Zoning Code Commission poised for heavy start to 2010

Jan. 13

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

Wednesday morning’s monthly meeting of the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission was the first of several in a very busy January slated for its members, and marked the beginning of the end to a process that later in 2010 should yield the city’s first revamped zoning code in 50 years.

Some members of the ZCC will be taking part in what is officially known as a series of “facilitated dialogue,” set up with city developers (Jan. 19) and community and neighborhood groups (Jan. 23), culminating with a combination of the two, meant to answer questions and resolve fundamental differences (Jan. 27).

The results of the facilitated dialogue sessions are meant to be included in the first version of “Module One” of the new zoning code, which is being completed in the coming weeks by Denver-based Clarion Associates and its co-consultants working on the re-write. The meetings, being set up by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, are not open to the public and will be off-the-record, to bring about the desired degree of candor. Harris Sokoloff, director of the project, is collaborating with Kiki Bolender of the AIA’s Urban Design Committee to facilitate the meetings.

“It looks like we’re going to be very crowded,” said Commissioner Natalia Olson-Urtecho, chair of the ZCC’s civic engagement committee. She added that public meetings will take place in mid- to late-February and into early March, with times, dates and locations to be determined. In the meantime, a new public survey will be posted on the ZCC’s web site next month in anticipation of those gatherings.

“This is it. This is the real stuff,” said Alan Greenberger, the city Planning Commission’s executive director and deputy mayor.

“We’re doing the real work here. You’re going to get bombarded with information,” he told the zoning commissioners. “A lot is in motion.”

Proposed revisions to the consultants’ “detailed recommendation” for the new Zoning Code, adopted by the ZCC in November, will also be used in writing the first module.

ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein said she and Peter Kelsen, chair of the ZCC’s work plan committee, met recently with the Building Industry Association’s governmental affairs committee, which is contemplating official support for the new zoning code.

The code needs popular backing before it is sent to City Council for final approval, probably by early fall. To that end, Gladstein, along with Commissioner John Westrum (a regional developer), also met with the Philadelphia Real Estate Council, she said, after it requested a briefing and regular updates. The ZCC’s civic engagement committee likewise met with the Crosstown Coalition, a citywide consortium of neighborhood groups, and the East and West Mount Airy Neighbors associations. Zoning Code Commissioner John Binswanger, a longtime Philadelphia developer who runs a commercial real estate brokerage, recently gave a full report to the board of directors of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.

Gladstein said she has continued to meet with colleagues outside the region as well –zoning code executives from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, which is also in the midst of a code overhaul. She said representatives from the three cities would be doing a presentation at this year’s American Planning Association conference in New Orleans, scheduled for April.

Module One
Don Elliott, senior consultant for Clarion, briefed the commission on details that are being ironed out on the first module of the rewritten code, which focuses on administration and procedures. He outlined four issues.

“Regardless of how the staff review of Module One goes, we predict these issues will be under discussion throughout the process,” he said.

They are:
•    Minor amendments by the Planning Commission “plans of development,” which probably should not need to go back to City Council for approval
•    The lapsing of building permits and zoning approvals, with a possible increase in time in which permits and variances are valid (say, three years instead of the current one year)
•    Approval authority, by the city Department of Licenses & Inspections, of applications on properties that have earlier received Zoning Board of Adjustment approvals (as long as the permit application is consistent with the prior ZBA decision, Elliott recommends this change)
•    When, and if, L&I should have the authority to approve minor adjustments of the new Zoning Code, without requiring a ZBA hearing (for “dimensional” issues, such as the height of a house, width, setbacks, overall depth, open space and topography, parking spaces, etc.)

 “The devil is in the details,” Elliott understated (see video for full discussion).

The ZCC’s newest commissioner is Michael Hnatkowsky, appointed by Councilman Brian O’Neill. Representing the city’s 10th District, Hnatkowsky is assistant business manager of the Electrical Workers IBEW AFL-CIO Local 98, and chairs the Northeast Philadelphia Building Trades Committee.

ZBA news
ZBA Chair Susan Jaffe has resigned. Appointed chair by Mayor Nutter in January 2008 after stints as vice chair and member, Jaffe had been on medical leave for several months. “She’s doing well,” Greenberger said. “I wanted to publicly thank her for her efforts.”

Lynette Brown-Sow, formerly the ZBA vice chair, has moved into the chair position, and member Carol Tinari is now vice chair. Nutter recently appointed Martin Bednarek, chief executive of the Washington Savings Association and a former School Reform Commission member, to the ZBA – but Bednarek himself cannot start the job until later in 2010. Gary Jastrzab, deputy executive director of the Planning Commission, will serve on the six-member ZBA in his place, on an interim basis.

Gladstein told the commission that the initiative known as “Imagine Philadelphia,” started in 2007 and which “tees up” a comprehensive plan for the city of Philadelphia, would be released to the public soon.

Greenberger said Imagine Philadelphia is intended “to really start this much longer, precise effort” known as “Philadelphia 2035,” which dovetails with the 25-year process now underway from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The DVRPC encompasses 11 counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

The next ZCC monthly meeting will be Feb. 10, 2010, “where we will see Module One in all its glory,” Gladstein said.

The Planning Commission’s first scheduled monthly meeting of year is Jan. 19 at 1 p.m.

Contact the reporter at thomaswalsh1@gmail.com.
More on the January workshops planned for developers and community groups (PlanPhilly, Dec. 4, 2009): http://planphilly.com/developers-community-groups-meet-zcc-january

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