Philadelphia City Council already wants to change new zoning code

Posted: December 13, 2012

The Zoning Code Commission - created by the will of the voters - spent four years debating, dissecting, and ultimately rewriting the city's rule book for building.

The product of all that toil - a slimmer, more modern code that Mayor Nutter hailed Wednesday as "a major achievement for the city" - has been law for less than four months.

And already, Council members are exercising their right - their councilmanic privilege - to seek changes minor and major.

They are doing so despite the fact that four Council members served on the commission and every district member had at least one representative on it.

That has caused something of an uproar with many members of the commission, which included lawyers, architects, and real estate experts.

"Did I waste my time?" asked John Binswanger, a former chair of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce who served on the commission. "They all went through the process. They all understood how it worked."

Like other members of the commission, Binswanger noted that the code included a provision to review it after a year and possibly make changes then.

"It seemed like a fair compromise," he said. "The group didn't agree on every issue."

Some commission members said they hoped - even expected - Council to abide by the one-year review. "We thought we'd all let it sit and percolate and see how it's going," said Peter Kelsen, a zoning and real estate lawyer at Blank Rome who was the commission's vice chair. "I am a bit surprised and disappointed. . . . There's a lot of head-scratching going on."

Nutter also urged legislative restraint.

"I'd just be concerned about big changes for something that has been in effect for 31/2 months," he said.

Councilman Brian J. O'Neill, who has proposed alterations to what the code allows in neighborhood commercial corridors, said he was seeking corrections, not wholesale changes.

"You can't just wait a year for mistakes that were made that are obvious," he said. "If we know the community is going to be opposed, change it now."

On Thursday, the Rules Committee is scheduled to vote on one of O'Neill's commercial-corridor bills. Because of "the pending ordinance doctrine," the bill would go into effect upon committee approval, though the full Council wouldn't vote until next year.

O'Neill, who represents a Far Northeast district with a suburban housing stock, often takes credit for using his zoning prowess as a shield to protect the area's character.

He raised concerns - echoed by some of his colleagues - about uses the new code allows in commercial corridors, such as auto shops, group homes, and gas stations. Those are businesses that, under the old code, either weren't allowed or needed special approval.

"We don't ever want to be in a position where someone comes up to us . . . and says, 'You knew what? When? And you did nothing?' " said O'Neill, who served on the commission.

Greg Pastore, a member of the commission, said commercial corridors were one of the most heavily debated topics during the commission's 86 public and community meetings. He said he was puzzled by the quick move to make changes.

"I'm not sure what they're reacting to because it's so new," he said. "There haven't been any cases."

Throughout the fall, Council also tussled over the code's recently approved "setbacks" for the city's rivers and streams, and introduced bills to change parking and density rules and the requirements for notifying neighbors and community groups of development.

There have been several less-controversial changes, some supported by the administration.

Former Councilman Frank DiCicco, who left office this year, was the driving force for creating the zoning commission to rewrite the code.

His assessment? "They're ripping it apart already," he said this week.

"If I were there, I'd be making the case for, 'Let's see how this works out,' " he said. "Maybe it turns out to be better than you thought it would."


Contact Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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