Power: King David

IT’S VALENTINE’S DAY AFTERNOON, but there’s not much love to go around here in the soul-sucking, drab meeting room where the Zoning Board of Adjustments handles its business — which, all hyperbole aside, is nothing less than the very business of shaping the city in ways both epic and mundane, sculpting it block by block, variance by variance. The zoning board is responsible for everything from approving some schlub’s roof deck in Manayunk to green-lighting a 268-foot condo tower smack in the heart of Old City, much to the disgust of nearly everyone who lives there. And the man who leads it, who defines its tenor and the surprisingly broad wingspan of its authority, is its chairman, David Auspitz, who spent roughly 80 hours a week for 35 years working … in a deli. A great one, an epic one, even — Famous 4th Street Deli in Queen Village — but a deli. He also makes awesome cookies. And some pretty damn important decisions that can change Philadelphia forever.

To appreciate Auspitz beyond the magic of his double chocolate chips, you really must see him in action at the ZBA. From behind his place at the center of the board’s pulpit, the 61-year-old leans back in his chair so only his craggy face, topped with a sweep of gray hair, peeks out. Eighteen floors above Arch Street, Auspitz looks down from his dais upon the rest of the room, and the city itself. Before him today, the owner of a two-car garage near the Italian Market pleads to convert the space above it into apartments. Auspitz asks if the apartments will have air-conditioning and a garbage disposal — two of his favorite questions — then turns to a nervous neighbor who fears the garage’s rodent problem will only get worse if people live above it.

“It’s my understanding that a variance is for hardships,” the woman says timidly into the microphone across from Auspitz. It’s a statement, by the way, that’s basically true.

“Don’t go there,” Auspitz says, lest she actually try to understand a zoning term at a zoning hearing. “You’ve been given some bad information. Just stick to rats.”

Auspitz listens to both parties, then postpones the vote until the owner and the neighbor can talk this over directly. Neither side objects, and from where Auspitz sits, he’s done his job, a role that’s one part Supreme Court justice and a whole lot of Judge Wapner.

A little later, the owner of a condo complex in Northern Liberties wants to convert some units into three doctor’s offices. He assures the board that the community will benefit from it. His attorney, as the smart ones do, addresses Auspitz by his title.

“You always make me feel like Ted Kennedy,” chuckles Auspitz. “Say it again — ‘Mr. Chairman.’ ‘Mr. Chairman.’”

“It’s safe to say we’re not going to bring in a methadone clinic,” the lawyer says.

The chairman lets out a laugh that echoes through the room. “I can guarantee that, brother.”

“I guess we can rule out an acupuncturist?” the lawyer continues, hoping for a chuckle that never comes. “That was an attempt at humor.”

“That was humor?” Auspitz peers down at him. “I work alone, buddy.”

The truth is, though he is just one of the zoning board’s six seats, Auspitz really is a one-man show. He sets the tone and does the most talking, and while his dictatorship is a benevolent one (mostly), he wields more authority than any one non-elected official probably should. Thanks to a 600-page zoning code that’s 60 years old — the most ancient of any major city’s — along with a planning commission that’s been virtually nonexistent for the past 16 years, Auspitz has, by default, become Philadelphia’s top jack of all trades: part city planner, part chief architect, even part mayor. He isn’t leaving a few fingerprints on the city — he is defining it, in every way imaginable.

If it sounds absurd that the lord of the macadamia chip and king of the knish has so much influence, well, it is. And Auspitz runs the zoning board the way you imagine a deli owner would — he’s testy at times, but usually good for a laugh and eager to give everyone at least some of what they want. “We’re pro responsible development,” says board member Eleanor Dezzi. “We’re also pro community development.” Translated, that means Auspitz serves not so much zoning law, but what he calls the “fabric of Philadelphia.”

“It always seemed to be quite incredible that one minute they’re hearing a variance for a 50-story high-rise, the next it’s a roof deck, the next it’s whether a store can sell 40s,” says Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron, one of the “10 percenters,” as Auspitz calls his critics, who’ve described him as “self-­important,” a “tyrant,” a “bully,” and “playing loose” with the rules.

