Q&A with Frank DiCicco, former councilman turned new zoning board chair

Through the last half of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s mid-century zoning code was Frankenstein-ed into an impenetrable tome, creating a convoluted development process, and empowering the local politicians who became its gatekeepers at the expense of rational development policy.

The nearly five-year zoning code rewrite conducted under the mayoral administration of Michael Nutter was supposed to drag the policy into the 21st century. Then-councilman Frank DiCicco co-sponsored the 2007 legislation that got the ball rolling on zoning code reform. From 1996-2011 DiCicco represented the First District, the hottest residential market both then and now, and as a result he was one of the city politicians best situated to understand the costs of the cumbersome and obtrusive zoning process. As a councilman he was also author of the city’s 10-year tax abatement program.

In part, this rationalization was meant to be achieved by reducing the number of cases that came before the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), an unelected body that rules over whether developers could be granted variances to build outside of zoning regulations.  The pre-2008 boom years coincided with the reign of ZBA chair David Auspitz then-owner of Famous 4th Street Deli (now only the Famous 4th cookie business). Under his hand, the board’s power to quietly set policy had increasingly clashed with surging development pressure.

But now, four years after the new code went into effect, the ZBA is as busy as ever. In fact, the volume of cases before it increased last year under Mayor Jim Kenney’s choice for ZBA head: Jim Moylan, a South Philly chiropractor with ties to the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.

In September Moylan was forced out following an FBI raid on his home that resulted from a larger investigation into the electricians’ union.  This month DiCicco took his place and now the political father of zoning reform—and a current lobbyist for billboard and development companies—will helm the ZBA.

PlanPhilly called up DiCicco on Friday to talk about the role of the board, what priorities he will bring to it, and just what does (and does not) constitute a zoning hardship.  

This transcript was edited for length and clarity.

PLANPHILLY: How do you think the role of the chair of the zoning board contrasts with that of the other members of the ZBA?

FRANK DICICCO: The only difference could be that I came from an elected position where much of my time, if not the majority of my time, was spent dealing with matters of zoning and development in my district. Back then the First Councilmanic District had the most development. I had to work with community organizations and developers to try and figure out ways to move the city forward.

The other board members, you have two who come from labor [Confessor Plaza of Laborers Union Local 57 and Anthony Gallagher of Steamfitters Union Local 420], obviously, they are interested in seeing development. You have an architect [Thomas Holloman], and you have Carol Tinari who’s been there nine years so she’s a veteran when it comes to these matters. Collectively, I think it’s a good board and we all share the goal of doing our best to approve responsible development for the City of Philadelphia and neighborhoods in particular.

I’m told you suggested the appointment of David Auspitz to chair the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Then there’s Jim Moylan more recently, also comes from a neighborhood group background. What do you think makes a good zoning board chair?

You are correct that in Rendell’s second term I suggested David because I thought he brought the perspective of a businessperson and a community representative because he did represent South Street Business and Neighborhood Association. Which I thought was a good mix. Moylan I think came from a good background too. He’s a physician but he’s a community activist as well, so I think those are good roles for a chair or a member of the board.

Hopefully I’m bringing that same expertise or knowledge to the board. I started a civic association way back in 1989 that was a direct result of development proposed in my neighborhood to convert a former two-story warehouse into 34 apartments with four parking spaces. A red flag went up. How are we going to cram in that particular development with four parking spaces? I didn’t see that as good, responsible development so I got involved and created a civic association. And learned about the importance of zoning, met with the planning commission of that time and we did a remapping of the area within the boundaries of the civic I had created. So it kind of mirrors Dave Auspitz and Moylan’s experience.

The definition of hardship does a lot of work before the ZBA. How would you define it?

I’ll give it to you in reverse and tell you what I don’t think is a hardship. When someone purchases a single-family dwelling, a two or three story rowhouse, and they say they have a hardship and need to convert that building to a multifamily dwelling—I don’t see that as a hardship in most cases.

It all depends on the neighborhood. Where I live at 11th and Federal, single-family two-or-three story rowhouses are selling for between $300,000 and $400,000. If the purchaser of that property comes to the zoning board and says I can only make this work with multifamily dwellings…for me that’s a non-starter, although there are always exceptions.

I’ve seen too many examples of single-family rowhouses converted into duplexes, triplexes, quadruplexes. I’ve seen five units jammed into three-story houses. My first question is where do you put the trash? Where do the people who don’t live on the first floor, the only ones who have access to the rear yard, where do they put their trash for seven days? The simply answer is they either leave it in a bag on the sidewalk or they find a corner location where they can dump it.

I think in 90 percent of the cases that’d be a nonstarter. That’d better have a better reason than I can’t make it work. I understand that these are people in the business of developing apartments and they want to make revenue and money, but not at the expense of a neighborhood.

