ZCC meeting: 45-page change memo and more timeline debate

Zoning revision desires and exigencies collided at Wednesday’s meeting of the Zoning Code Commission. Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger began the 42nd meeting of the ZCC by announcing that the commissioners would be asked to vote February 9 on a recommendation to City Council. But even before lead consultant Don Elliott’s presentation of a 45-page change memo  detailing revisions to the code since the referral draft, Zoning Commissioner and Councilman Bill Green jumped in, calling February 9 an “extraordinarily aggressive” timeline to issue a final recommendation.

“The next step in this process is to move this to a different venue, which is to Council, Greenberger said. “We think that we have allowed enough time for Council to do what they need to do, and act before the end of session, but that’s not under our control,” he said.

Councilman Green indicated that he would be willing to vote on February 9 if the changes to the referral draft were minor. However, citing both City Council’s need to negotiate potential budget cuts and maintain vital city services during its spring session, and his desire to ensure sufficient public input into the final code revisions, Green said a speedy path through Council was unlikely. “My prediction is that this will be dealt with in the fall,” Green said.

Aside from the timeline issues, the bulk of the meeting focused on the ongoing work of the ZCC after it refers the new code to City Council, and on the extensive change memo presented by Elliott.

ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein said that 35 groups and individuals had provided feedback to the referral draft, and presented those comments to the commissioners. She said that she would be looking for policy issues that had not been previously raised. The change memo itself—paper copies of which were available to attendees—will be posted at zoningmatters.org, and she asked commissioners to consider making themselves available for a February 3 meeting to brief City Council on the new code.

Stella Tsai, who oversees the civic engagement work of the ZCC, encouraged commissioners to begin working as advocates for the code revision. “We’re asking our commissioners to be messengers—maybe ambassadors is a better word, because people shoot messengers right?” Tsai joked. “Set up meetings with your appointing authority—or yourself, if you appointed yourself—and reach out to your professional colleagues and your friends, neighbors, whoever you can about the work that we’ve done,” she asked.

The work plan committee will continue to meet until the process is completed, according to committee chair Peter Kelsen, and their revision work continues.

“Today you’re going to see some very large shifts in the earlier document and earlier recommendations,” Kelsen said. “I encourage you to read the change memo thoroughly.”

Before Elliott detailed some of those changes, Greenberger said he anticipated monthly ZCC meetings will continue for as long as City Council deliberates the zoning revision, and after passage, may relax the schedule into quarterly meetings. He also reminded the commissioners that they will address sign regulations separately, and any further development of regulations by the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and Licenses and Inspections.

Greenberger estimated that the work of the ZCC would continue for ten months to a year.

Elliott’s presentation walked attendees through the changes Kelsen outlined. Some important highlights:

  • Registered Community Organizations: Elliott clarified that if a meeting with RCOs is necessary, only one meeting is required even if a project requires approvals from multiple bodies. Further, RCOs may not encompass the entire city.
  • Requests for interpretations of the zoning code: The Planning Commission, in consultation with L&I and the Law Department may provide initial interpretations of the code.
  • Nonconforming uses: An existing nonconforming use may continue, but it also may change to another nonconforming use of its same sub-category. For example, you buy a building that used to have a take-out restaurant that was nonconforming, and you want to change it to a sit-down restaurant, that is also nonconforming, you can.
  • Overbrook Farms: The overlay for this area is being reclassified from a Neighborhood Commercial Area overlay to a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay—only the second such overlay to exist.
  • Uses: No “body art” in CMX-1 up to CMX-3; accessory dwelling units now require specific City Council approval of a map; tobacco sales regulations are deleted; the operator of a “family day care” dwelling must reside therein; bed and breakfasts now require special exceptions in residential single-family attached (RSA) zoning districts.
  • Green building bonuses: Formerly constrained to LEED, now expanded to include other green-building standards approved by the Planning Commission.
  • Form and design standards: Now limited to rowhouses, multi-family and commercial facades, and party walls.
  • Self-certification: appropriate people (such as a registered architect) must file paperwork stating that form and design standards, and landscaping and tree planting and moving regulations, are obeyed.
  • Parking: Revised parking ratios for markets and community-supported farms and for jails; dedicated car-share parking spaces will reduce required parking only for residential districts; off-site parking provisions are deleted.

