Zoning Code Commission briefs City Council on zoning reform

At a round-table meeting in the Caucus Room at City Hall Thursday afternoon, representatives of the Zoning Code Commission briefed members of City Council on the state of the zoning reform process in Philadelphia.

The Council members present at the meeting were Frank DiCicco, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Bill Green, Donna Reed Miller, Marian Tasco, and Brian O’Neill. It was the fourth time the ZCC has briefed City Council, and the first since Council opened hearings on the Commission’s preliminary report. In terms of substance, there were no major revelations or changes since the last ZCC briefing of council, in June.

First District Councilman Frank DiCicco opened the meeting with general remarks about the widespread dissatisfaction with Philadelphia’s current code. He said that the vast majority of development that takes place in the city is carried out by Philadelphia-based developers, because the density of the current system creates a “disincentive” to outside developers who might otherwise be interested in building here.

DiCicco said that while the ZCC was “not a pro-development commission,” he believes it is important to clarify the City’s zoning law to open the door for investment in Philadelphia. “In the end,” DiCicco said, “I believe that what we do, and hopefully what Council will pass, will set the stage for the development of Philadelphia over the next two decades, at the very least.”

DiCicco then turned the floor over to Alan Greenberger, Chairman of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, who introduced other ZCC members present at the briefing. Greenberger reminded Council members of the Commission’s civic outreach efforts, which have included 47 televised public meetings and 36 community-based meetings.

Greenberger spoke about the evolving character of Philadelphia’s population, and said that the proposed zoning code will serve that population in a number of ways. A document given to attendees of the briefing asserts that the proposed new zoning code creates opportunities for safe and affordable housing, healthy and sustainable development, small business and commercial corridors, large-scale commercial development, and community participation.

Greenberger briefly described some provisions of the draft that were crafted in service of those goals. For example, transit-oriented development standards, new uses like urban farming, and density bonuses for green buildings encourage healthy and sustainable development, Greenberger said. He said that community participation would be bolstered under the proposed code thanks to provisions for Registered Community Organizations and Civic Design Review. Greenberger acknowledged that the draft was imperfect, and asked for Council’s input on several issues, but repeated that the new code would be a major improvement for the city.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve done,” Greenberger said. “We think it’s an excellent document.”

ZCC Executive Director Eva Gladstein then introduced the Council members to a sample of the issues on which the Commission is seeking input. Certain provisions of the draft, such as new uses for bed-and-breakfasts, have been somewhat controversial, and Gladstein said the Commission wants Council to help guide its decisions on those matters. Gladstein then explained the difference between the Commission’s majority and minority reports. Substantively, she said, the reports are the same. The differences are in each report’s plans for implementing the new code. While the majority report calls for the code to be enacted over a 180-day timeline, the minority report recommends that the code take effect in different districts after they’ve been remapped.

The minority report was initially supported by nine members of the ZCC, including At-Large Councilman Bill Green. Green this week issued a memo with recommendations for the draft which he and others see as a middle ground between the two reports.

Gladstein also reviewed with Council the charter-mandated timeline for adopting a new code. The next step is for Council to re-convene public hearings on the ZCC’s preliminary report, which it is scheduled to do Wednesday, Sept. 14. Thirty days after public hearings are closed—there is no deadline for closing hearings—Council must submit recommendations to the Commission, which then has another 30 days to send a final report back to Council. Once Council receives the final report, it has 60 days or five Council sessions to enact into law, reject, or table the proposals.

After the briefing from Greenberger and Gladstein, the meeting was opened to questions from members of Council. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced a concern about Registered Community Organizations, which was echoed by several other attendees throughout the remainder of the meeting. Quiñones-Sánchez said that, due to the varying level of political and planning organization in different neighborhoods, she feared the public input provisions of the code wouldn’t be enough to assure that all community concerns be appropriately represented.

Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller said she had the same concern for her own district. Miller said that during the zoning reform process, constituents in some parts of her district attended public meetings, while others did not. She said that should not suggest that the people who didn’t attend the meetings weren’t interested, however. She worried that having community groups register would keep less-organized communities from having a say in development in their neighborhoods.

“I want to make sure their voices are heard,” Miller said, “whether they’re registered or not.”

“The main voice,” she added, “should be these people that the project will impact because of where they reside.”

Greenberger sought to assure Miller and other Council members that the RCO provision of the draft created an incentive to organized community groups without giving a penalty for others. Communities that want to have a say in local development are encouraged to register, he said, but all members of the public are welcome to provide input in the same way that an RCO would.

The other major topic discussed during the open portion of the briefing was the draft’s provision regarding Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), or “Mother-in-law Suites,” as Greenberger referred to them. Councilwoman Marian Tasco first raised the issue with a question about converting from single-family to multi-family residential. Gladstein assured her that such a conversion would still require a variance under the draft code.

 Councilwoman Tasco said that, when a family builds an accessory dwelling unit—often for an elderly or disabled loved one—the unit eventually becomes just another apartment when the family moves out. In effect, she said, an ADU can convert a single-family home into a multi-family home. She said the City’s struggles with enforcement could create opportunities for misuse of the ADU provision. Gladstein reminded Tasco that one protection against that scenario was that the ADU use was not permitted by right, and that for it to become so it would have to be approved by a Council resolution.

The meeting was the first in a new series of discussions aimed at refining the draft based on City Council’s suggestions. Those discussions will continue throughout the fall at ZCC meetings and public hearings at Council sessions and, some hope, culminate in approval of a draft by Council before the end of the year.

“It’s our hope,” said Alan Greenberger, “that having a very long process like this means that we are all sort of obligating ourselves to make the rules of this code stick.”

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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