ZCC headed for a Wednesday vote; stakeholders headed for ongoing advocacy

The Zoning Code Commission will vote on March 2 whether to send its draft of Philadelphia’s revised zoning code to City Council. Over the past month, interviews with stakeholders and discussions from recent Zoning Code Commissions meetings suggest that many are generally satisfied with the work of the ZCC. At the same time, based on statements made to PlanPhilly and during ZCC meetings, expect to see continuing advocacy from stakeholders after the code heads to City Council hearings.

Rachel Vassar is the Philadelphia outreach coordinator for PennFuture and provided feedback to the ZCC on behalf of the Next Great City coalition of over 100 organizations in the city. She said the ZCC has worked well with Next Great City to address constituent concerns. “I have been satisfied, definitely. I’ve been pleased to see the level of interaction with the public. The ZCC’s been very responsive. Philadelphians said they really wanted to have a new clearer code, and they’ve done a lot to get us in that direction,” Vassar said.

As part of a so-called greener code, increased attention was paid to urban agriculture, which pleased Patrick Dunn of Kensington’s Emerald Street Urban Farm, now going into its third growing season. “I’m pretty excited that they’re putting it into the code. It’s a pretty big step for the city,” Dunn said.

He’s also working on the Marathon Farm project in Brewerytown, which he said will provide Martahon Grill with vegetables and the surrounding community with 20 garden plots. While Dunn is happy with the attention paid to urban agriculture, he sees the distinction between a community gardens and market farms as a false one.

“A lot of the urban farms in Philly are hybrids between community garden and market farm, so that distinction is very blurry in reality when it comes to urban ag in Philadelphia. At Emerald Street, we have a community garden, and also sell food of our own. If they remove a lot of the restrictions, it won’t matter which it is. but if they don’t, it’ll be a big deal,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the hybrid form also exists at well-known sites such as Mill Creek Farm and at lesser-known farms like the Walnut Hill Community Farm. He says a coaltion of farmers will likely continue advocating for zoning tweaks. “We as a group will probably form some sort of a group that will go and talk to city councilpeople or to the commission,” Dunn said.

Even bigger fault lines still exist. The Historical Commission’s presence in the zoning code is an accident of history, according to Jonathan Farnham, its executive director. But its inclusion has prompted discussion of its role in zoning, including at the February 28 hearing on stakeholder feedback.

“It continues to be the case that the Historical Commission has no obligation to the zoning code, so it does seem, in the case of new construction in historic districts, we have a weak point in jursidiction. They concern themselves, of course, with historic properties and the built environment, but when it comes to new construction, then they do not have the same level of jurisdiction. That seems to be problematic, because it does have an impact on the built environment and the historic built environment,” said Joe Schiavo, from the Old City Civic Association.

“It’s a valid point,” Kelsen replied. “It needs to be taken up, if you will, with the Historic Commisssion. It is not in our view a zoning issue.”

In an interview with PlanPhilly, Farnham agreed. “We’ve always had a funny relationship with the ZCC. We were always working with Eva Gladstein and the Commission really closely, but knowing all along that the commissioners had the authority, if they chose, to completely rewrite how historic preservation was done in the city,” Farnham said.

“The Historical Commission didn’t want our preservation issues to either cloud the zoning reform issues or vice versa. The decision has been made at least from the [Historical] Commision’s end, not to propose, recommend, or suggest additional modifications,” said Farnham, explaining why the Historical Commission did not provide lengthy written feedback on the zoning code revision.

Other options besides historical districts exist to better govern new construction, according to Farnham: namely, Neighborhood Conservation Overlays.

“The general belief has been that NCOs are probably appropriate where new construction is a primary concern and in areas where there’s a desire to maintain the scale or rhythms of neighborhoods, but not necessarily to maintain the historic features of buildings,” Farnham said.

And the new code indeed introduces one such new overlay, for Overbrook Farms. It’s only the second NCO to be established in Philadelphia; the first overlay was for Queen Village.

“The great thing and the drawback about zoning regulations is that they’re unable to distinguish between individual properties. An automatic overlay for a historic district that capped building height, for example, would prevent the Historical Commission from doing its nuanced work and understanding that historic districts are not monolithic, and that what’s appropriate in one area is not appropriate in another,” Farnham said.

What’s appropriate where has been a point of contention for developers and architects who, all month, have continued to advocate that standards related to building aesthetics be completely struck from the code.

“The objectives that are in these sections can be often accomplished by other means,” architect Jerry Roller said at the February 28 meeting, reflecting an ongoing concern with sections 14-703, -706, and -708 of the code. These sections of Chapter 14-700 regulate form and design, open space and natural resources, and fencing and walls, respectively.

In early February, Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop told PlanPhilly the sections should be removed from the code entirely.

“You don’t have to do all that detailed design work up front before a zoning permit,” he said. “It represents a lack of understanding of how much work a developer will do on a project. He’s not going to do all this work up front if there are all of these standards we don’t understand, or seem very arbitrary, before he can get an as-of-right permit.”

At the February 28 meeting, Schelter and Neil Sklaroff also suggested that where the builders of large projects disagree with the development standards—or if their clients don’t like those restrictions—the ZBA may end up with hearings on its hands.

At both the February 18 and 28 meetings, Peter Kelsen, chair of the ZCC’s work plan committee, replied to a number of stakeholder comments that had not been already fully rejected or accepted by saying the commission would further consider those comments. At the first of these meetings, such replies prompted Zoning Code Commissioner and Councilman Bill Green to discourage the ZCC from sending the code to Council.

“I can assure you the conversation that we’re having here and that is the back and forth dialogue—City Council hearings are not the place to resolve this kind of specific issue,” Green said then.

“We should spend as much time as possible to make sure we have gone through, with everybody, every single comment that they have so that we can have the benefit of this back-and-forth before it comes to us. Because if people come and testify in the way that they’re talking about here, it’s just going to make us nervous, and unwilling to act,” he said.

Even generally satisfied zoning customers, such as Rachel Vassar of Next Great City, said they’re likely to come back to City Council with some returns.

“Once the code is passed out of the ZCC,” Vassar said, “Next Great City may request that Council members consider some of our feedback that has as yet not been incorporated in the code, but our primary ask of Council will be to take this once-in-a-generation opportunity, and pass the code that so many Philadelphians asked for and have worked diligently to create.”

Cheryl Gaston—the chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s real property section—and Stephen Pollack, an attorney with Montgomery McCracken and the co-chair of the association’s zoning and land use committee, told PlanPhilly in early Feburary that they would like from three to six months to review a final draft of othe code. At the February 9 meeting, they joined forces with the Crosstown Coalition and the Development Workshop to request a three-month delay. They were sharply rebuked by Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger.

“I’m going to be very careful how I say this,” Greenberger said. “Where have you all been for a year?”

Greenberger clarified that he spoke only for himself, and not for the ZCC, and insisted that these groups had sufficient time to provide feedback.
 Gaston vehemently objected to the what she felt was Greenberger’s characterizing the land-use attorneys as having not participated in the process.

At this point, winning a delay seems highly unlikely, and nobody raised the issue at either extra February hearing. After second of these, Gladstein did tell PlanPhilly that the ZCC would meet with land-use attorneys additionally and separately, to address some of the issues specific to legal practice. Nonetheless, Gladstein said the ZCC is comfortable with its responses to stakeholders.

“We feel we’ve addressed the comments up until now,” Gladstein said.

The ZCC vote on whether to send the referral draft to City Council will take place tomorrow morning.

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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