Continues Saffron, “Sometimes he’s Mussolini; sometimes he’s very flattering. And sometimes he’s doing shtick, like Jackie Mason.”

THIS MONTH, VOTERS WILL DECIDE whether to establish a commission that will rewrite Philadelphia’s antiquated zoning laws, following cities like Chicago — whose code overhaul is considered a model we could follow — and Denver, which is now reaping the rewards of a three-decades-long comprehensive plan. (Consider its thriving waterfront development and downtown ballpark, for example.) There’s also a slim possibility that both Philadelphia casino proposals will come before Auspitz’s board, giving the city perhaps its final chance to have a say in what our life with slots will look like. All of which means this may be the most critical year in the past two decades for city zoning, for Philadelphia’s development, and for David Auspitz.

Any changes in the zoning process would, of course, be designed to address just how bizarre — and ad hoc — our zoning process has become. On the morning of that Valentine’s Day session, the board — a.k.a. Auspitz, who often refers to the six-member group in the singular, meaning himself — approved the controversial Barnes Tower condos on the Parkway, after a year’s worth of negotiations. The process had been contentious, but during that final 45-minute ZBA meeting, there was peace, thanks in large part to Auspitz, who helped the community knock 10 floors off the tower, now called Parkway22. “He was like the broker,” says Jeff Jubelirer, a media consultant representing the developers. “He really wanted the two sides to get together.”

Okay. Got it. Auspitz and Co., not fans of massive high-rises, especially if the neighbors hate them. What to think, then, when across town at 2nd and Arch, Auspitz and Co. approve the Americana condos, a 268-foot megalith that not only drew the ire of neighbors, the historic Christ Church, and the well-regarded Old City Civic Association, but also violates the 65-foot Old City height limit established in 2003 by Mayor Street himself? There must be some long-forgotten bylaw hidden deep in the cracks of that rusty old code to explain this. If there is, Auspitz doesn’t know about it. Instead, as he and the board do with most matters, he followed his gut.

“You can’t build a 21st-century city in an 18th-century body,” Auspitz explains. “You need height today, anywhere in the country. I was even discussing — any new big building goes up, you put lights on the top floors, so you can light it up for breast cancer awareness month. I looked at this corner [Americana condos], I looked at that corner [Barnes ­Tower/Parkway22], we have big buildings in the west. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! We have a ring of pink surrounding the city. We have Fourth of July, red white and blue, all kinds of things like that. That’s development!”

To be fair, Auspitz didn’t allow the code to fall into ruin, nor was he responsible for finding our next Ed Bacon. He just fancies himself worthy of picking up the torch. “In urban planning, there’s something they call the Campfire Theory,” Auspitz says over a grilled cheese at Famous 4th Street; he’s dying for pastrami on rye, but is on orders from his wife Janie to watch his weight. “These are where people gather. They talk, they eat, they laugh, they tell stories. You need these places.”

Building campfires, not condos, is the Auspitz family business, dating back to when Auspitz’s two uncles opened the first Famous for $300 at 31st and York. Five sprouted up in total, from Aunt Celie and Uncle Arthur’s on Ogontz Avenue to Uncle Joe’s on Haverford Avenue, all catering to heavily Jewish neighborhoods. When Auspitz’s father, Sam, was given 4th Street, Queen Village was losing residents, and every block seemed to have a Jewish deli. Sam’s appeared doomed to fail; instead it became the most successful Famous, and the only one that’s still standing. When his father fell ill in 1970, Auspitz left investment banking in Washington to take over the deli — a job that offered him a healthy pay cut in exchange for twice the sweat. “I worked seven days a week for 35 years,” Auspitz says. “Every holiday. I got married on a Sunday night because I had to work Sunday morning.”

Famous catered to everyone, from the Sunday bagels-and-lox crowd to longshoremen jonesing for corned beef to Mayor Frank Rizzo. Auspitz knew the faces and the names, including the infamous ones like mob kingpin Angelo Bruno, whom he would greet as “Mr. Goldberg.” What you did outside the deli was your business; inside, everyone deserved a hot meal and a handshake.

