Planning Commission weighs in on medical marijuana, Logan Triangle zoning

On Tuesday afternoon, the Philadelphia Planning Commission voted to recommend a raft of remapping bills and two bigger changes to the zoning code. One would add a new “sustainability coordinator” position to the Civic Design Review board and the other would adopt new zoning changes to allow for the selling and growing of medical marijuana in Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana last spring and the planning commission’s staffers have been working to update the zoning code before licensing begins in 2017. The Planning Commission’s Paula Brumbelow Burns emphasized that these changes would only apply to medical marijuana and that if recreational weed were ever legalized, that would require different alterations.

“We want to stress that this not your everyday weed,” she told the commissioners.

The state will offer 25 grow licenses to be divvied up between six regional districts.  Only four have been allotted to Philadelphia’s region (which also includes suburban jurisdictions). Economically distressed areas are advantaged by the new state regulations for licensing, which could theoretically benefit Philadelphia or former coal and steel towns.

The policy Burns presented would allow growing marijuana in many types of industrial districts (I-1, I-2, and I-3). There are no setback requirements for marijuana growing facilities, because all the work will be done inside.  Burns emphasized that the state is monitoring the nascent industry so closely that even the types of fertilizers and pesticides will be regulated.

“These will look like any other average industrial use, not remarkably designed buildings, not painted bright green,” said Burns. Then she flipped to a photo of what would actually be occurring in the grow rooms.  “I never thought I’d be showing marijuana leaves in a planning commission meeting, but…”

The placement of medical marijuana dispensaries will be trickier. State law says these buildings must be 1,000 feet from any schools or licensed day care. But Philadelphia is far denser than pretty much any other jurisdiction in the state, so that requirement presents a problem. The city can boast 18 schools or daycares per square mile.

Understandably, Pennsylvania is allowing Philadelphia to adopt is own distancing requirements. The dispensaries will be allowed in most commercial zoning districts with a couple notable exceptions, including CA-1, which promotes auto-oriented uses, and CMX-1, which allows neighborhood bodegas and such. The shops must be 1,000 feet from regulated uses—like pawn shops, check cashing, strip clubs—and 500 feet from protected uses like schools, churches, and public recreation facilities. (Hotels and convention centers are usually included in protected uses, but they have been excised from this bill.)

Burns showed slides from the interior of Chicago’s medical dispensaries as representative of what their counterparts would be like in Philadelphia.

“It looks very standard, no advertising with cartoon characters or anything,” said Burns. “We are trying to get oils, salves, and possibly something in a pill form. You can’t buy a candy bar or loose leaf and go smoke it out on the street. There’s nothing to smoke, nothing to eat in these stores.”

She also emphasized that marijuana would only be available in limited supply, for up to 30-days’ worth of use. “You would be getting a lotion of a certain size container, not a Costco size tub,” Burns said.

There were few comments on the proposed changes to the code, with only Cheryl L. Gaston of Spruce Law warning about federal complications and the distancing requirements possibly making it harder for the needy public to access the products. The commission voted unanimously to recommend the legislation.

Sustainability and Civic Design Review

Burns also presented a bill introduced by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, which would add another appointee to the six-member Civic Design Review board. (Currently the body is comprised of an urban designer, two architects, a landscape architect, the RCO in question, and a representative of the development industry.) This position would have to be filled by an individual with “environmental sustainability credentials.” The bill would also add an additional criterion for review: whether the design of the project contributed to the sustainability of the environment.

The CDR process already features a sustainability checklist, where developers can show how they’ve taken environmental considerations into account. But in Burns words, this bill would institutionalize the requirement. The planning commission staff is currently work with Councilwoman Reynolds Brown and the law department to hammer out the exact legislative language.

The only person to provide comment on the bill was Craig Schelter, formerly of the Development Workshop.*

“It’s a very dangerous thing to not have the issue defined in terms of what certification gets you,” said Schelter. “Often times we deal with developers who simply want to meet all the requirements of the building code and then they realize there isn’t enough income in a project to justify building… That’s a hard thing for people sitting on a design board to respond to.”

But the committee seemed to think that the fact that CDR doesn’t have the power to punish or stop a project beyond a one-month delay should assuage Schelter’s fears. They voted unanimously to recommend the bill.

Upper North District Plan + Loan Triangle Rezoning

The commission meeting opened with a presentation on the Upper North District Plan by Ian Hegarty, whose team received accolades from Anne Fadullon for raking in “unprecedented public input.” Hegarty concluded by noting that the commission staff had wanted to make a recommendation for allowing accessory dwelling in the area, to allow older residents with low income—who comprise an increasingly percentage of these neighborhoods’ population–“to address housing conditions for older residents.”

Hilary Emerson of Councilwoman Cherelle Parker’s office spoke in support of the Upper North plan and thanked Hegarty for his efforts. “I also want to mention that the Upper North Plan refers to the northwest section of the planning district by its correct name of East Mt. Airy instead of Cedarbrook as it is often negatively, and incorrectly, referred,” she said.

But she did sound a note of caution on the question of accessory dwellings. Emerson noted that the 9th Council District has a 65 percent homeownership rate, but there is a trend towards chopping up single family housing into apartments for renters. Emerson says Parker’s office fears such conversions will have a negative effect on neighborhood stability.

Naturally enough, the meeting flowed right into consideration of the remapping of the Logan Triangle—one of the key elements of the upper North District plan.

This vast swath of vacant land was once home to dozens of households, but it turned out the development was built on an old creek bed that had been filled in with cinders and ash. As the housing started to sink, the city intervened and took over the land, demolishing all the buildings on it.

The prospects for revitalization have seemed slim, partially due to the lead paint-contaminated soil. Re-building on the site will be an expensive endeavor and the surrounding neighborhoods are not among Philadelphia’s hot, or even warm, real estate markets.

But the city is working with the Goldenberg Group to redevelop Logan Triangle and negotiating the terms of sale. But first comes the rezoning of the area from mostly RSA-5, which allows residential development, to CMX-3, which will allow the developer as much flexibility as possible. The commission recommended action on that bill. It did not recommend an effort to install a neighborhood commercial overlay to allow for a basketball camp and a gas station.

The uses in the neighborhood commercial overlay would occupy 9 ½ acres of the 45-acre Logan Triangle redevelopment area, with the 1,500 plus seat basketball arena taking up the lion’s share.  

“Assembly halls and gas station are allowed by special exception in the proposed base zoning, which is a relatively low bar,” Hegarty told the commissioners. “The overlay seems to be proposed specifically to avoid applying for special exception. Which is contrary to the purpose of neighborhood commercial overlay districts, which are meant to preserve the integrity of [existing] neighborhood commercial areas and guide appropriate development.”

The representatives of the Goldenberg Group argued that working in Logan Triangle presents enormous challenges and that any obstacles to their work should be removed. The commission wasn’t sympathetic in this case, voting not to recommend it (with the exception of Duane Bumb, senior deputy director of the Commerce Department and the abstention of Gaston).  

Before that vote, Fadullon assured everyone that development will come to Logan Triangle.

“I want to reiterate that this is a very important development for the administration,” said Fadullon. “We look forward to continuing to work with the developer and the community to make sure something happens here, something positive after all the years of disinvestment.”

*Disclosure: Craig Schelter sits on PlanPhilly’s Advisory Committee.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal