Brian O’Neill’s bid to ban rooftop decks in Northeast Philly just got killed

A Philadelphia roof deck on a snowy morning (Katherine Urbaniak/Flickr)

A Philadelphia roof deck on a snowy morning (Katherine Urbaniak/Flickr)

Republican Councilmember Brian O’Neill wants to ban all roof decks and limit the height of homes in his Far Northeast Philadelphia district.

The longtime incumbent, who introduced the roof deck ban and 35-foot height limit earlier this fall, is no fan of the kind of dense, mixed-use development transforming many parts of the city. Instead, the Councilmember wants to limit development in his sprawling district and maintain the suburban character that has long defined it.

O’Neill was not forthcoming when asked about the legislation’s origins.

“A whole lot of things. I don’t want to get into details,” said O’Neill in response to a question about what inspired the bill.

But on Tuesday, the Planning Commission decided they didn’t like the idea of giving the Far Northeast a different height limit than the rest of the city, where residential development can rise to 38 feet. The appointed body, which usually only wields advisory power, voted to issue a 45-day delay on O’Neill’s legislation. Because there are not 45-days left in this four-year City Council term, the bill is officially dead.

Mike Doyle, who lives in O’Neill’s sprawling district, applauded the city board’s decision.

“The Planning Commission did the right thing,” said Doyle, zoning chair of the Parkwood Civic Association, a community group in the district. “From my vantage point, it seems like the councilperson just wants to keep everything the same in the Northeast. He just doesn’t want any change to happen there at all.”

Earlier this year, O’Neil successfully fought a mixed-use project planned by Northeast native Gary Wills for a vacant property near Northeast Philadelphia Airport.The Councilmember, testifying at a city hearing, slammed the project as an attempt to “take Passyunk Avenue up to Academy Road,” according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But O’Neill will be back for his 11th term this January — maintaining his ranking as Council’s longest-serving member. Considering the body’s tradition of councilmanic prerogative, there is little to prevent him from introducing similar legislation again.

For Doyle, that’s a shame.

“I understand where he is coming from, but the Northeast needs a more modern approach to development,” said Doyle.

Many planners who have closely tracked the city’s housing and economic needs agree.

Gary Jastrzab, retired executive director of the Planning Commission, said the Planning Commission’s vote against O’Neill’s bill represented a rare show of power.

He could only remember a couple of other times when the appointed body issued their version of a pocket veto.

“It was always for the same purpose,” said Jastrzab, “the commission opposed the bill and they wanted to kill it.”

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