To encroach or not to encroach

During its monthly meeting last week, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission took split votes on three bills authorizing encroachments on the public right of way on unrelated projects throughout the city. All three bills were presented with recommendations for approval from the Commission staff, but some Commissioners—in particular Nancy Rogo-Trainer and Beth Miller—felt the bills have larger policy implications.

Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger was absent for the votes, and Joe Syrnick initially recommended that the Commission consider all three bills at once. But it became clear after the presentation of the first bill that harmony wouldn’t be so easily achieved.

The first bill would legalize an existing enclosed basement entrance at 6009 Chestnut Street that just 4 ½ feet into the sidewalk. Commission director Gary Jastrzab said that although the staff didn’t necessarily think the encroachment was desirable, it was recommending approval because it still leaves 13 or so feet of sidewalk un-encroached. Beth Miller wondered aloud whether approving the encroachment would set the wrong precedent. Jastrzab allowed that that was a possibility, but said the staff was recommending legalization for the specific property.

“I’m uncomfortable approving something after the fact that we wouldn’t have approved before the fact,” said Nancy Rogo-Trainer.

“This is an ordinance, so whatever we do here is going to be a recommendation to City Council,” said Joe Syrnick. “And then City Council, in their wisdom, can do what they want.”

Beth Miller moved to disapprove the bill; Rogo-Trainer seconded. The motion was defeated by three other Commissioners. Then Nilda Ruiz moved for the bill’s approval. The motion carried, with Miller and Rogo-Trainer in opposition.

The second bill authorized existing mid-air encroachments on a building in construction on Health Sciences Drive on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The staff again recommended approval, but Commissioners had similar concerns as with the first bill: should the Commission simply approve an encroachment because it already exists?

“I would say once again, this is an ordinance,” said Joe Syrnick. “What we do here today is a recommendation to City Council. City Council, in their wisdom, can do with it what they want.”

Manny Citron moved to approve the staff recommendation. The motion carried, this time with only Nancy Rogo-Trainer voting “No.”

The final bill would authorize a 6-foot, 3-inch handicapped entrance encroachment on a 13-foot sidewalk at 4004 N. 5th St. Nancy Rogo-Trainer said that while the encroachment didn’t seem “overly excessive,” and realized the owners needed it to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, she hoped they would keep the wheelchair ramp as close to the building front line as feasible.

Gary Jastrzab suggested Rogo-Trainer could include that recommendation in a motion for approval, which she did. The motion carried, unanimously this time.

The first two bills were passed unanimously, with no discussion, on City Council’s consent agenda last Thursday. The third has not yet been scheduled for a Committee hearing.

Contact the reporter at jbrey@planphilly.com and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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