Planning Commission recommends use of ‘alternate vehicle’ to pass new zoning code

Under the direction of its Chairman Tuesday afternoon, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved the use of Council Bill No. 110766, with provisos, to pass a new zoning code for the City of Philadelphia. 

The bill, which ZCC director Eva Gladstein presented to the Commission, was the 13th item on a 15-item agenda at Tuesday’s meeting. Gladstein explained that Zoning Bill 110766 would repeal the City’s current zoning and code replace it with two appendices: the Preliminary Report of the ZCC, issued in May, and a list of forty amendments recommended by Council to the ZCC for inclusion in its final report. 

Council’s bill, which was originally introduced by the recently re-elected 10th District Councilman Brian O’Neill, says nothing about the Final Report passed by the Zoning Code Commission last week. If it were to pass as is, work done by the Commission since May would be lost. 

Gladstein pointed out that the ZCC’s final report “includes amendments that reflect the wishes and requests of City Council, although not all of the amendments were done in exactly the same language City Council first suggested.” Moreover, Gladstein said, the final report includes amendments and updates to the earlier report which were made in response to suggestions from other parties such as developers, civic groups, and members of the Bar Association. Council’s list of amendments does not address those groups’ requests.

Gladstein reminded the Planning Commission that the zoning reform timeline set up in the Charter amendment which created the ZCC requires Council to either adopt, reject, or table the final report of the ZCC. She said Bill No. 110766 gives Council an “alternate vehicle” to getting a new code passed.

“With this piece of legislation, as with other pieces of legislation,” Gladstein said, “Council has the ability to amend  it as they see fit.”

Though Bill No. 110766 effectively sidesteps the Charter-mandated process, Gladstein recommended that the Planning Commission approve it, “subject to the condition that Appendices A and B are removed and replaced with the Final Report issued by the Zoning Code Commission and sent to City Council before November 17th.”

After Gladstein made her recommendation, Greenberger sought to clarify the meaning of the bill. “The subtlety here is simply this,” Greenberger said. “The Zoning Code Commission has worked for four years to make this code happen … It would honor the work of the Commissioners to have the bill passed with  the material that was developed by the Commission and sent up to Council, which at this point we believe answers all of the issues that Council brought up. It’s kind of that simple …” Greenberger said that the priority of those who’ve worked on the Zoning Code Commission is to get the new code passed.

Before  the Planning Commission voted on the recommendation, it took testimony from four parties.

Craig Schelter of Development Workshop reiterated his request that the ZCC make a one-word amendment to the code provision that deals with conditional permits. He asked that the word “not” be removed from a sentence which reads, “L&I’s decision on an application for a conditional zoning approval is not a final decision that may be appealed to the ZBA.” Schelter said that unless the word “not” was removed, the new zoning code would not clear the way for development to proceed as a matter of right, which is one of the goals of reform. Greenerger said that the Planning Commission would be happy to address the issue after the new code is passed and before it becomes effective.

Bryan McHale, a concerned citizen and zoning enthusiast, testified in support of Gladstein’s recommendation. “My own personal opinion,” McHale said, “is that the work that has been done by the Zoning Code Commission has earned them the right to have this passed under the original Charter provision that created them. I think it would be fitting to do so. If this is the way that it has to be done, ultimately, getting this passed by the end of the year, I think, is the most important thing.”

Stacey Graham, legislative counsel to At-Large Councilman Bill Green, said that City Council is in complete agreement with all parts of the final report, and urged the Planning Commission to approve Gladstein’s recommendation. James White, policy coordinator with the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, said that his group “wholeheartedly supports” the recommendation.

After the public testimony period, Greenberger asked the Planning Commission essentially not to comment on the recommendation, and rather to approve it as it was. He said that Craig Schelter’s concerns could be addressed after the code was passed.

“Ultimately, our suggestion is, don’t get in the middle of this one,” Greenberger said. “This was very carefully and heavily discussed and debated. Knowing how complicated it is, I just don’t think there’s any way for this Commission to on-the-spot insert yourself into the middle of it and feel confident that you know what you’re inserting yourself into. Hence, I suggest that you go with the staff recommendation.”

The Planning Commission obliged, without comment, and approved Gladstein’s recommendation. In the end, Council is under no legal obligation to acknowledge the ZCC’s final report, and will ultimately decide whether and how to use Bill No. 110766. That bill is scheduled for a Rules Committee hearing Friday morning, November 18th in City Hall.

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