New zoning code nearing end of first major hurdle

December 9, 2009

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

The first major section – or “module” – of the city’s new Zoning Code is about to be completed, with the Zoning Code Commission’s main consultant promising Wednesday morning that the “procedures” portion of the code will be completed by his deadline of Dec. 31.

“The issue of procedures is the critical issue,” said Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, head of the Planning Commission, at Wednesday morning’s monthly ZCC meeting. “This is a big and deep culture that we’ve developed in the city [over the years] that we’ve now got in our hands. It’s an essential review of, ‘What is ‘of right’?”

Don Elliott, senior consultant for Denver-based Clarion Associates, one of the firms hired by the city for the rezoning effort, said the first module will actually be missing one component – the public meetings process.

That’s because, despite public outreach meetings that have taken place throughout 2009, several more that will bring together developers, community development corporations and civic associations are scheduled for late in January, through a special project being facilitated by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

The three meetings will consist of one for developers (Jan. 19), one for the community groups (Jan. 23) and a third that will bring the two together in some form. “We’re actually quite happy that this third party came forward” to help with this issue, said Greenberger.

“But I want to make sure that it’s clear that this ZCC is responsible” for a “proposal that you all will have to comment on and critique,” he added. “We may at the end of this facilitated dialogue come out with answers that are not right enough yet. … We’ll continue this discussion – keep hammering at it until we get there. This is the toughest part. A successful resolution to this problem will bode very well for other sticky problems that come up.”

“I know we’re supposed to be managing expectations here,” said Harris Sokoloff, director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement. “But I think we have a very big opportunity to get it right.”


Kiki Bolender and Harris Sokoloff

Sokoloff, with Kiki Bolender of the AIA’s Urban Design Committee, will facilitate the meetings and were on hand to give commissioners an idea of what to expect. Most details, and attendees, are pending. The workshops will not be open to the public, but Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, said findings and results would be posted as soon as possible on the ZCC’s web site.

Sokoloff described the desired outcome of the meeting with a somewhat academic term, “BHAGs” (big, hairy, audacious goals), involving lots of stakeholders and a hoped-for productive dialogue. “We’re going to try and find common ground,” if necessary through trade-offs between the two groups, he said. In a further nod toward realistic outcomes, Sokoloff added that they are trying to avoid the word “consensus.”

“We’re hoping that the development community will indulge in design thinking with us,” said Bolender.

Craig Schelter, who heads the Developers Workshop and represents landowners across the city, said he was working on a list of potential attendees, but so far is not sure how many developers would be participating. He did, however, know of one point that might get things off on the right foot between developers and civic organizations.

“With the neighborhoods coalition, one place where we agree is that concentrating all the overlay districts into one chapter is a bad idea,” Schelter said. Each overlay was created for very specific conditions and locations, he added, and users of the code in the future might find it awfully confusing to interpret rules from one catch-all chapter.

“This is going to be a very inclusive project,” said Commissioner Natalia Olson-Urtecho. “For the first time in a very long time we are going to have the developers and the community groups at the same table to really hash out what the issues are. … All this different kind of information is really going to help our causes.”

Elliott stressed that he gets his marching orders from Gladstein, and that the results from the workshops should be focused, and would only be “advisory” to the ZCC. While he complimented the commissioners by saying he has never worked with a city so committed to public input, he said that if the January meetings are not limited in scope, they could run the danger of throwing off the commission’s hard work to date.

“Our perspective is that this process is on track,” Elliott said.

New ZCC staffer
Gladstein, who works out of the Planning Commission offices, finally has a fellow full-time ZCC colleague. She has hired Natalie Hseuh as the program coordinator for the ZCC. Hseuh, who officially starts the job next week, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering and two master’s degrees, in environmental science and planning. She recently was an intern with the city for six months, and was picked from among some 60 people who submitted resumes, Gladstein said, 12 of whom were interviewed.

Like out of the good book
Amid a cold, early morning downpour, the ZCC meeting was shifted from its normal venue atop One Parkway to the 14th floor of the Municipal Services Building, because the upper-floor elevators at One Parkway were out of order.  Soggy attendees – some of whom had already made the stairwell ascent to One Parkway’s 18th floor – steadily made it over, with the meeting underway by 8:30 a.m.

“It’s almost biblical out,” Greenberger joked at the start of the delayed meeting. “I don’t know if it’s the book of Job, or the story of Noah, or what.”

Contact the reporter at
More on the January workshops planned for developers and community groups (PlanPhilly, Dec. 4, 2009):

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