Philly tries to find its happy zone

    Philadelphia has long been a place where pitched battles between developers and neighborhoods break out.
    In this week’s commentary, Chris Satullo reports on a new attempt to broker a peace.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20100131.mp3]

    Talk to a real estate developer about Philadelphia neighborhoods, and he may get grumpy. He’ll describe those close-knit, feisty communities as the land of NIMBY, the clan of CAVE, the home of BANANA.

    N-I-M-B-Y – for Not in My Backyard.

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    Worse than that is C-A-V-E – Citizens against Virtually Everything.

    Even worse is B-A-N-A-N-A – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

    For years, the chief battleground between developers and change-averse neighborhoods has been the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. At the zoning board each side wins some, loses some – often without any clear rhyme or reason. And that gives rise to suspicions about hidden deals or mob intimidation.

    The problems trace back to the creaky old zoning code, which is nearly 50 years old. The city has changed just a bit since then. But few modern projects fit into those ancient rules.

    That means the developer needs what’s called a variance, express permission to vary from the written code. That’s where the developer vs. neighborhood battles often erupt.

    Philadelphia neighborhoods are places that people care about and fight tenaciously to protect. The average suburbanite can’t imagine how much will, how much wit, how much wallet Philly residents put into protecting their neighborhoods.

    In some prized areas, such as Northern Liberties or Mount Airy, residents determined to fend off unwanted projects have developed stunning mastery of law, urban planning and street theater.

    Some of their wins are well-earned. But resistance to bad development can easily morph into the Banana Principle, an opposition to all projects, no matter how needed or well-thought out.

    Now, the city zoning code is undergoing an overdue rewrite. As part of that, the city asked WHYY, the American Institute of Architects and the Penn Project for Civic Engagement to pull together a series of civic workshops where developers and neighborhood leaders could come together to agree on principles for a new project review process.

    The final workshop was last Wednesday. The lion did kind of lie down the lamb. Developers and civic groups did agree on a few core principles. The Arch Street Friends buzzed with ideas on how to make Philadelphia a place where growth happens without squandering the legacies that make the place special.

    No code rewrite can eliminate all controversy, all lawsuits. But if the spirit in the room Wednesday can be sustained, Philadelphia will become a far better place both to build and to live.

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