It was the atmosphere Auspitz created — and a killer corned beef special — that brought political strategist Neil Oxman to Famous for lunch with Pete Camiel, the city’s top Democrat, on Election Day in the fall of 1982. From that year on, Oxman would hold court the day of every primary and general election with a who’s who of Philly power and influence: Ed Rendell, David L. Cohen, Arthur Makadon, Joe Torsella, Bob Barnett, Larry Eichel, Buzz Bissinger, Chris Mottola, along with special guests like Jeff Lurie and Harris Wofford. The one constant was Auspitz, butterflying around the room, kibitzing and tempting the crowd with Janie’s cookies. “He knows everyone,” says Oxman. “What made it fun was that it was like you were in David’s living room.”

Auspitz sold the deli in 2005, but with a “gentleman’s agreement” that he could still return to host Election Day. The decision to sell was an easy one, he says, a combination of a great offer (that he doesn’t disclose), fewer hours, and more time to spend on his cookie business — the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company — at the Reading Terminal.

Even while he was serving pastrami sandwiches, Auspitz was developing another passion, one that isn’t as legendary but is critical to his role with the ZBA: For more than two decades, he served as the zoning chairman for the Queen Village Neighbors Association, one of the city’s most respected civic groups. So it made sense that in October 1997, when Famous friend Ed Rendell needed to fill a zoning seat, he tapped his old buddy Auspitz. Who better to sit on the ZBA than the guy who once fought to protect his neighbors on South Street from an incoming strip club? The guy to whom the Daily News gave its inaugural YO! Award, created to “celebrate what makes Philadelphia great and to recognize a person who contributes to that greatness”?

So there’s Auspitz a couple years later in that miserable ZBA room, when the word comes in: Chairman and Sheet Metal Workers chief Tom Kelly can’t make it today. Neither can his usual surrogate as chair, Tom Logan, of the AFL-CIO. When Auspitz recalls that moment, he arches his arms upward, like he’s gripping the handlebars of an imaginary Harley: “I sat there like this … vroom, vroom, let’s take this baby for a test drive! I was ready! I was revved up. I knew exactly what to do.”

Then, in March 2003, when Mayor Street shuffles the ZBA deck and appoints Auspitz as chairman, what’s the first thing this campfire builder does? “I put in those bowls of candy,” Auspitz says, referring to the dish of suckers that sits on the table where both lawyers in hand-stitched suits and women worried about rats testify. “People get nervous, they get dry mouth. I want them to feel comfortable up there.” His next move was installing microphones, which arrived around the time the FBI’s bug was found at City Hall, prompting Auspitz to announce, “We’re the only place that wants microphones put in.” He saw a janitor throwing out an old poster from the ZBA’s private chamber. It was the city’s code of ethics. “Hold on,” Auspitz said. “Hang that up!” Laudable? Sure — but given the administration Auspitz is part of, it’s also plenty ironic.

“DEAL-MAKING” DEFINES PHILLY POLITICS, often for the worse, and though that’s exactly what Auspitz does, he sees himself as the antithesis of “schmucks” like Milton Street, the brother of the mayor who made Auspitz chairman. (“If he died right now,” Auspitz says of Milton, “I would spit on him because I’m so mortified over what he’s done to this city.”) The board itself is made up of people Auspitz describes as “good souls” — Mayor Street’s pastor (who’s also Street’s relative), a political consultant who’s worked with the Mayor, the head of the laborers union, and an L&I representative, who is never there. (The sixth member, and the only one with professional zoning experience, has been absent of late while battling cancer.) Klehr Harrison’s Carl Primavera, arguably the city’s top zoning attorney, says the ZBA “might not be perfect, but it works. The people on the board lead with their hearts, as the chairman says, and they do a good job.”

