How Zoning Reform Could Help Philadelphia

Stoking development by sidelining politics

When newspaper editors want to haze their young reporters—or drive older ones into early retirement—they send them to zoning board meetings. There, amid the ceaseless debate over easements and stormwater runoff, souls die. It is excruciatingly boring stuff.

And yet—yes, there’s a yet—the tedious matters managed by the zoning code and zoning boards (which generally exist to rule on cases where property owners want exceptions to the zoning code) have a huge impact on the look and feel of all communities. Can a developer put a skyscraper where the old laundromat used to be? How about a private pool or tattoo parlor?

The point is, zoning matters. A city without zoning looks, well, like Houston, which is the biggest U.S. city without a formal zoning code. Houston, if you have not been, is hell on earth.

Naturally Philadelphia’s zoning code is outdated, messy and a major hindrance to development. It dates back to the Eisenhower-era, and is so ill-suited for today’s world that a huge percentage of all significant projects are out of step with the zoning code.

Which means that, to get their projects built, developers have to go hat in hand to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. And that’s where everything runs off the rails.

Winning ZBA approval is all about politics. You won’t get anywhere at the zoning board without first having won over the district council member who represents the neighborhood where the project is sited. And winning a district council member’s approval is about two things: making kissy faces at the council person, and, convincing the local neighborhood associations and community groups that the project is in their best interest.

Note that I said in their best interest, not the community’s best interest.

In a lot of cases, the organizations’ interest actually is to do what’s best for the community. And when you have a well-intentioned local organization, and it’s full of savvy people who are capable of assessing architectural renderings, then the existing process works out OK. Slow, to be sure, but workable. This is the case in Northern Liberties, Logan Square, and some other parts of town.

But it’s hardly the norm. Some local organizations (think of Germantown Settlement, for instance) double as non-profit developers. Maybe they don’t want Builder John horning in on their market. Other times, local organizations extract certain, shall we say, bonuses, from developers for agreeing to support their plans, as when John Westrum agreed to donate $600,000 to a Strawberry Mansion community development corporation, an agreement brokered by Councilman Darrell Clarke (scroll down in linked story to find reference).

It’s hard to see how such arrangements are ethical, much less relevant to the central question, which ought to be: Is this development an acceptable and appropriate use for the parcel in question?

The good news is that the old zoning code could be in its final days.

In May, after more than three years of work, a city commission released a draft version of a new zoning code. It’s nearly half the size of the archaic one, much clearer and a far better fit for today’s Philadelphia. It also stands to dramatically cut down on those occasions where developers will have to go to the zoning board to get their projects approved.

That should significantly cut down on the influence that community groups have on what gets built in their neighborhoods, a topic PlanPhilly explored in depth this week. But it should also remove one of the biggest hindrances to development in Philadelphia, and could, in the long run, spur a lot more investment in the city than would have occurred under the old plan.

But wait. Before any of that can happen, the new code—and a new zoning map—must get through City Council, which is slated to take it up this fall. It’s going to be a big fight, and a telling one. Will council members enact well-researched thoughtful reforms designed to stoke investment in the city by cleaning up the development process? Or would they rather hang on to their own power to dictate development in their districts?

I don’t want to lay odds on that outcome.