Philly Council President Darrell Clarke begins 2021 session with push for more power over development

City Council President Darrell Clarke’s first big legislative move of 2021 was to reup a push for more control over real estate development in the city.

The Philadelphia skyline is seen from the Market Frankford platform at 63rd Street.

The Philadelphia skyline is seen from the Market Frankford platform at 63rd Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the first City Council meeting of the new year, Council President Darrell Clarke reupped a push for more control over real estate development in the city. Introduced by Councilmember Brian O’Neill on behalf of Clarke, the resolution would authorize a council-led Zoning Code Review Commission.

The resolution was adopted in 2019 but the commission never formed so it needed to be reintroduced in order to move forward in the current council term.

Two years later, amid a pandemic that has sent the city’s economy into a tailspin and its budget into a hole, Clarke wants to get the commission formed with the goal of ultimately remaking the code that dictates city construction and development.

“There are significant concerns about gentrification, significant concerns with density,” said Clarke in 2019.

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Councilmembers and their appointees would lead the proposed commission in a comprehensive review of the code, last reworked in 2012. The commission would hold public hearings and submit a report recommending code changes to City Council and the mayor.

The Zoning Board of Adjustments appears to be a main target of the legislation. The resolution argues that the overwhelming rate of variance approvals given by the board shows a disconnect between planning laws, enforcement and neighborhood desires. While the 2012 zoning code revision was intended to reduce the influence of the ZBA board and the number of variances approved, Clarke and others argue not much changed on that front. In 2017, the ZBA approved 92% of zoning variance cases heard, according to a 2018 City Planning Commission Report. 

Even when zoning maps are updated, the ZBA board, largely appointed by the mayor, still has the power to override them and frequently does.

The resolution reintroduced Thursday was introduced originally in 2019 alongside a bill that would have banned variances for multifamily housing in so-called “Single Family Preservation Districts.” That bill, which got stuck in committee,  noted that “every time the ZBA grants a variance, the Zoning Code is undercut, and the character of a neighborhood is permanently changed.”

Both the resolution and the 2018 report it cites say the decisions of the ZBA dissuade community engagement since variances can be approved regardless of their input. One of the goals of the resolution is to lower the rate of approvals for zoning variances.

The resolution maps out priorities for the commission, such as reviewing zoning code provisions to determine if neighborhoods are “enhanced” or “threatened” by them. The commission would judge if zoning code provisions “compound effects of gentrification,” and increase the supply of affordable housing and help the city meet other goals. It would also assess the “suitability” of parking regulations and the “performance” of the ZBA.

The resolution’s rebirth comes on the heels of the city announcing the creation of a Reimagine Steering Committee earlier this month to develop more inclusive and equitable processes to increase the public’s participation in budget and planning decisions. That committee is meant to help with an update to the Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive master plan. The Planning Commission will start implementing strategies from the committee in 2022, 10 years after the last plan was released and the zoning code was last updated. While the master plan is not a legally binding document, city planners intend for it to guide city zoning regulations and development policies.

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Mayor Jim Kenney’s office declined to comment on the resolution.

Claire Adler, a student in Temple’s city and regional planning graduate program and the president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, said she’s not necessarily opposed to Clarke’s proposed commission, but questioned why City Council would lead it instead of planners.

“It’s strange to propose a council-led effort on something we already have,” she said. “We already have a commission to do this kind of work and it’s the Planning Commission.”

Lance Haver, the treasurer of the Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition and the city’s former director of consumer affairs, said he’s open to the idea because he believes there’s a chance more communities will be heard. He worked under Clarke for three years as director of civic engagement for City Council.

“A council commission that decides to look at each neighborhood individually as opposed to an executive branch of governance zoning overlays is going to be helpful because the neighborhoods will have more of an opportunity to be heard,” he said. “Now if the goal is to take power away from the community, that would be a mistake.”

Other neighborhood groups, like Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation in the neighborhood where Clarke grew up have already embraced a community-driven approach to zoning, relying on support from City Council. In December, the neighborhood scored a victory with a zoning overlay designed to guard against gentrification, legislation introduced by Clarke.

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