Planning Commission delays recommendation on O’Neill bills restricting uses in commercial corridors

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to request an additional 45 days to make a recommendation on two bills introduced by 10th-District Councilman Brian O’Neill that change some use permissions in CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 zoning districts and create a new CMX-2.2 district. A hearing on the bills is scheduled for Council’s Committee on Rules for Tuesday, December 4th.

Council cannot take a final vote on any zoning bill until the Planning Commission makes a recommendation; its decision to put off that recommendation Tuesday means that Council won’t be able to formally adopt the bill this Council session. If the Rules Committee reports it out favorably, however, the pending ordinance doctrine requires that the City begin enforcing it as though it were law.

The two bills, 120916 and 120917, were presented to the Commission by deputy director Eva Gladstein, who also passed on the staff recommendation to request additional time. Gladstein pointed out that the bills would restrict 15 uses in CMX-2 zoning districts, a commercial corridor classification that is common in many Council districts, but least common in Councilman O’Neill’s. She also pointed out that it lowers the maximum height in the CMX-2.5 district from 55 feet to 38 feet and removes the requirement that developers build to the front lot line. There is no CMX-2.5 zoning in the 10th District represented by O’Neill.

Gladstein said that the request for more time was made in part because the Commission has not had ample opportunities to meet with O’Neill’s office to talk about why the changes were introduced. She said the bills also fail to support the purposes of zoning reform laid out in the Home Rule Charter, and that they additionally do not meet the Philadelphia2035 Citywide Vision goals of strengthening neighborhood centers by “clustering community-serving public facilities” and “developing viable commercial corridors.”

The use changes proposed by O’Neill would prohibit or require special exceptions for some uses currently allowed by right in CMX-2, including Animal Services, Prepared Food Shops, Community Gardens, and Market or Community-Supported Farms.

O’Neill explained in a conversation with PlanPhilly last week that he didn’t want to oppose uses such as pet supply stores, but that the Animal Services use category also includes things such as dog kennels, which he said may not be appropriate for some commercial corridors.

The proposed prohibition of community gardens in CMX-2 districts brought some opposition to Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting. Sally McCabe, a project manager at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, said that around a third of the city’s community gardens are in CMX-2 districts. She said that PHS strongly opposes the two bills.

Planning Commissioner Brian Abernathy said that it was unusual for a District Councilmember to introduce zoning legislation which primarily affects districts other than his own. Commission Chair Alan Greenberger concurred, and additionally noted that the changes are premature; the Commission feels the code should be allowed to work for a year before substantial changes are made. (It later broke with that reasoning in recommending approval of a less controversial bill that nevertheless adjusts certain zoning procedures citywide.)

“On the [O’Neill bills], it’s had three different versions, and we’ve never been given an advanced copy, so the first time we saw this was at the end of the day on Thursday,” Eva Gladstein told PlanPhilly. “It’s pretty complicated the way the two bills work together, and we don’t think we’ve been able to thoroughly vet it, [nor] do we think District Council people whose districts are very involved … have been able to really review it. So on that basis we just felt like more time was needed by everybody.”

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