Half a block from where I live and all these places have been converted to duplexes and triplexes. It’s nothing but trash because the tenants aren’t coming out with a broom to sweep their sidewalk. It’s not their house. They are just passing through. The owners aren’t around to maintain it and the rest of the community is left to deal with all this nonsense.

For another example, do you think the zoning code’s prohibition on front-loading garages constitutes a legitimate hardship?

I actually live in a house that has a garage in the front, but in the last couple years I removed the door and made it into living room because I wanted more space.

In those days [when DiCicco’s house was built], back in the 80s and 90s, I guess the thought at the time was that if we build garages and make that a necessary improvement that this would encourage people to move into the city because at least they’d have a place to park their cars.

Over the years, we realized that not only did [such garages] remove on street parking for the rest of the community, but in many cases the garages were strictly used for storage and not for cars. Fast-forward to my second or third term and everyone realizes this maybe was not the best thing we did. We changed the requirement, so that unless 80 percent of the block face has a garage you need to get a variance to have a garage while prior to that it was requirement with new construction.

Queen Street in Queen Village is a perfect example and is kind of the impetus that got us thinking we’d created more of a problem by requiring a garage. Around 3rd and 4th on Queen, on the south side of the street, it is basically a desert from where the beginning of these townhouses with their garage fronts were built many years ago.

Also, when you live in a rowhouse environment there’s a lot to be said about the living room being on the pavement level. You have eyes on the street that you don’t have when you are up above. So it helps in the sense of public safety.

As a former councilman, how will you weigh input from district councilmembers?

I will heavily rely on that, but not 100 percent. Because councilmembers are out in those neighborhoods they know the pulse and they understand what good, responsible development could be.

But the other day there was a property that came in on the west side of Broad in Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s district. An applicant came in, a young man inherited the property from his family and they had converted the two-story corner property into two apartments. And I voted yes on it. The reason I voted yes is because the second floor had a patio, and there they can store trash containers. The first floor has access to the basement, the second floor to the rear patio. Had it not been for that I would have voted no, but I voted yes even through Councilman Kenyatta’s office was against the approval of that conversion.

Basically, I will call it on a case-by-case basis. But the vast majority of the time I would take to consideration the opinion of the city councilperson.

You were a driving force behind zoning reform. Has the new zoning code–which was supposed to decrease the number of variances required, and granted, lived up to your expectations?

I don’t have the answer to the last part of your question because I’ve been out of the loop for a while. But the purpose of introducing that legislation, came out of a lot of frustration with me because the riverwards, Pennsport to Northern Liberties, was experiencing a tremendous amount of interest by developers. It was putting a lot of pressure on people who lived there.

We have to think of what is the best way to develop a site, what is the responsible thing to do to negotiate as best we can the impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. I felt at the time that we needed to be more clear and definitive. Now they can go in with their eyes wide open and say, well, this height is the maximum that I can do and so the numbers don’t work and I’m not even going to attempt to ask for a variance. It’s narrowed the debate.

The code that was changed was 50 years old, it was probably a foot thick or more. And I expect in another 30 or 40 years the code will grow to that thickness again. Things change and people’s living standards change. We have to try to keep up as best we can with the current times.

The ZBA has been accepting the vast majority of variance requests. Many community groups feel developers are virtually guaranteed victory. Does that degrade the value of the code?

You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. Again, I’ll go back to my case about the conversion of the single-family rowhouses, which in some cases have literally decimated neighborhoods. You look at the west side of Broad, south of Snyder, the infamous neighborhood — although I still have a lot of friends there — where people now triple park.

Unfortunately, a majority of these things are grandfathered in. That’s small-scale development, but its big scale for a rowhouse neighborhood.

I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk for communities or developers. As I used to say when I would go to those meetings as a city councilman, no one is going to get 100 percent. It just doesn’t work that way. It has to be give and take.

There are some people who have expressed concerns about the fact you are a lobbyist now and that billboard companies and developers are your clients. That could present a conflict of interest. Will you drop them as clients? Or what are other steps you could take?

The developers I have represented, every single one of them—with one exception had—over the last four years had no need to go to the zoning board. Their projects were done by way of legislation. That’s not to suggest that going forward there’s not going to be a reason for a particular developer to go before the zoning board, and if that’s the case I’ll recuse myself.

The first call I made after I hung up with mayor was to the Board of Ethics. In fact, I have to get over there this afternoon so I can do my financial disclosure.  They know who I am because I register with them and we do our quarterly reports. They said that as long as you recuse yourself from a client that your firm is handling, you are fine.

It is what it is. And I would hope that anyone listening to this who may have some concern about that, would look at my record for 16 years as a district councilman. I was very upfront about the things I did. I walked out of there with my head up and with a clean record. I have no reason and no desire to damage my reputation in that way in my lifetime.

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