSCA’s use of federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds.
NSCA pulled permits for the residential portion of the St. Boniface development prior to the Planning Commission meeting last month, and the Commission assured them at that time that the rezoning wouldn’t affect any property which has already legally attained its permits. Councilwoman Sánchez told PlanPhilly after the meeting that she would move to block the issuance of those zoning permits in order to stop the development of the site according to NSCA’s plans, which she calls an “overutilization.” More recently, Sánchez refused to say what steps she is or isn’t taking to block the permits.
Several Committee members at Wednesday’s hearing sought to assure witnesses protesting the rezoning because of its potential effect on St. Boniface that the plans wouldn’t be affected, as long as the permits were “properly,” “legally,” or “validly” obtained. In a recent letter to community residents, Councilwoman Sánchez sought to make the same assurances.
“It is also important to set the record straight about NSCA’s proposed multifamily development at the St. Boniface site,” Sánchez wrote. “That project has already received use permits from the City and will be unaffected by the change as long as those permits were validly granted.”
Sánchez reiterated her opposition to the plans in that same letter.
At the first community meeting about the rezoning bill on April 9th, Councilwoman Sánchez said she would come back and hold another meeting in two weeks to clarify the implications of the bill for residents whose questions went unanswered during the first contentious meeting. At the Planning Commission meeting a week and a half later, she made the same promise again. That meeting has now been scheduled for May 22, at West Kensington Ministries on Diamond and Hancock streets, at 6:30 p.m.
Unlike in earlier meetings on the bill, public testimony in Wednesday’s Rules Committee hearing was more split among supporters and opponents of the rezoning.
In her testimony, Patricia DeCarlo, director of Norris Square Civic Association, directed most of her criticism of the legislation to the process that brought it to the Committee Hearing. DeCarlo said that Councilwoman Sánchez had approached NSCA’s St. Boniface redevelopment with an attitude of “You haven’t convinced me yet,” but that her desires for the site had been obscure.
“The vote taken by the Planning Commission was another disappointment in how our democratic government process operates,” DeCarlo said in a prepared statement. “A neighborhood has its zoning designation changed, which seriously limits the property’s use, with one week’s notice, in a process that generally takes months, and a professional entity such as the Planning Commission kicks it down the road to City Council, because their vote is ‘advisory.’”
Other witnesses urged the Committee to disapprove or simply delay the legislation in order to give the neighborhood more time to understand its implications.
Several Committee members, both during and after the hearing, expressed surprise at the opposition, saying that neighborhoods often embrace R-10A rezoning, as it limits multi-family conversions and guards against too much density.
Other witnesses, including residents Victor Negron and Gary Summerfield, spoke in support of the legislation, pointing out that it would give the community an increased say in what gets developed in Norris Square.
In the end, the Committee did what it was almost certainly going to do before any of the witnesses spoke: it unanimously recommended that the bill be enacted.