(These changes and the referral draft will be the subject of an upcoming “Cutting through the Zoning Code” story.)

The questions and comments portion of the meeting covered a sprawl of issues.

Commissioner Greg Pastore questioned the threshold for the floor area bonuses for affordable housing. He felt that the threshold may be too low—10% of a development over five units—to allow for the flat 300 percent bonus.

The ability to subdivide land into lots smaller than the required 1,440 square feet, in neighborhoods where it fits contextually, was praised by John Westrum, who also asked when the final draft of the code would be available. Gladstein replied that a draft combining the redlined draft and the change memo would be available on Wednesday, February 2.

Councilman Green asked for clarification about the code interpretation that would be offered by the Planning Commission. His concern was that the authority of the Planning Commission and ZBA could conflict and create liability for the city. “The purpose of this provision is to allow an interpretation of the code without a pending application,” Kelsen replied. ZBA, he reminded the commission, only reviews current applications that have been appealed or challenged.

Green asked the law department to determine, by the February 9 ZCC meeting, whether the city would be liable to a person who relied upon a Planning Commission interpretation that was later turned down by ZBA.

Comments from the public asking about the details of what happens next with the code, and its timeline, prompted Gladstein to explain that, the ZCC’s timeline has already been extended by City Council, to June 30 of this year. Should Council take more time with hearings, or should the code referral be substantially delayed, Council would have to authorize another extension.

Commissioner Emanuel Kelly said that he felt many of the comments received on the referral draft of the code rehashed earlier and ongoing concerns from stakeholders. He felt a way to move forward quickly would be to focus on any new or emergent criticisms and feedback. “You’re going to need an extension,” Green said, reiterating his pessimism about getting the code through Council in the spring. “My prediction is that Council will not act before June 30,” he said.

Craig Schelter, who represents the Development Workshop, also asked about timeline specifics, particularly for implementation and remapping. “Whenever the submission goes to council, we will map out the time frame that I just outlined earlier in the meeting, about the proposed effective dates and some notion of how that might happen,” Greenberger said. “You can’t remap all at once. With 18 districts that we’ve mapped at planning, we have a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do but we’re not 100 percent sure. We’ll do our best to put it out there, but I don’t want to present it as if it’s a for-sure schedule,” he said.

Kelly agreed with Schelter, asking for a more fleshed out timeline. “I think it would be a good idea between now and the ninth to have some kind of preliminary schedule for developers and others to be able to see a path to evolution so they could do their planning,” Kelly suggested.

Greenberger asked Planning Commissioner Gary Jastrzab, who indicated providing that schedule would not be a problem.

Michael McGettigan, who lives near the foot of the South Street bridge, asked about promoting micro-housing—very small houses—and for what reasons the ZCC insisted on including parking requirements in the code. “Why not promote non-car ownership?” he asked.

“We have very much suppressed the parking requirements in this code,” Greenberger said. “We’ve gone as far as we can.”Greenberger said that parking was a universal issue across Philadelphia, and that the new zoning code does work to reduce car use.

On the housing front, Greenberger said nothing precludes people constructing small houses on lots, and that the minimum dimensions were only for lot size, not for buildings. “If you can make it work to code, you can build a 16-foot wide by 10-foot deep house, but you have to build it on a lot that’s a certain minimum dimension. This is more a question about air an light than about the house size itself,” Greenberger said.

Pastore implored the commission to stay focused on the substance of the code, but the issue of continued public input wound down the meeting. A representative of an ad hoc committee of Philadelphia Bar Association land-use attorneys agreed with Councilman Green that the ZCC should take care to allow for public comment on the final changes, and Green himself reiterated that desire.

“We have really taken care to go out to the public, to go to communities, to allow public comment, and I don’t want, from a political perspective, or any other perspective, for somebody to be able to say, ‘Well, this new thing came up in the final version, and they didn’t give us a chance to address that in a public meeting, to think about it and be thoughtful about it,’ prior to [the ZCC] voting,” he said.

Greenberger agreed with the fundamental sentiment. “I’m sensitive to the very same issue, but at the same time, even in Council, hearings happen, votes are taken, and so we just have to decide when that moment is. And that will be the subject for the ninth.”

The next meeting of the Zoning Code Commission is scheduled for Wednesday, February 9 at 8:00 a.m., 1515 Arch Street, 18th Floor.

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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