City Council Set to Act Selflessly

Anthropologists should come to Philly to study rare phenomenon

Barring some sort of last-minute breakdown, City Council members tomorrow will do the unthinkable, and actually vote to significantly reduce their own power. This sort of thing happens pretty much never. Not in Philadelphia, not in Harrisburg, and not in Washington D.C. But tomorrow, City Council is primed to pass, in overwhelming fashion, a new zoning code for the City of Philadelphia, a code that, if it works as planned, will mean that developers and other property owners will no longer have to routinely go hat in hand to their district council member just to build on their own property.

First, a little bit of background. The city’s current zoning code—think of it as the manual that determines how and where things get built—is pretty much universally seen as an anachronistic disaster. The Eisenhower-era code is so outdated that most meaningful modern developments aren’t permitted under the code, which means developers have to seek exceptions to the code, exceptions that have to be approved by City Council.

This creates all kinds of problems. For one, it encourages anyone with an interest in developing property to try and curry favor with council members and their staff, behavior that can cross the line pretty easily. See: Rick Mariano, Chris Wright (former chief of staff for Jack Kelly), and many others over the years.

Less nefarious, but still a real problem in the long run, is that the old zoning code unintentionally vests enormous power with local civic groups. If they like a development, odds are the district council member will approve it with little fuss. If the local civic doesn’t like it, however, then the developer is screwed, unless he or she can find a way to placate the group. I’m all for civic involvement, but this kind of system is so ad hoc, so changeable depending on the neighborhood and council district, that developers convincingly argue that it has thwarted investment in Philadelphia.

The new zoning code, which was crafted over four years by the Zoning Code Commission, looks like it will fix a lot of these problems. Developers will get to build by right much more often than they can right now. Neighborhood groups have a role, but they no longer get to dictate to developers. Most critically, council members will have far fewer veto opportunities over what gets built in this city.

Which brings us back to the fact that—amazingly, to my mind—council is poised to willingly reduce its own power tomorrow. The cynic in me wonders just how many of the district council members really understand how much authority they’re about to cede. But say they do understand, and say they’re actually willing to diminish their own power a bit for the sake of legislation that is vitally important for the city’s long-term growth. And say they’re willing to do it even though this entire initiative has been pushed aggressively by the Nutter administration, which council enjoys thwarting at ever opportunity. Well that is just gobsmacking.

To be sure, there’s a lot left to do. The city has to overhaul its zoning map, now that it has a new zoning code. And a lot of people think that’s where council will really and truly freak out. And maybe so. But the fact is, council could have halted this thing in its tracks already. The fact that the members have instead permitted it to go forward is, I think (and I’m only guessing here, since it’s such a rare experience), what effective government actually looks like.