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Taking a closer look at Council’s recommendations to the ZCC

Last week, City Council passed a resolution sending zoning code recommendations to the Zoning Code Commission and triggering the next phase of zoning reform in Philadelphia. The ZCC now must decide whether and how to include Council’s proposed amendments—40 of them in all—into its final report.

The amendments range in significance from mundane to substantial. Many have been discussed in ZCC meetings before, and most proposals are unlikely to cause major arguments within the Commission. For example:

– Amendment No. 15: requiring Zoning Board of Adjustment variance decisions in writing.

– Amendment No. 18: prohibiting non-accessory signs on any I-2 parcel in the area bounded by the Delaware and Schulykill expressways and Darien Street.

– Amendment No. 19: increasing the minimum acreage of Special Purpose – Institutional Districts (SP-INS) to five acres, from three.

ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein said most of Council’s recommendations were minor and would be accepted readily. The Commission must take any official action toward creating a final report at its meetings, but its Work Plan Committee has already begun looking at Council’s recommendations and deciding whether to support them.

Gladstein said that one of the recommendations the Commission had not “formally seen” prior to Council’s resolution was Amendment No. 13: “Eliminating mandatory Sky Plane provision and providing for the option for use of either Sky Plane controls or Bulk and Massing regulations under the existing Code.”

The Sky Plane issue has come up regularly over the past few months, and was talked about at some length at the last ZCC meeting. During that meeting, At-Large Councilman Bill Green said that he’d like to see builders given the option to follow either Sky Plane controls or the regulations of the current code for projects in the Sky Plane Control Area, which covers parts of Center City. At the time, Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said he thought the idea was a good one. But Gladstein said the Commission’s Work Plan Committee is “uncomfortable” with Council’s recommendation.

Stacey Graham, who works in Councilman Green’s office, confirmed that the Work Plan Committee will suggest that the Commission not accept Council’s recommendation on Sky Plane. Graham said it was currently the only one of the forty recommendations that, to her knowledge, had been reviewed and not accepted by that committee.

In another proposed amendment, Council deleted a line from the description of Registered Community Organizations which would clarify that RCOs are localized groups that have influence only over development in their neighborhoods. The line Council wants removed: “An issue-specific interest group whose geographical area of concern is all or substantially all of the city may not apply for registration as a Registered Community Organization.” Removing that line could open the possibility of a city-wide advocacy group—SCRUB, for instance—registering as an RCO in more than one neighborhood.

Graham said that deleting that line was a matter of opening up the development process to more voices. “We want all members of the public to have an opportunity to be heard and weigh in,” Graham said.

But Gladstein said the provision was crafted specifically to limit RCOs to community-based groups. “There was an intent that [the RCO provision] not apply to groups that are issue-based over the whole city,” Gladstein said. “The line was in there for a reason,” she added.

The same amendment allows district councilpersons to act as RCOs for projects in their districts on which no RCO has influence. The ZCC has already agreed to accept at least that portion of the provision.

Council’s amendments also include a recommendation to delete mandatory submission requirements for Community Benefits Agreements. That recommendation first surfaced in a memo released by Councilman Green in September. Green has framed the issue as one of potential liability for the city, saying that having CBAs on the record implies that the government is required to enforce them. But others say that it’s an issue of transparency. Several members of the public spoke up in favor of keeping the submission requirement during the last ZCC meeting. Gladstein said the Commission would discuss the CBA recommendation further before making a decision about it.

Gladstein also said the Commission hadn’t made any decisions regarding Council’s second proposed amendment, which suggests “Regulating single medical professional office separately from group practice medical offices to incorporate use-specific standards for solo practices that prevent adverse impacts in residential districts.” Stacey Graham said this amendment was about “regulating the impacts of high-frequency medical group practices.” The amendment would give Council a way to separate out methadone clinics from other, less-noxious types of medical uses, an issue that was raised in Councilman Green’s memo. The Commission has, to this point, avoided accepting the recommendation to regulate methadone clinics separately, saying that to do so is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Council’s amendment could give it a way around that, by separately regulating all “group practices,” or practices that bring pedestrian or vehicular traffic to a particular area.

Graham said that Council’s recommendations are more like demands. “If these changes aren’t made,” Graham said, “if they fall on deaf ears, I think it would be very difficult for Council to move [a new code] forward.” Graham said that the Commission’s preliminary report is now “very dated,” and doesn’t account for many decisions which have been made since it was issued. She said the final report should include each of the amendments Council proposed when it passed its resolution last week. “These are the changes that there is strong consensus for,” Graham said, “And there is strong consensus for all of them.”

Gladstein said that Wednesday’s ZCC meeting, and all the others from here on out, would be about whittling down the number of disagreements between and among Council members and Commissioners. She said the Commission may end up trying to address the goals of some of Council’s recommendations through means other than those suggested by Council. She said the Commission has gone through thousands of disagreements over the course of the four-year zoning reform process, and if they can reduce those to a handful, they’ll be able to pass a new code. Regarding any disagreement that may remain, Gladstein said, “We’ll either figure out how to resolve it, or it will be an issue for further discussion in 2012.”

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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