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Zoning Code Commission holds its second-to-last meeting – probably

The Zoning Code Commission spent the bulk of what was, in all likelihood, its penultimate formal meeting Wednesday, whittling down the list of still-contentious issues in advance of an official vote scheduled for its last meeting before submitting a Final Report to City Council.

That meeting will take place November 9th at 8 a.m. And the list of still-contentious issues that will be settled—or not—in the next two weeks is unsurprising: Sky Plane controls, “group medical practices” (methadone clinics), group living, SP-PO Districts, home occupation definitions, and overlays in Germantown and elsewhere.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger began Wednesday’s  meeting by reviewing the master ordinance the Commission would send to Council along with its final report. The Commission had changed the effective date of the new code eight months after its adoption, and gotten rid of the “opt-in” period, which would give code users the opportunity to use the new code during the transition period.

Eva Gladstein, the ZCC’s executive director, said that Commission would be issuing a condensed version of the changes going into the final report a few days before the next ZCC meeting. She also said that once the final report is sent to Council, the Commission is “out of business,” but she’ll be asking for volunteers to work on new sign controls to submit as an amendment to the new code next spring.

In all, the Commission reviewed 21 new recommendations from Council at Wednesday’s meeting, plus six modifications of previous Council recommendations and five recommendations that did not come from Council.

The first item to generate serious discussion at the meeting was the first item reviewed, a proposed amendment which would regulate group practice medical offices separately than sole practitioners’ offices. The ZCC’s Work Plan Committee recommended a partial acceptance of this amendment. The Committee suggested permitting group practitioners by special exception in RMX-1 and RMX-2 districts, where Council had recommended prohibiting them outright. This amendment was introduced in an attempt to regulate methadone clinics separately from other medical uses. Councilman Bill Green, who first introduced the recommendation, says that this ability is important to Council.

Zoning Code Commissioner Peter Kelsen said that the goal of regulating methadone clinics was admirable, but that this particular amendment carries with it unintended consequences. He said the proposal would block not only potentially noxious uses like meth clinics, but also beneficial ones like health centers. He said group practices should be allowed by right in CMX districts/ “Why make it harder to get that kind of care to the community?” Kelsen said.

Councilman Frank DiCicco, the only Council member present at  the time, encouraged the Commission to find a way to legally regulate methadone clinics.

The item which generated probably the most discussion at the meeting was Council’s proposed amendment #13: “Providing the option for use of either Sky Plane controls or Bulk and Massing regulations included in the existing code.” The Work Plan Committee recommended not accepting this amendment, saying it would be difficult to administer and “yield unpredictable development outcomes.”

“It really starts unraveling the process to make this change,” said Elizabeth Garvin, of Clarion Associates, who presented the recommendations.

Two familiar voices spoke in favor of accepting Council’s recommendation make Sky Plane optional: Craig Schelter of Development Workshop and Councilman Bill Green. They said that a mandatory Sky Plane provision would put an undue hardship on builders, and would prevent some of Philadelphia’s biggest buildings—and biggest investments—from being allowed by right.

Interestingly, the biggest point of contention between those opposed to the Sky Plane controls and those in favor was not the provision itself, but the opinion of two Philadelphia developers: John Gattuso of Liberty Property Trust and Gerry Sweeney of Brandywine Realty. Bill Green and Craig Schelter both represented Gattuso and Sweeney as being opposed to the mandatory Sky Plane provision. They said it was imprudent to put in place a provision that is opposed by two of the biggest investors in Philadelphia’s built environment.

Alan Greenberger said that Green and Schelter were mischaracterizing Gattuso’s and Sweeney’s testimony. That testimony took place in Council Chambers on September 14, in response to a question from Councilman Green. What the two developers actually said is below.

Gattuso: “As long as the guidelines are out there and understood, we can react to them and drive quality projects that are in response to that plan … The Sky Plane, I don’t see as a problem. Some people look at it as complicated, but I think there is a rationale we understand, and we could work with it.”

Sweeney: “From our standpoint, as long as the rules are well-understood, clear, articulated, and uniformly applied, I think you can design around a lot of the Sky Plane issues. From a pure visceral standpoint, it’s probably a restriction we do not support, but I think in the context of what we’ve viewed in this code, it seems to be fine.”

After cutting off the discussion of Sky Plane, the Commission took up the issue of overlays, which are the subject of Council’s proposed amendments numbers 29 through 34. The amendments would retain special overlay controls for Germantown, East Falls, Overbrook Farms, Farimount, Northern Liberties, and Old City. The Work Plan Committee recommended accepting or partially accepting each of these amendments.

Commissioner Stella Tsai said she thought the Germantown overlay was well-intentioned but flawed. The overlay prohibits the new development of certain uses, such as barber shops, nail salons, beauty shops, and variety stores. She said the controls might prevent people from starting businesses and improving their community. “One of the things I read in that legislation is barriers to entry for people trying to get out of poverty,” Tsai said.

Other commissioners said that reinstating any overlays was out-of-step with the spirit of zoning reform. In regard to Germantown specifically, Councilman Bill Green suggested retaining the neighborhood’s overlay for the time being, and having it be removed after the comprehensive remapping process is finished sometime in the next five years. Alan Greenberger supported that suggestion, as did Yvonne Haskins, a Germantown resident who has been deeply involved in trying to prevent a Dollar Tree from being built in Chelten Plaza.

Joe Schiavo of Old City Civic Association spoke out against the Work Plan Committee’s suggestion to permit eating and drinking establishments by special exception in Old City. He said the special exception burdens are too light, that Old City has too many bars already, and that what the new zoning code needs is a way to control the concentration of special exception uses in a given area. He said controlling food uses at the zoning level was the only way the neighborhood could ultimately control the number of liquor licenses in Old City. “The problem is that we have no aggregation standards,” Schiavo said, “So when is enough enough?”

Graham Copeland, executive director of Old City District, disagreed with Schiavo, and said the new code would open the door to necessary new development in Old City. “Not every food use will morph into a liquor use,” Copeland said, “and not every liquor use will morph into a bad liquor use.”

At the end of  the meeting, Deputy Mayor Greenberger listed six items that still need to be resolved in advance of the final report being issued. Eva Gladstein said that a near-final version of the final report will be issued to commissioners and the public on Monday, November 7th. The official ZCC vote will take place on the 9th.

For his part, Councilman Green stressed at several points throughout Wednesday’s meeting that none of Council’s recommendations get in the way of the “broad goals” of zoning reform. He said the recommendations represent the consensus of a united Council, and that the Commission should therefore accept each of them, with no revisions. Green also got the last word before the meeting was adjourned, pointing out that reforming the zoning code is only the first step toward bringing investment into the city. Remapping, he said, would be the truly effective step toward inviting positive, by-right development. “I just want to make sure everybody understands that that’s the endgame,” Green said. “It’s not passing this code—it’s getting this code applied on the ground that is going to make a difference in investment, development, and economic growth.” 

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com 

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