Zoning Code consultant to commission and public: Read this document!

The 36th monthly meeting of the Zoning Code Commission was marked by the achievement of producing a 438-page consolidated draft of the new zoning code, concern about how city council would react to the three-year-old code rewrite during an election year and some give and take about whether simplifying the document for the man in the street has merit.

The ZCC’s lead consultant had a broad message for the citizens of Philadelphia and the folks assembled at PCPC headquarters Wednesday morning: Read this document.

“Four hundred and thirty eight pages,” Don Elliott said. “That’s half as long as Denver’s recently adopted code. For a city of this size it’s a mean-and-lean document. Read this one. An efficient use of your time in the next month is to read this draft. If you have limited time, footnotes are a good place to start. This is the ONE to read.”

Chairman Alan Greenberger started things off with a message and a timeline of his own. “Today is a very big deal,“ he said while holding up the sizable binder. “We’re now entering the busiest season. Following the release of the consolidated zoning book there will be a (public) briefing for City Council in the Mayor’s reception room. There’s also a deadline of Oct. 10th for public comments. And there will be two ZCC meetings in October, on the 6th and 27th.

“As a registered architect I don’t believe the end of the process is here until the last second,” Greenberger continued. “We will translate this to council in the next two months but then council will send feedback to us. The process is still ongoing even after this is transmitted to council. It’s tightening the deadline noose but it’s not over. Particularly after we get resolution from council and respond to any issues they have.”

Following Tuesday’s quick zoning code walk-through for the planning commissioners by Elliott, the ZCC met and reviewed the three modules and integrated changes in a one-shot draft form Wednesday, touching on key topics, including: base zoning districts and the new CMX 2.5 base district designation, which is designed to reduce overlays; new standards on roof deck and pilot house locations; the new use standard for tobacco sales; dimensional standards; floor area ratio bonuses; mixed income housing; form and design standards; and Transit Oriented Development. (see photo slideshow for presentation)

During a lively Question and Answer session following the presentation; Brian O’Neill, who wear the hats of City Council member (District 10) and ZCC representative, voiced some concern that confusion about the code by members of the public could trigger a negative council reaction to the rewrite. “With the ZCC briefing coming up for city council (tentatively scheduled for next week) … council members should be encouraged to come to that meeting,” O’Neill said. ” … If there is a convincing response from neighborhood groups … if this is too complicated for the average person, it won’t take much to push this back. Most council members are not focused on this. It might not take much pressure to push this back. If people are saying it’s too complicated we need a specific response to that.”

Greenberger acknowledged that there will be mistakes in this code and part of the commission’s job in next month is to try to find them and “just fix ’em as we go along.” He also made it clear the ZCC members have to be defenders of this new code as they go out in the community. “Zoning does not control behavior. We can’t legislate it out. A lot of what council gets asked to fix through zoning is often behavior. We can’t try to attack a thing we cannot fix.

“Why is this going to work? I think it’s gonna pass. I’m not going to put a couple years of my life into it to see it go down because of cynicism. It will work because we tried to be reasonable. We have not tried to unreasonably limit developers and we have responded to community interests. It’s a pretty big middle of road stratgey that we will stick to and avoid radical initiatives in neighborhoods that are otherwise doing fine. This will be a document that is worthy of being defended. PCPC and council will be the front line defenders when the ZCC is disbanded. We have to be advocates of that.”

Schedule notes

Prior to an informational presentation to City Council in the near future, civic engagement meetings at 10 district council locations will follow in September and early October. The ZCC will also meet twice in October with the goal to get a final code rewrite in front of City Council by Nov. 10 with the hope of getting the code into law by 2011.

According to Executive Director Eva Gladstein, the council district specific meetings will begin the week of September 20th and run through the week of November 8th – with some exceptions:

– ZCC community meetings are not scheduling the last week of October or first week in November, to avoid conflicts w/ Phila2035.

– ZCC is also not scheduling council district specific meetings on Nov. 8th to avoid a conflict with Green2015.

– All but two of the meetings will take place from 6 to 8 p.m.; one will be a weekday morning and one will be a Saturday morning.

– The meetings will take the form of an “open house” rather than breaking down into small group discussions.

Civic Engagement Committee chair Stella Tsai said the council district meetings will be “very ambitious and dates will be circulated soon.” During the two-hour sessions citizens can come and go as they please and interact with staff. A survey posted online will be a virtual open house.

Gladstein also said the ZCC will have briefing meetings with the Committee of Seventy next week; the BIA on Sept. 15, and the Urban Land Institute Sept. 23.

Information highway

Gladstein also reminded the gathered that the draft of the consolidated code will be posted on the ZoningMatters website following the meeting. Every Free Library (there are 53) will also have a copy. A new survey will be available online in two weeks. Gladstein said the ZCC is still working on a Zoning Code Administration manual that will detail process and procedures and the ZCC still has a working group dealing with the Center City Overlay. In particular they still have to look at building height and bulk issues. The signage work group is also still engaged.

Contact the reporter at mgolas@planphilly.com

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