That’s what one would expect to hear from a lawyer whose livelihood depends on seeing a lot more of Auspitz in the future. But with a system that leaves so much control in the hands of “good people” with thin CVs and a lot of power, development in Philly is more like Mayberry than Manhattan. “In Miami, these issues are dealt with by professionals in the building department,” says one businessman who’s faced zoning boards all across the country, including in Philadelphia, where his project was rejected outright by the ZBA. “In Philadelphia, the attitude [of the board] was very cavalier. These people are supposed to make impartial decisions. My view was that we had no hope from the moment we went in there.” That feeling of dread was compounded, he says, by frequent Auspitzian lectures about how things work in Philadelphia.

It’s a familiar theme when it comes to the chairman. Last July, when negotiations on the Barnes Tower/Parkway22 project were at an impasse, Auspitz called out the tower’s Israeli developer, Dalia Shuster. “Stand up!” he yelled with disgust, his plump cheeks turning a shade of cranberry. “I want people to see you! I’m telling you right to your face, this isn’t going to work.” He also dressed down a defenseless manager of the decrepit Best Western that Parkway22 will replace, telling him he had no right to speak — which he did — then delivering the knockout blow: “Do you have a piece of the action in this?” Auspitz recalls his attack on the hotel manager with a hint of pride, like a linebacker basking in a hit that sent his opponent to the locker room early. “I really crippled him,” he says, adding that he apologized to the man later. “But I had to do it in order for [Shuster] to understand — we’re not playing here.”

That brings us back to the approval of those condos in Old City against the wishes of the community, and the ace that the Americana’s developer, Michael Yaron, was holding. It’s customary for City Council members to send letters or lackeys to the ZBA in support of or opposition to a project. But it’s practically hit-the-lottery rare that the governor of Pennsylvania would send the board a letter endorsing a project. The only connection between Rendell and those condos would seem to be the $200,000 that Yaron contributed to Rendell’s campaign coffers.

Auspitz’s gold-rimmed reading glasses sometimes take on a rosy tint when he’s discussing municipal corruption. He says the mere fact that Rendell sent a letter to the board — making it a public document, not a backroom deal — proves that any talk of impropriety is just conspiracy theory run amok, good gossip for those who yap about the city’s pay-to-play culture, which, Auspitz says, “doesn’t exist.” There’s also the impression that if you want a deal to sail through zoning, you need a politically connected firm, like Klehr Harrison or Blank Rome, but in reality, what you need is just someone who knows how Auspitz thinks (and as any zoning lawyer will tell you, good luck with that). Question whether anyone’s tried to grease his wheels outside the boardroom, and Auspitz snaps, “No one’s that stupid. I’ve got one good fight left in me, and that person would get it.”

The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron defends the need for the “community participation” that Auspitz brings to the ZBA, but says his unpredictable decision-making implies he’s part of the pay-to-play culture. “Zoning is more of an art than a science,” she says, “but the problem with Auspitz giving his opinions mid-­testimony and dressing down participants is that it creates the impression that the fix is in. It doesn’t matter if the board is ultimately impartial. Is David Auspitz making those decisions because he’s following zoning code, or is he carrying out the will of the people?”

The answer is a little bit of both, and it’s not so surprising if you consider why the zoning board has become Let’s Make A Deal. It begins with the musty code itself, which addresses milliners — makers of women’s hats — but not Internet cafés, outpatient clinics or skyscrapers. Add to that two mayoral administrations that have orphaned the planning commission by following the money and letting developers run amok, with no cohesive vision for the future. As a result, the code is interpretive, not definitive, and since no one else is taking a stand on roof decks or what size brick is appropriate to maintain the spirit of Society Hill, it all falls at the feet of the zoning board.

“Look, David’s an activist at heart,” says union boss and Famous regular John Dougherty. “David would interject himself in my meetings. Sometimes it was nice, sometimes it wasn’t. [But] people like David. He’d show up with a few cookies and say, ‘Hey, you should get this done, it’s good for Philly.’”

