Planning Commission says no to medical office bans, yes to LOVE Park garage transfer

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to oppose a bill that would amend the zoning code to prohibit all new medical and dental offices in the first Councilmanic district, covering much of South Philadelphia and the River Wards, introduced late last year by Councilman Mark Squilla.

The Commission had previously voted to oppose a similar bill banning new medical offices in Northeast Philly’s 6th and 8th Councilmanic districts; that bill later passed Council. The Planning Commission’s reviews of Council legislation are advisory only.

The bills banning new medical offices are widely understood as a roundabout way of banning new methadone clinics, which many residents feel are detrimental to neighborhoods. Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger compared these bills—which also prohibit new doctors and dentists from opening up shop in the neighborhoods they affect—to “doing fine carpentry with a hatchet.” The bills have massive unintended consequences, he said.

The Councilmen involved in introducing the bills, Squilla as well as Bobby Henon and Brian O’Neill, have suggested that the prohibitions simply add a layer of approval at the zoning board so that neighbors can have a say. If a doctor wants to move into a neighborhood, the community is likely to support it, and therefore the zoning board would as well.

But Greenberger said that’s not necessarily likely. Since the city adopted a new zoning code, the board has been trying to enforce the concept that zoning variances are granted only when there is a legitimate hardship. It’s not supposed to simply hand out exceptions to the rules because communities are OK with the proposed use.

Greenberger also said that if the rest of the district Council members followed suit, new methadone clinics would be banned citywide. The city would then likely face a federal lawsuit for an unconstitutional ban on a particular use, and it would likely lose, Greenberger said.

PlanPhilly will have more on this issue later in the week. A Council Committee hearing on Squilla’s zoning bill is scheduled for February 12th, at 10 a.m.

Also on Tuesday, the Commission approved two bills related to the sale of the parking garage beneath JFK Plaza, better known as LOVE Park. One of the bills authorizes the sale of the garage, but not the land above, below, or surrounding it, to Chicago-based InterPark Holdings. The sale price would be $29.6 million, give or take $1 million. The other bill authorizes a series of easements so that the garage could still function as a garage, even though the city will retain parts of the property used for entering and exiting it.

The bills, and the Commission’s approval thereof, have no bearing on the back-and-forth between Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Michael Nutter about the improvements to the park itself. Nutter wants to retain a portion of the sale proceeds to make improvements to LOVE Park, while Clarke has circulated a proposal to put seven restaurants in the park and use the taxes from those businesses to pay for improvements.

The Commission also approved an amendment to its regulations that would enact a bill, passed by Council last week, reorganizing the zoning rules related to Registered Community Organizations.

Among the major changes to the regulations:

  • Groups may have geographical boundaries containing no more than 20,000 parcels. Planning Commission director Gary Jastrzab said that Commission staff members will work with RCO representatives to make sure this criterion is met.

  • Groups may register every two years.

  • RCOs must “actively represent” their areas of concern, and hold meetings that are advertised and open to the public.

  • The Commission will be required to notify the zoning applicant within 7 days of application of all the RCOs that must be met with.

  • Overlapping RCOs must convene a single meeting with the developer. District Council members will get the first chance to select a “coordinating RCO” in cases where groups overlap.

  • Issue-based RCOs will no longer be recognized.

  • All groups must re-register between February 1st and March 1st. The Planning Commission will hold help sessions for would-be RCOs during that time.

Read previous coverage of the RCO upheavals here and here.

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