Zoning overhaul is facing a threat

Posted: May 15, 2011

Editor's note: The following story has been corrected. In addition, the following correction ran about this story on May 15, 2011.

A story about a meeting of Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission failed to mention that some of Councilman Bill Green’s remarks had been made in an interview two days earlier. In that interview, he said he thought City Council would table the new code unless the commission accepted the changes he was advocating, but he did not say he would initiate the tabling of it. Green said he was concerned about the impact of the zoning code on the entire city and had proposed phasing in the new code neighborhood by neighborhood as their land-use maps are updated, rather than adopting the code simultaneously citywide. The city’s Northeast neighborhood was not being singled out for exemption.

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Just when it seemed that the commission charged with overhauling Philadelphia's antiquated zoning laws had won a broad consensus for a svelte, new 384-page codebook - regulating everything from parking to pasta manufacturing - two councilmen are moving to block its adoption.

The Zoning Code Commission, which was created by public referendum in 2007, was to vote Wednesday morning on whether to wrap up four years of work and submit the proposed code to City Council for review. But the councilmen's opposition now threatens to unravel the process - which could delay a finished code by at least five years.

At-large Councilman Bill Green and Brian J. O'Neill, who have both served on the zoning code commission since its inception, say the current draft is still rife with defects and needs substantial revision.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who chairs the zoning code commission, described their actions as an 11th-hour attempt to delay, or even kill, the new zoning code.

"We know we're not sending a perfect document to Council," Greenberger said. "But we've worked on this for four years. It's as ready as it's going to be. If we don't move on to the next phase now, zoning reform will die."

Although Green has threatened to table the new code in Council, he denied he was trying to sabotage efforts to streamline the city's Byzantine zoning code, which dates to 1962 and still contains passages regulating tanneries and slaughterhouses. O'Neill did not return phone calls made over several days.

Although several community groups had voiced concern about elements of the new code, the commission spent the last several months successfully tweaking the draft to win their support.

"The commission has taken the time to consider the vast amount of public input received and I think at this point, the code is pretty good. Definitely not perfect, but clearly better than what we now have," said Timothy A. Kerner, of the Center City Residents Association.

Attorney Richard C. DeMarco, who often represents developers, also favors passing the draft. "I am just fearful of losing the momentum for reform that a delay might cause," he said.

Zoning has long been a political minefield in Philadelphia. Because the city charter gives Council members the "prerogative" to intervene on zoning matters, they often act as gatekeepers, supporting or blocking projects according to their personal whim. Several Council people have gone to jail for demanding kickback payments in exchange for zoning variances.

The commission was established in an effort to overcome old-style backroom deals and make the zoning process more predictable for developers and homeowners alike. The new code is significantly shorter than the current, 650-page version and easier to read. Most importantly, it reduces the need for variances.

Rewriting it has been an arduous task. The code comprises thousands of details that govern big things like the height of buildings, as well as excruciating minutiae, like the types of pasta that can be produced by manufacturers.

Under the old code, ravioli could be produced in certain neighborhoods, but not linguine and fettuccine. Vinegar and vegetable sauces could not be bottled in the same facility. The commission, made up largely of citizen volunteers, spent hundreds of hours combing through each section of the code, deciding what to throw out, what to keep and what to rewrite.

Zoning was first introduced in the early 20th century as a way of controlling undesirable uses, like junkyards. Over time, cities began using their zoning codes to create separate zones for residents and businesses. But by compartmentalizing those uses, some cities ended up with sterile monocultures.

Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and cities are eager to encourage vibrant, mixed-use environments, like Liberty Place, a high-rise development in Center City that accommodates offices, condos, shops, and restaurants. The new code now encourages such mixed-use projects far beyond Center City.

The draft also recognizes that technology has dramatically changed how people work and live. More people are working at home or have started small consulting firms. Because the code creates a "live-work" category, people will now be able to legally operate offices in many residential areas.

In an effort to encourage the artist districts that have developed in Northern Liberties and Fishtown, the code gives residents there the latitude to establish small workshops. The commissioners also included language to allow homeowners to keep beehives, chickens, and gardens under certain circumstances.

Such innovations may be unsettling, especially in the more suburban areas of the Northeast, where single-family homes predominate.

Green and O'Neill expressed their concerns with the code in a May 5 letter to the commission. Because of the fierce debate in recent weeks over the final wording of the draft, they say the public has not been given enough time to digest the significance of the new rules.

The letter identifies two specific defects in the proposed code, but Green said there are "at least 50 more." They are particularly concerned about allowing bed-and-breakfasts in the Northeast because they fear they could turn into permanent boardinghouses.

But their objections stem primarily from the way the city plans to implement the rules. The commission has yet to revise the all-important land maps - a five- to seven-year project that classifies lots into residential, commercial, and industrial categories.

In the meantime, the city intends to start applying the new zoning code.

Green and O'Neill object to using the new rules before the mapping is finished. "There will be lots of unintended consequences if they do that," argued Green. "I don't think the district Council people will be comfortable rolling this out."

Even if the commission sends the draft to City Council, Greenberger said there is still plenty of time to modify it before it becomes law. In addition to holding public hearings, Council will probably send the draft back to the commission for revisions.

Based on that schedule, Greenberger said he hopes Council will vote to approve a final version before the end of the year - and before five new members join the group. Councilman Frank DiCicco, a champion of the new code, is retiring this year.

"The longer this gets set back," Greenberger said, "the less likely it is to happen."


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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