It’s a sense of civic responsibility that began in childhood, when Auspitz’s uncles sent ambulances overseas to aid in Israel’s fight for independence — and his father hid ammunition and rifles under their floorboards. When Auspitz was 18, his older brother invited him to a march in Washington as Martin Luther King built perhaps the greatest campfire in U.S. history. Well over a decade later, Mark Segal made his first trip to Famous at a time when gay activism didn’t leave the gay community. “David introduced himself and said, ‘It’s an honor to have you here. This is your community also,’” Segal says. “He took me around and introduced me to everyone in the room. It was an emotional moment for me.”

OVER THE COURSE OF A MARATHON power lunch that nearly turns into a power dinner inside the Marriott Courtyard’s no-frills restaurant, the Annex, Auspitz takes a moment to consider his zoning fetishes. He does have a thing for garbage disposals and air-conditioning. Mention this, and out comes a little Jackie Mason — “I can think of much better fetishes than those two.” But then, just as his ZBA hearings often change tenor without warning, Auspitz turns as earnest and sappy as a Hallmark card.

“One of the greatest memories I had as a kid — I grew up at 66th and 12th in East Oak Lane. Big old house, it had those stone walls and no air-conditioning. My parents had a Carrier air conditioner in the window of their room. On really hot, muggy nights, my brother and I used to drag our mattresses into our parents’ room. We had more fun … my mother and my father — it brings tears to my eyes.” And as he says this, Auspitz actually gets misty. “That’s my fondest memory as a child. Then I read in the paper — kids sitting outside, two o’clock in the morning, because they’re hot. We don’t say central air. All we ask for is a window air conditioner in the bedroom of any apartment. So every child in this city, in hot weather, has the ability to go into a cool place and sleep. Maybe as a family, they’ll have the memory I have and I cherish. You’re building a memory for them.”

Auspitz is almost certainly the first ZBA chairman to ever get choked up when discussing zoning. No amount of tears will likely save the Auspitz era, though, since his seat is filled by the mayor, and zoning chairmen rarely survive two administrations. For Auspitz, it will be tough to leave, since the ZBA head will sit on the new zoning commission if voters create it this month. Though the ballot initiative is expected to pass, without a sweeping, comprehensive development plan like Denver’s, and a mayor with the guts to initiate such a long-term vision, zoning reform will be a solitary, limited step toward progress, not the first in a series. “If you don’t do this comprehensively, you make zoning more and more a board decision,” says Blank Rome’s Peter Kelsen, a veteran zoning attorney who supports reform. “You need consistency and predictability, so that so many decisions don’t end up in front of the board.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Auspitz agrees. “When they come up with new code, the gray will be diminished, and the black and white will be much clearer,” he says. “The role of the board would be diminished, and that’s cool.”

While it’s likely the fate of the casinos will be decided outside city limits, there’s a slim chance that both proposed slots parlors will face the ZBA, providing Auspitz one last farewell performance. He served briefly on the Mayor’s casino task force, but says he recused himself after two meetings for fear of any potential conflicts of interest, and can’t discuss either project. Dougherty says his friend understands the decision he could face. “People only see the negative aspect [of the casinos], but David’s smart enough to see there’s an economic benefit to it in terms of pensions, and the greater magnitude of it.”

Auspitz suggests he has “three horses in the race” for mayor, which is rather optimistic, since Johnny Doc is long gone and Tom Knox, Chaka Fattah and Michael Nutter seem to want to “professionalize” the board. Though the curtain is closing on his run as Mr. Chairman, Auspitz’s reign, flawed as it’s been, has served two vital purposes: It brought passion to a heartless process, and in doing so, it exposed why the process is in such desperate need of repair. If this is the end, then shalom — he says he’ll concentrate on cookies, his daughter’s wedding next month, and, of course, May 15th at the deli, with no regrets. It’s like a few months back, when Auspitz saw the fire commissioner on the news bemoaning another blaze that working smoke detectors could have prevented. Auspitz didn’t call the Mayor or L&I for approval. He simply demanded that landlords hardwire the things.

“It’s not that much money,” he says. “If we save one life, we did a mitzvah, we did a thing of joy. I don’t think that makes us a bad person.”