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 News Article: Philadelphia-Zoning Can Shape the City
    Philadelphia Inquirer
 

 

Philadelphia's new Zoning Code Commission is hard at work on an overhaul of the city's 1962 zoning code.

As a political spectacle, it rivals the excitement of C-Span on a Sunday.

But make no mistake: While most Philadelphians will never read the new code, they will feel its impact for generations. Despite its alphabet soup of terms such as C5 and R9A, zoning reform will reach into every part of the city, shifting development dollars and the political landscape.

That's why the presumptive future mayor, Michael Nutter, recently called zoning reform "the start of the renaissance of Philadelphia."

Remember when National Geographic magazine dubbed Philadelphia "America's Next Great City" in 2005? The hip metropolis described in that article had fine restaurants and wireless Internet access, but its success was ultimately founded on architecture and design - dense neighborhoods, walkable streets, and a "humongous stock of stately old buildings."

Zoning isn't architecture, of course. But it is a kind of municipal DNA that governs a city's physical growth. And like good genes, good zoning can have a sweeping impact, safeguarding historic neighborhoods and fostering development that meets high standards for design and sustainability. In other great American cities such as New York and Chicago, zoning provides the rule book for urban revival.

That's not yet the case in Philadelphia. After 45 years and a thousand ad-hoc amendments by City Council, our code has swollen to 624 pages of impenetrable legalese. It's less a planning document than a recipe for conflict.

In fact, nearly every major project violates the outdated code and requires a variance, sending 75 cases a week to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, where developers battle, wheedle and barter with community groups and elected officials.

Philly's "transactional" style of development asks builders to risk millions on projects with no certain outcome. Many top national developers simply say: "No, thanks." While casinos have lately given large-scale development a bad name, making life easier for regular builders can draw investment into city neighborhoods, raise tax revenue and create jobs.

Deal-by-deal development also consumes a full 50 percent of staff time for some City Council members, while creating opportunities for pay-to-play corruption. It forces community groups to wage guerrilla warfare to defend basic design values - high-quality architecture, no blank walls, street-level retail. In other thriving cities, these are simply required by the code.

The zoning mess forces neighborhood leaders to become masters of zoning arcana and political horse trading.

"We've had to learn how to protect our neighborhood," said Matt Ruben of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. "We've had to become a government for the neighborhood, our own planning commission."

Developers have similar complaints. North Jersey developer Daniel Gans says Philly's deal-by-deal zoning would be a scandal where he's from. Gans, who bargained with Ruben's NLNA over a recent project, was amazed to find civic associations acting like mini-governments.

"It was a little like the Wild West," he said.

Northern Liberties did OK in that bargaining, but not every neighborhood has leaders with the time and skill to go toe-to-toe with developers and city officials.

At Inquirer Great Expectations forums across the city, residents lamented population declines, bombed-out shopping streets, and a city bureaucracy either too corrupt or too inefficient to do much about it. They wondered why Philadelphia has not embraced green building technologies, why the waterfront languishes, and why the city has not done a comprehensive plan in decades.

On the bright side, the zoning-reform movement - which pushed the successful referendum last May that created the Zoning Code Commission - seeks to address most of these issues. It will not happen overnight. When voters endorsed Ballot Question 6 in May, they set off a two-part process that could take most of a decade.

First comes the code rewrite, a task assigned solely to the ZCC, whose 31 members include city officials such as Councilmen Frank DiCicco and Brian O'Neill and ZBA chairman David Auspitz; business leaders including developer John Westrum; architect Emmanuel Kelly; community activists including Bella Vista Town Watch's Greg Pastore, and chairwoman Janice Woodcock, head of the City Planning Commission. Upon completion, which could take two or more years, City Council must vote to adopt the new code.

Second comes remapping, the application of this new code to each of the city's 152 neighborhoods. That process is likely to be long; while Minneapolis managed to remap in less than two years, Pittsburgh has been at it for 10.

And it's going to be noisy: Thousands of citizens must be drawn into public "listening sessions" and design workshops if the remapping is to meet the needs of all Philadelphians. Monthly meetings of the ZCC are open to public comment now, and - in a very un-bureaucratic spirit - commission members already are clamoring for more. They have launched the Web site Zoning Matters: The Philadelphia Zoning Referendum (http://www.zoningmatter.org) to post meeting times and updates.

Ideally, the finished code will not only be fair and predictable, but also will add progressive planning tools to the city's toolbox.

In Pittsburgh and Seattle, zoning has been rewritten to encourage high-density, mixed-use development near mass-transit stations. Used here, this "transit-oriented development" strategy could capitalize on Philly's extensive SEPTA network.

A modern zoning code can reward developers who build with energy-saving technology. In Arlington, Va., a developer meeting the national LEED standards of green design can win a zoning bonus of three additional floors. That allows the cost of green design to be offset by income from the extra space. Arlington and its air quality come out on top.

Similar incentives can prod developers to provide affordable housing, build public parks, protect historic structures, or use finer building materials.

Yet nagging concerns remain, both practical and political.

Can zoning reform bring peace to the perennial war between builders and neighborhoods, or will it merely shift the advantage to one side? With developments being reviewed on a faster track, could developers gain the upper hand?

That's precisely what frightens the ZBA's Auspitz, who prefers the current case-by-case system. "The good thing about the ZBA right now is that everybody gets their day in court," he said.

Reformers counter that instead of giving the public a "day in court," they are inviting the public to help make the process new, fairer, more progressive. It's an offer of front-end influence instead of back-end reaction. So far, it seems, many neighborhood advocates seem willing to take that deal.

A huge question: How will district Council members react to zoning reform? The outdated zoning code, combined with the traditions of councilmanic prerogative, has given members virtual veto power over projects in their districts. This is a huge part of their political clout. Will they give up any of that to create fairer, clearer zoning rules?

A second concern is clarity of mission. For most cities, the code-and-map reform procedure is preceded by another key step: a citywide plan. Philadelphia has only the beginnings of such a plan. ZCC members are looking at the "11 Principles" produced by Chicago planners for guidance. Covering issues from job growth to sign clutter, the Chicago principles are pretty good.

Now, commission members may have another solid planning document to use as a touchstone. It comes from Michael Nutter, who last spring came out with a little-noticed "Nutter Plan for Zoning and Planning Reform."

Nutter's "10 Principles" incorporate the latest in zoning wisdom: walkable neighborhoods, lively streets, and development that is contextual, sustainable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, and open to all income levels. Combined with his recent promises to elevate the underpowered Planning Commission and develop the Delaware riverfront, it is easy to imagine a new era for urbanism in Philadelphia.

Zoning and planning reform may not be the sexiest issue, but it is one on which the future of the city, and the success of Nutter's tenure, if he is elected mayor, will hinge.


   
   
 
   
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