Uproar over the ZCC’s minority report continues

Many members of Philadelphia’s design, planning, and building community have been outraged for nearly a week over the minority report passed by the Zoning Code Commission on May 11, and following an erroneous news story suggesting that Councilman At-Large Bill Green threatened to table the code in City Council. Green said the uproar was in response to the erroneous news report, and not to the substance of the minority report.

“The statement in the article,” Green said, “was that I was trying to prevent this from happening. Exactly the opposite was true. I was trying to send something to council that would put in place the zoning code.”

In an interview with PlanPhilly, Green emphasized that he is open to other suggestions that could smooth the adoption of the new code. But emails obtained by PlanPhilly and interviews with a number of stakeholders showed widespread and ongoing concern with Green’s proposed amendment to the ZCC’s preliminary report. Beginning last week with the Building Association of Philadelphia (BIA), a number of organizations—including the Next Great City coalition, the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, and the Design Advocacy Group (DAG)—have encouraged their members to use the timing of Tuesday’s primary election to pressure Green to reassert his commitment to a speedy implementation of the new zoning code.

The minority report, passed at the instigation of Green and Tenth District Councilman Brian J. O’Neill and supported by seven other zoning commissioners, alters the proposed effective date of the code. The majority report calls for the new zoning code to take effect 180 days after passing City Council, which would include a map that automatically converts extant zoning districts to the new districts defined in the new code. That conversion would consolidate some existing districts, and result in some changes—both more liberal and more restrictive—to permitted uses.

The amendment in the minority report calls for each planning district to first be remapped; then the new code will roll out in each planning district after that district’s respective zoning map becomes law. That remapping process, being executed through the Phila2035 plan, starts this fall, but will not be completed for all districts until 2016, if the Planning Commission can stick to the schedule.

Green and his chief of staff, Sophie Bryan, have both vigorously disputed the claim that Green wants to slow down the process. In an email exchange obtained by PlanPhilly, Elise Vider, a steering committee member of the Design Advocacy Group who, PlanPhilly was told, wrote to Bryan on Wednesday evening on behalf of the Built Environment Advocacy Coalition.*

“I and I know many others continue to believe that his action is a reckless one that jeopardizes the reform process that Philadelphians overwhelmingly supported in their charter vote to create the Zoning Code Commission,” Vider wrote. “Phasing in the new code as remapping is completed makes it likely that different sections of the city would be regulated by different codes—an administrative nightmare and one certain to drive developers away.”

“Respectfully, I disagree with the characterization of  Bill’s proposal as ‘reckless’ and the apparent suggestion that he is raising a concern at this step in the process in order to sabotage the reform.  Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bryan replied by email early Thursday. Bryan reiterated that Green was open to discussing the matter with Vider, and to discussing alternate proposals.

However, the concern that two codes could confuse developers, and the possibility of the code not being implemented in some planning districts for at least five years, was still causing consternation on Friday.

“If the first area they map is Northern Liberties—the changeover would be that Northern Liberites is under the new code. You go up to Fishtown, and you’re under the old code. It sounds like chaos, and it’s very discouraging to development or an investor who would come to town,” said architect Kiki Bolender.

At Wednesday’s ZCC meeting, Bolender excoriated Councilmen Green and O’Neill for a lack of leadership, and said that the “Common Ground for Rebuilding Our City” report had “soft-pedaled” citizens’ concerns about how councilmembers—district councilmembers in particular—treated zoning.

“It stuck with me because it was kind of a surprise,” Bolender told PlanPhilly on Friday. “It was shocking to us, the ill will that people expressed about their councilpeople. Mostly it was because they would sway in the wind, looking after one group and not another—after who’s barking loudest now, as opposed to having an overall sense of leadership for the whole district.”

While some of the organizations’ calls to action did refer to the Inquirer report, planners, developers and activists still told PlanPhilly that they want to see City Council make the new code effective as quickly as possible.

David Perlman, president of BIA, said on Friday that Green had thoroughly and thoughtfully responded to his organizations’ letter, and Perlman treaded carefully around the political timing of the uproar since Wednesday. But he still insisted he wanted an expeditious adoption of the new code.

“I think the mapping is a concern that most councilpeople would have,” said Perlman. “I understand the concern about the mapping. But the city needs a new zoning code, and the BIA is in support of the zoning code. We would like to have no hiccups getting it approved, and to make any corrections as we go through that we need some adjustment.”

In an interview with PlanPhilly on Friday, Zoning Code Commissioner Emmanuel Kelly agreed with that sentiment.

“That mapping is about a five-year process. You lose community focus. in five years people won’t even know what the code changes were about. That is the wrong process from my perspective. I think the votes echoed that as well,” Kelly said. Twenty two of the commissioners voted to pass the majority report; seven abstained from that vote. And where nine commissioners voted to pass the minority report, 20 voted no.

