BY TONY WEST/ A seething dispute in City Council over who can give community input in zoning cases has forged a compromise. It could make it easier for property-owners to seek variances for new development or rehab work.
A lot is at stake: the rights of property-owners, the influence of community leaders, the authority of politicians, the power of developers and the ability of the city to refashion itself – or preserve itself, depending on your point of view.
Council’s Rules Committee today approved a bill written by 6th Dist. Councilman Bobby Henon that would tighten standards for community groups and spell out expectations for them as well as for developers, Council Members and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.
The reformed Zoning Code, which was passed by the voters in 2011 and went into effect in August 2012, was designed to make it easier for builders to build – in part by clarifying which voices represented “the community”.
There are a lot of zoning variances – 1,249 in the first year after zoning reform. They are an essential tool for updating an aged city.
Zoning variances need community participation in hearings. But under the old system, the Zoning Board of Adjustment took an ad hoc approach to who was “community.” Anybody could speak and it often seemed everybody did speak. Builders complained they had no idea whom to negotiate with and often struggled to navigate between warring bands of neighbors whose opinions diverged.
In practice, District Council Members wielded great power in this chaotic system. And for decades, development languished.
The new zoning code sought to put an end to all that. Groups that wished to weigh in on zoning matters now had to file as Registered Community Organizations. RCOs needed to show a minimum level of organization – incorporation, bylaws and boundaries, regular meetings and elected officers. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission was enjoined to register the new RCOs.
Many community groups were fine with that. But some low-income parts of town lack this level of organization. In poor neighborhoods, civic action often forms around informal leaders and impromptu rallies. These citizens felt shut out of the new system.
3rd Dist. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell took up her cudgel for them. In January 2013 she pushed through a measure gutting many of these restrictions and reestablishing the traditional power of District Council Members to shape zoning cases according to their view of their constituents’ wishes.
That pleased activists like Lee Tolbert of the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhoods & Businesses, which claims a membership of 125 different loosely organized groups. “There was never anything wrong with the original process,” insisted Tolbert. “We don’t need the Planning Commission to tell communities who they are or what to do.”
But others were frustrated by Blackwell’s move. Barbara Capozzi, who is both a developer and the president of the Packer Park Civic Association, called it “unfair to developers, neighbors and anyone trying to conduct business with clarity and predictability.” She said it “also harmed existing civics because it put every RCO group (whether 50 years old or one week old) on an even footing.”
To tip the balance back toward reform, Henon introduced Bill 130657 this fall. This is the measure that was approved by the Rules Committee. He said he was moved to do so because “the current process was just too cumbersome. Applicants for even the most-basic zoning projects – a roof deck, for example – required onerous regulation for notifying neighbors, including many that live far away from the project.”
Henon said he also wanted to support the new RCOs. Since zoning reform, civic groups have been signing up in droves for this new status – the first official recognition of neighborhood authority in Philadelphia, oft called a “city of neighborhoods”. Blackwell says 39 have registered in her district alone. Projected citywide, that’s 400 civic groups that now would like to know what powers they’ve earned by organizing properly.
The squabble over RCOs reveals other political divides in the City of Brotherly Love. On one side are low-income neighborhoods where established activists fear an influx of new middle-class residents. Tolbert (and he’s not alone) calls this “gentrification”. They would prefer new subsidized housing on their vacant lots; if they can’t have that, no development at all at least preserves the neighborhood class structure they earn clout by representing.
On the other side are the building trades, both labor and management. If vacant lots in much of inner-city Philadelphia can be developed fast, they can be sold to middle-class, market-rate buyers. Philadelphia is no Detroit; there is money to be made in this town, if the government will let them make it. Henon comes out of Electricians Local 98, a building trade, and his business background shows in Bill 130657.
In the middle are District Council Members. Their prerogative to rule on development is largely unwritten, but cherished. Since District Members outnumber at-Large Members 10-7, they will win any vote on institutional powers like these. So they must be made happy whenever one asks them to cede power over money.
Councilman at Large Bill Greenlee, who chairs the Rules Committee, worked hard to broker a deal between Blackwell and Henon. Amiable and fair-minded, Greenlee stands outside the rivalries of District Council Members. But as senior 15th Ward Leader in popping Fairmount, he has seen more than his share of development and his experience is respected.
“We worked together to find common ground on these issues,” said Greenlee.
“I feel that I got what I had to have,” Blackwell said. “We have to have an appeal process if RCO status is denied. That’s been added. We eliminated Special Service Districts and citywide special interests. But ward committees were retained.”
Ward committees were important to 9th Dist. Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who testified on community zoning input, “I selected the ward to do it because they’re organized, they’re block captains, they go to church, they know their neighborhoods, they know where they live, they are involved in their community.”
Citywide “issue-based RCOs” would be out. Under the proposed new law, RCOs cannot claim too large a turf. They are limited to 20,000 parcels of real estate. Since there are almost 600,000 parcels in the city, that works out to about 4 square miles. In practice, most are smaller, some taking in only a couple of blocks.
RCOs would have to reregister every two years to demonstrate continued functioning.
RCOs would become responsible for publicizing the date, time and location of zoning meetings.
Overlapping RCOs pose a major problem for variance applicants. It is not hard to find blocks where three or four RCOs all claim jurisdiction.
“Too often in the past, a developer would pursue a project in good faith, trying to work with the neighbors and elected officials to gain support, and only at the last minute, find out that there was just one more group they should have spoken with,” Anne Fadullon of Dale Corp. testified at a hearing on Bill 130657. Fadullon is VP of the Building Industry Association and also sits on PCPC’s Civic Design Review Committee, which provides an extra layer of review for major projects.
In these cases, the District Council Member would pick one organization to coordinate a zoning meeting for all of them. No applicant could be required to attend more than two meetings.
Applicants would no longer be required to notify all rental residents, as figuring out who they are is an impossible task. One notice per address would suffice. The Dept. of Licensing & Inspections would get a new duty: to provide applicants with a mailing list for their meeting. (L&I is under a lot of pressure these days; it might be wise for Council to consider new funding for new staffing for this new mandate.)
There would be new work for small owner-occupant applicants as well. They are currently exempt from mailing notices but under the new law they would have to start doing so.
After numerous amendments, this bill was voted out of the Rules Committee 7-2, with Council Members Wilson Goode and Blondell Reynolds Brown opposing. It will receive its first reading in the full Council tomorrow.