Want to save the zoning code? Make your voice heard

Proposed mixed-use building at 16th and South streets
Changes in the new Philadelphia zoning code make it easier to build small-scale mixed-use projects like this one at 16th and South streets that enjoyed wide community support by eliminating the need for variances. If a bill being considered by Council tomorrow passes and becomes law, developers will once again have to jump through hoops to get projects like this off the ground. We suspect that’s what Council wants.

A clear consensus has emerged that, even with an amendment that eased the reimposed parking requirement somewhat, the bill introduced by Councilmember Brian O’Neill on behalf of City Council President Darrell Clarke to claw back two major changes implemented with the new Philadelphia zoning code remains a bad idea rushed through too soon.

The bill would reduce the allowed density for multi-unit residential or mixed-use structures in two of the most common medium-density zoning classifications in the city, RM-1 and CMX-2. The provisions the bill would reverse allow denser development on sites in these zoning classes than the old code permitted; in addition, the bill would have reinstated parking requirements for any structure in these classes as well as the next denser mixed-use class, CMX-2.5; the amendment removes the requirement for buildings with fewer than four units.

Builders, investors and architects who testified before Council’s Rules Committee Oct. 31 unanimously condemned the changes, saying it would make it harder for them to redevelop existing structures and build new ones on vacant lots, given that most city building lots are small and narrow. The City Planning Commission managed to get the parking requirements eased a bit, but commission staff were as incensed as the developers and architects were about the changes. (Unfortunately, as city government employees, the staff aren’t as free to speak their minds as the rest of us are, but blogger Christopher Sawyer managed to preserve their original indignation for posterity on his Philadelinquency blog.)

We weren’t too happy about them either, and it appears our fellow bloggers and commentators in the planning, development and real estate community share our dismay. From Inga Saffron at The Philadelphia Inquirer to Ashley Hahn at PlanPhilly (twice), the voices raised on this bill all say the same thing: This is a step backward, both for forward-thinking planning and for the drive to make the city’s rules more transparent and easier to work with. (Next American City didn’t say this directly in its report on the bill, but its headline sure did.)

If you feel the same way as we do, tomorrow is your chance to raise your voice. Council has put this bill on a fast track to passage, suspending its rules in order to give it final consideration during its weekly session that begins at 10 a.m. Nov. 15. If you can, take the time to show up on the fourth floor of City Hall and add your testimony and witness to those who have already spoken. If you can’t, be sure to contact your City Councilmember – or Mayor Michael Nutter himself, as his veto is the last line of defense against this Old Philadelphian attempt to reverse the hard-won gains achieved in the new zoning code.

-By Sandy Smith for PhiladelphiaRealEstate.com