Zoning Feedback: Sitting down with Development Workshop’s Craig Schelter

Craig Schelter’s been around the Philadelphia city planning block. Trained as an architect, his first job out of graduate school at Harvard was working for Ed Bacon, and six months later he became the Center City planner. He was executive director of the Planning Commission for 15 years, the executive vice president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation for 19 years, and now consults on planning and economic development issues.

Why the resume? Because when it comes to the revision of Philadelphia’s zoning code, Schelter had this to say.

“I never in my time in Philadelphia have dealt with something this complicated, in thinking through the ramifications.”

Schelter also heads up the Development Workshop, the seeds of which were laid in 2007.

“We started to see that there needed to be a voice for the development community that kept a focus on making things happen,” Schelter says.

To those ends, the Development Workshop submitted 36 pages of highly detailed comments spanning the entire code, representing feedback from a wide swath of the development community. According to Schelter, the comments brought together a variety of concerns articulated by, among others: Barbara Kaplan, former executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission; Richard Lombardo, another past PCPC executive director who frequently appears with Schelter at Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, and who advises Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll on real estate projects; Jerry Roller, an architect and the founder of JKR Partners; Robert Keppel, a partner at Cope Linder Architects; attorneys from Cozen O’Connor, Blank Rome, and Ballard Spahr; and some of Philadelphia’s largest developers including Brandywine Realty Trust, Liberty Property Trust, and Dranoff Properties.

“We didn’t want to be naysayers,” Schelter said, but, “We believe it’s too much that we’re trying to do at one time that we’re not sure about.”

In a conversation with Schelter about this feedback, he reemphasized the Development Workshop’s concerns with Civic Design Review (CDR), the proposed sky plane regulations, the relationship between the revised code and the city plan, and what he feels is a timeline that outstrips the ability to get the new code right.

Schelter said two concerns arise with CDR. The first is the cost and time that will be spent on the process, but the second is perhaps of greater worry to developers of large projects. He outlined this hypothetical situation.

“In order to go through that process, there’s going to be a public meeting. Inga [Saffron, the architecture critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer] will trash the building. In process you sour neighbors who thought it was OK, but now think it’s lousy. People go to their council person, and they introduce legislation that doesn’t allow that use in that neighborhood,” Schelter said.

And indeed, while the code is designed to reduce zoning variances, City Council still has the power to rezone lots, which could prevent development, or, as the Development Workshop’s written comments point out, have the unintended consequence of encouraging property owners to seek spot zoning to avoid falling into the CDR process.

A clearer, smoother development process is clearly the agenda of the Development Workshop, and thus Schelter argued, “It’s not to be an academic exercise, but one that really works.”

Schelter said he did not want to pick on the new sky plane regulations. Then, he proceeded to pick on sky plane regulations, which, he said, “nobody can really explain.”

“Look at Comcast Center. It goes straight up on Arch Street. Sky plane would make it not a matter of right. What would [Liberty Property Trust] have to do if somebody had filed an appeal? It still took a $35 million subsidy from the state of Pennsylvania,” Schelter said, even without formal opposition.

[It should be noted that the ZCC has been testing sky plane. Comcast Center was not included in those tests, but of the four actual buildings it has tested, three failed to meet the regulations. Five other potential development sites were tested as well.]

“Let’s not complicate things more than we have to, if we can do it simpler,” Schelter said.

Schelter also expressed concern about enforcement, and whether the new code will add responsibilities to the Department of Licenses and Inspections that he said are not called for in the city charter.

“The code says they should compare things to the comprehensive plan. They didn’t draft the plan, the plan doesn’t exist yet. They aren’t city planners or architects,” Schelter said.

One of the fundamental problems with the revision process, according to Schelter, is that the zoning code likely will be completed before the new city plan is done. But, Schelter said, “[The revised zoning code] refers to citywide issues that are as of yet unresolved,” Schelter said.

The Development Workshop’s written comments suggest that the adoption of the Center City controls, which happened in 1991, was appropriate, because it followed on the 1988 Center City plan. They propose planning, then remapping to “strike archaic, dysfunctional classifications,” and then modernizing the code. This process, they argue, will allow the city to continue its commitment to integrating civic values in the plan and will yield better rules for as-of-right development.

“Is it more complicated than people can responsibly deal with?” Schelter asked. “It’s not real for people until they’re confronted with an actual development. Change is difficult for everybody. Nobody likes to have cranes on their block, the noise of construction, a four-story building on what used to be a green lot.”

Schelter said he understood the original mandate to be to simplify the code, and to make it more transparent. He’s not sure that’s the case, and said that “because the recession is going on, there’s no need to rush.”

Developers are having trouble financing large projects, and Schelter said that slowdown in building can accommodate what he hoped would be a slower adoption of the code, and clarifying its connections to the in-progress city plan. On top of that, Schelter worried that the rhythm of governance in Philadelphia, and political changes in the state, will slow down the process.

“The issue that always totally confronts [City] Council in January through May is the budget.” And with state aid to the city anticipated to shrink as a result of power shifts in Harrisburg, Schelter said, “in the midst of that, I’m not sure Council is going to want to deal with the complexities of the zoning code.”

“It’s like open-heart surgery on the development process.”

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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