What now? ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein on the Zoning Code timeline

Philadelphia voters authorized an amendment to the Home Rule Charter in May 2007, creating the Zoning Code Commission to revise the zoning code. Since then:

48 Commission meetings. Community meetings in each of the 10 Council districts in early 2009, and a fall 2010 round of open houses in each district—that’s 20 more. Four community meetings following the October 2009 release of the draft recommendations. Four more after each so-called module of the code revision, for another 12. And two public hearings in Council chambers—one in November 2008, and another immediately preceding the October 2009 community meetings.

Dad, are we there yet?

Almost, son, almost. The period for additional written comments on the referral draft of the code ended Friday. Eva Gladstein, the executive director of the ZCC, said that many of those changes will be discussed at the commission’s meeting on Wednesday. However, additional edits may be made for the February 9 meeting, when the ZCC is scheduled to vote on the referral draft.

“Literally every day we’re editing,” Gladstein said.

According to Gladstein, the ZCC is highly likely to vote in favor of adopting the code on February 9. The charter amendment permits ZCC commissioners to issue minority reports, should six or more commissioners decide that such a report—either supplementing or dissenting from ZCC’s main report—would be necessary, but Gladstein said that she does not expect any such reports.

“We would rather get consensus,” she said. “I think people feel pretty positive about it. It’s such a unique task, in a way. We’re going to give Council a good code.”

When ZCC sends its report to City Council, a new timeline is triggered:

  • After receipt, Council has up to 45 days to convene public hearings on the report, which will include the full content of the revised zoning code.
  • After those hearings end, Council has up to 30 days to pass a resolution with its recommendations and send them the ZCC. However, Council is not required to pass a formal resolution, and may make suggestions informally.
  • If Council passes a resolution, ZCC must issue a final report to Council within 30 days of passage. If Council does not pass a resolution, ZCC must issue its report within 60 days of the close of Council hearings. Either way, the ZCC has no more than 60 days to issue the final report after hearings end.
  • Finally, Council has another 60 days or five Council meetings to either pass the revised code into law, reject it, or to table the ZCC’s proposals.

A quick tally suggests that if all parties take the full time permitted, the process could extend through July—when Council is on summer recess—and thus, practically, until the fall. On top of that, while Council is required to convene public meetings, the charter amendment does not specify a time frame for the body to consider the revised code.

“It’s 45 days to hold the first hearing,” Gladstein said. “I can’t say when the hearing or hearings might end.”

Because the amendment does not require Council to abide by a specific timeframe—Gladstein delicately called it “a little bit open-ended”—hearings could take place one afternoon, or over a longer period of time. Gladstein said she hoped that Council will hold hearings before the financial exigencies of the spring legislative cycle.

“Our goal is to have it done before [Council’s] recess in the middle of June,” Gladstein said. “We want to get the code to them before they’re in the thick of the budget,” she said. 

Gladstein pointed out that Council could choose not to pass a resolution, which could shorten the time between the close of hearings and Council’s receipt of a final code.

“We’ve formally briefed Council twice,” said Gladstein, who also said she’s met with a number of Council members on an individual basis.

The charter amendment also binds Council to vote on the ZCC proposal in its entirety. Because it’s thumbs up or down on the whole package, Gladstein said she expects many people to testify about the code revision before Council. That opportunity may well be the last one for public input before the ZCC’s final report.

Gladstein seemed pleased with the overall state of the revised code, and emphasized how the ZCC tried to integrate feedback that came out of the civic engagement process—not just the public meetings, but focus groups with over 125 design and land use professionals, and what she said were “several thousand” responses to the ZCC’s online surveys. (Click here for the ZCC’s full report on civic engagement.)

“We think we struck the right balance,” she said.

Even so, the commissioners will not be together that much longer. After Council votes on the final legislation, by the charter amendment, the ZCC is scheduled to go out of existence, and may not be reconvened by City Council for five years. What happens to the commissioners’ expertise and institutional knowledge?

“We’re thinking through a few things,” Gladstein said. For example, she said the ZCC’s consultants advised a transition period, during and after which the code may need to be tweaked, and the Commission may exist through that transition.

Gladstein also noted that the draft code—a piece of legislation exceeding 400 pages—is of significantly larger size and scope than the bills that normally pass through Council. As such, she said that minor problems with the code may still be found.

“We’re assuming that there will have to be clean-up amendments,” Gladstein said, and suggested that there could be a need for “a process resembling ZCC to pull together all the pieces.”

Gladstein said that prior to the ZCC receiving its initial budget allocation, the Planning Commission was responsible for staffing the ZCC. When the sun sets on the ZCC, the Planning Commission is where the zoning buck will stop—especially because it will oversee the planning-district-by-district remapping of the city, it may be a natural home for ongoing ZCC-like work.

“This is a huge paradigm shift for people working with the code, because they’re used to a code that didn’t work, and doing workarounds. Having a code intended to work, to be consistent, and to be for modern-day life in Philadelphia is very different,” Gladstein said.

One of the ways in which modern-day Philadelphia life is indeed very different is that swaths of the city are reserved—or perhaps preserved—for industrial use, but Philadelphia is not the same industrial city it once was. The zoning code addresses this by allowing for new uses through entirely new districts like IRMX, but those likely won’t be implemented until after the remapping of each planning district is complete—a process scheduled to take up to five years. In the meantime, some legacy tactics to deal with improperly zoned land may still work best.

“Right now, you can get a use variance or go to Council and get land rezoned. It’s bread-and-butter for Council. They do it all the time,” Gladstein said.

But if the ZCC gets the code right, maybe they won’t have to.

The next meeting of the Zoning Code Commission is Wednesday, January 26 at 8:00 a.m., 1515 Arch St., 18th Floor. 

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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