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In North Philadelphia, a lightly attended Zoning Code open house

This article was co-written by Taara El-Savage and is a project completed in partnership with Temple University’s journalism capstone class Philadelphia Neighborhoods. Students Savage-El and Sharpe will cover zoning code reform, focusing on its impact on neighborhoods through December.

Neighbors in North Philadelphia received an update about forthcoming zoning code reform earlier this month when the Zoning Code Commission held an open house for residents of the 7th City Council district.

Some citizens who attended the event at the Community Academy Charter School on East Erie Ave. criticised the Zoning Code Commission for a lack of communication between the organization and neighborhood residents, perhaps evidenced by a modest turnout at the Oct. 13 meeting.

Many neighborhoods were absent representation at the meeting, while others, like Juniata Park and Kensington were responsible for most of the turnout. While these two neighborhoods were relatively well-represented at the open house, neighbors in the north and west portions of the district, including Hunting Park and Fairhill, were not present.

“We don’t know anything,” said Virginia Dennis, Juniata Park Civic Association representative. “Committee people need to get notices, because we find out [about zoning issues] at the last minute,” she said. A dearth of communication was also an issue for Robin Moore of the West Fairhill Community Association, who found out late about the open house zoning code reform meeting, she said.

The open house was the seventh in a series of fall events meant to alert neighbors to changes that could be delivered by zoning code reform.

A video from the Oct. 13 open house. Story continues below…

Dialogue at the meeting centered around unwanted land use, especially concerning commercial development. Dennis, who has taken issue with what she called a nuisance tattoo shop in Juniata Park, remarked about wanting the Commission to respond to street-level issues like ones in her neighborhood. Matt Slonaker Sr., vice president of the Juniata Park Civic Association said too that he was concerned about “stores that want to open up in the middle of the block.”

Another community leader worried about transit-oriented development and its relationship to density. Jeff Carpineta, the president of the East Kensington Neighbors Association, said that transit-oriented development was important but that limits should be maintained. 

“TOD is important because of the El stops in Kensington,” he said, adding though that he does not want to see density significantly bolstered, nor does he want to see height restrictions relaxed.

The vacant property problem and the perceived inattention the city pays to that issue were also topics in interviews following the meeting. “There has been a vacant house across from me for ten years that is waiting to fall over,” West Fairhill’s Moore said, before also alluding to the former Edison Building at 8th and Lehigh, which has stood vacant for many years.

Maria Quinones-Sanchez, 7th district Councilwoman who was present at the event, lauded the potential for redevelopment that the zoning code rewrite could create. She pointed to all the abandoned factories in her district that could be redeveloped as residences or businesses.

The open house was presented much like the six other events organized by the Zoning Code Commission. ZCC representatives stood in front of sandwich board posters which explained the code reform.

Some folks, though, felt that the format didn’t open dialogue about the changes. Dennis, of the Juniata Park Civic Association, would have preferred a forum at which residents would have the opportunity to pose questions to the Commission in front of a crowd. While Dennis said that the posters “sort of” addressed questions, she was still dissatisfied with the format.

Other residents complimented the Commission for undertaking such an ambitious overhaul. “It’s stellar work being done,” said Carpineta, of the East Kensington Neighbors Association. “Voices of neighborhood groups are being heard.”

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