In his conversation with PlanPhilly, Green emphasized that despite those votes, his minority report was the pragmatic approach to getting the code implemented as quickly as possible.

“I think that the path for majority report to get approved on Council is for the Planning Commision to have maps that show Council what the impact is on the ground rather than the 10,000 or 30,000 foot level,” Green said. When councilpeople fully understand—and as per Green’s amendment, approve by a vote—the impact of remapping on their district, Green thinks approval is more likely.

While Kelly disagreed with the substance of the minority report, he said it was still an appropriate part of the process.

“I guess I was surprised by the minority report,” Kelly said, “[but] in terms of the formality of it, it was due process. In large organizational frameworks, public frameworks, that is due process. A minority is allowed to make a report if they get enough votes to support it.”

Through Saturday, according to emails obtained by PlanPhilly, the Design Advocacy Group’s steering committee debated whether to ask their members to take action, and whether to endorse Andy Toy—a former Zoning Code Commissioner running for a Democratic Councilman At-Large nomination—and Green. In an email to members of DAG sent on Saturday night, Vice-Chair David Brownlee wrote, “Remapping is a five- to ten-year process that will leave us in the chaotic situation of having two different zoning codes applied simultaneously throughout the city.” DAG offered members slightly tweaked language of the four paragraphs BIA first created, suggesting they email both Councilmen Green and O’Neill to move quickly on the code.

The Development Workshop’s Craig Schelter is another member of the steering committee who strongly supports the minority report. Schelter dismissed those paragraphs and the call to action.

“Of the four [paragraphs], there were two I would classify as hysterical, a third which raised the question about ‘please tell us what you’re trying to do here because we’re counting on you,’ and a fourth that says, ‘we’re looking to you be a leader going forward.’ Bill Green could’ve very well been that by getting a minority report through,” Schelter said.

“I’m on the steering committee of DAG, and the notion that a person tries to bring in a countervailing point of view—there was a provision for the minority report. Grow up and deal with it,” he said.

Toy—who was part of the DAG steering committee’s email exchange on whether to issue a call to member action—told PlanPhilly that he was disappointed with the abstentions, including that of Will Carter, an aide to Councilman Darrell Clarke who replaced Toy on the commission.

“I’m not sure how tuned in he was with everything. I think he’s being cautious because the other two councilpeople on the commission wanted to abstain from the vote. He followed their lead to be safe or careful, I suppose,” Toy speculated.

Toy was particularly bothered by O’Neill’s abstention.

“The commission amended and changed a lot of things just for Brian O’Neill, in order to satisfy him,” Toy said. “I didn’t like some of the changes we made to satisfy him, but it was done, and now, after all those requests for changes to appease him, he comes out against it as it is. That to me is very disappointing.

“If I were [still] sitting on the Zoning Code Commission I would’ve passed it, absolutely. You still have  alot of steps in the prcoess. It’s not as if that’ s the last bite at the apple for everybody. We’ve gone through so many steps in the process. It’s the most open and transparent and engaging process I’ve ever been involved in,” Toy said.

Green insisted that he is open to suggestions and conversations about how to move the code expeditiously through City Council.

“I’m not suggesting that what was proposed in the minority report is the panacea, just as the people who voted for the majority report, who spoke on the issue, said there were many flaws in it. I will concede and acknowledge that there are flaws in the minority report,” Green said.

“I’m not suggesting the minority report is something that has to be adopted. But we have to, through the process, try to address the unintended collateral consequences of an automatic conversion map. What can happen in many areas, especially if it takes five years to get to the remapping, is that people will exercise their rights under that automatic conversion map,” he said.

In a follow-up email, Green told PlanPhilly that a five-year plan for implementing the code is too long, regardless.

“It is not the purview of the ZCC to determine resources for implementation.  That is money City Council can appropriate.  If speed after four years is indispensable then let’s use our bully pulpit and energy to get the resources needed to do the job,” Green wrote.

“The timetable is troubling as over five years most unintended collateral consequences will have become vested rights.  That is, you can’t unring the bell.  The timetable is too long under either scenario.”

He proposes funneling markedly increased resources to the Planning Commission to accelerate the remapping process.

“Within two years I think we can remap the entire city,” Green said. “It’s a question of providing resources to get that done.”

*The original story stated Vider wrote to Bryan on behalf of BEAC; it has been changed to more precisely reflect that a source told PlanPhilly that Vider wrote on behalf of BEAC. Vider emailed PlanPhilly Monday night insisting that she contacted Bryan as a private citizen. However, emails among the DAG steering committee later last week–after Vider’s email exchange with Bryan–indicate that Vider strongly supported a DAG member alert, and supported providing DAG members with language similar to that provided by BIA and BEAC. 

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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