ZCC approves final version of new zoning code

Nearly half a decade of work by Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission came to an official end Wednesday morning in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall. All but a handful of Commissioners were present at the 50th and final ZCC meeting, either in person or over the phone, and none objected to any of the changes contained in the final report. Momentum carried the meeting to an end in less than an hour. As of ten o’clock Wednesday morning, with a show of hands and a round of ayes, the Zoning Code Commission is kaput.   

“Obviously,” said Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger at the beginning of the meeting, “this is a fairly momentous occasion.” Greenberger praised the Commission for its years of work and the transparency of the process leading up to Wednesday’s meeting. He said the Commission was the most effective longstanding working group he had ever seen, and asked for volunteers to help create sign controls in the months before the new code becomes effective.

“You are experts on this code …” Greenberger told Commissioners. “It’s scary. You’re probably scared yourself. But the level at which many of you know the details of this thing is really important to Philadelphia … You are now ambassadors to the public at large on this code.”

Greenberger recited some statistics on the zoning reform process given to him by ZCC director Eva Gladstein: 50 ZCC meetings, 62 work plan committee meetings, 25 civic engagement meetings, $2 million in City funds spent, and 3,400 community participants.  

Commissioners Peter Kelsen and Stella Tsai gave ceremonial remarks, praising their fellow Commissioners for creating a passable new code. “We had a really open debate,” said Tsai. “and I’m very, very proud. And I just wish we could do a lot more things this way.”

Gladstein then reviewed the remaining changes to the draft which had not previously been discussed at meetings of the ZCC. Nine of those changes were direct responses to Council recommendations, some of which are discussed in a previous PlanPhilly story. Other changes include:

  • Creating two Parks and Open Space Districts to mirror the currently zoned “active” and “passive” districts. These will be labeled SP-PO-A and SP-PO-P.
  • Removing the community home use type, and allowing group living of more than three unrelated adults as special exception in RSA, RTA, RM, and RMX districts.
  • Eliminating all references to Community Benefits Agreements, while “encouraging the ZBA to promulgate regulations requiring their disclosure.”
  • Adding a “good faith” clause to the code provision on Registered Community Organizations which would require applicants to document their efforts to communicate with RCOs.

The full list of changes Gladstein reviewed at Wednesday’s meeting can be seen here. Throughout her presentation of those changes, Gladstein repeatedly checked with Stacey Graham, a member of Councilman Bill Green’s staff, to make sure she had no objections. Gladstein said the two had been working on the legislative language of the draft all week, and still had more work to do. A resolution the Commission passed alongside the draft gives the ZCC director power to make “corrections, clarifications and edits” to the final report after its passage.

When Gladstein finished presenting the updates to the report, Graham confirmed that all of Council’s remaining concerns had been addressed in the newest version of the report. “Thank you for putting these recommendations into the record,” Graham said. “You’ve covered everything that remained for Council of concern, and we appreciate it.” 

Alan Greenberger then asked Commissioner Greg Pastore to read aloud for the record the resolution of the Zoning Code Commission. That resolution has four parts: adopting the final report as its proposed new zoning code, authorizing Gladstein to make edits, directing her to deliver the report to Council before November 17, and asking the Planning Commission to develop further regulations on sign controls prior to the effective date of the new code. 

Before the Commission voted on the report and the resolution, Greenberger asked for comment from the public. 

Craig Schelter of Development Workshop stood. “Good morning all,” he said. “I was hoping not to have to come here and rain on your parade, having been part of all this and seeing how hard all of you have worked. But there is one point here that we need to raise …” Schelter asked the Commission to amend its draft to state that conditional permits may not be appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. 

Bryan McHale also spoke to reiterate on the record his objection to the final report provision making Sky Plane controls optional. “The opposition to Sky Plane has been based on supposition and hearsay, with no evidence being presented to the public of its failures in the two years in which it’s been discussed …” 

McHale added that he was grateful for the opportunity to speak at ZCC meetings over the last several years. “I wish that the City were as transparent as this board has been for all that time,” he said. 

After a few more brief comments from members of the public, Greenberger asked for a vote. All in attendance raised their hands in favor of passing the final report. None opposed, and none abstained. Greenberger thanked the Commission and adjourned the meeting. 

Speaking with PlanPhilly after the meeting, Zoning Code Commissioner Emanuel Kelly said that while he would have liked to keep the Sky Plane provision as it was, he is pleased with the final product. Peter Kelsen said he thinks the option for developers to choose between Sky Plane or the Bulk and Massing controls of the current code struck “a good balance.” Kelsen said he’s optimistic developers will use the Sky Plane provision and come to see it as a good standard. Despite the lack of consensus between Council and the Commission over the last several weeks, Kelsen said the Commission ultimately made no sacrifices that it couldn’t make “in good conscience.” 

“There was nothing that we felt was disruptive of the process, or that resulted in an inferior document,” he said. “And I think I’ll leave it at that.” 

The ZCC is finished—its former members are now, like Greenberger said, ambassadors.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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