When Gary Wills worked at a bar, he saw how frustrating it was to constantly transport alcohol, so he started a successful wine and liquor delivery business. After years of making drop-offs at trendy bars and restaurants downtown, Wills thought he saw another business opportunity in bringing such a Center City amenity to his native Northeast Philly.
In 2017, Wills bought a lot on Academy Road just east of Northeast Philadelphia Airport with an elaborate vision of a mixed-use building with a community center, housing unit, urban farm, and cafe where patrons could watch the sun set, nibble on cheese, and sip wine, including some he planned to make from honey on the premises, as prop planes came and went.
Although the lot is zoned residential, Wills thought obtaining a variance to allow business development wouldn’t be an issue because it faces a busy road, sits next to another business, and is envisioned as a commercial property in the City Planning Commission’s Philadelphia2035 plan, he said.
Then Wills learned that he needed the blessing of City Councilman Brian O’Neill, a Republican who has represented Northeast Philly for 40 years, has de facto control of almost all land use decisions in his 10th District, and is facing one of the toughest reelection challenges of his career. O’Neill says he prioritizes the concerns of the immediate neighbors when making decisions about development proposals, and in Wills’ case, the neighbors weren’t happy.
What followed was 18 months of roadblocks and headaches for Wills. First, O’Neill successfully opposed the zoning variance. Then the Department of Licenses and Inspections told Wills he couldn’t go forward with many of his plans. Wills downsized his vision to just a home with a rooftop farming operation, and obtained an urban agriculture permit, which is allowed on residential properties. In June, O’Neill moved to eliminate street parking in front of Wills’ property with a bill that was approved Monday by the Streets and Services Committee.
“I didn’t even know who Councilman O’Neill was, and then the guy’s showing up to our little meetings and all,” Wills said. “He’s screaming at me, he’s yelling at me, and I’m like, 'Wait a minute, I don’t care who you are, councilman or not, you don’t talk to me like that.”
O’Neill stood by his handling of the case. “When people want to ruin neighborhoods, I don’t take to them kindly,” he said. “It’s not a time to be gentle.”
Whether Wills’ proposal was a good fit is a matter of debate — his plans may have been too ambitious, the lot may have been too small, and neighbors were concerned about noise, parking, and blocked views of the airport — but his experience is emblematic of what happens when O’Neill doesn’t want something.
All district Council members in Philadelphia wield the power known as councilmanic prerogative, the unwritten rule in which the entire Council follows the lead of the local representative when it comes to decisions about land in a district. O’Neill, however, has turned prerogative into an art form. He preemptively changes the zoning of properties to ensure future development proposals have to go through him; he frequently appears at zoning board hearings to oppose variances in person; and he takes a hands-on, detail-oriented approach to projects big and small.
The result is that O’Neill has had an immense impact on the look of Northeast Philadelphia. For the councilman, it’s a point of pride and an issue he emphasizes on the campaign trail.
“I ran in large part on zoning abuses that were going on prior to my election in ’80 and how wealthy developers not from the area were inundating neighborhoods with stuff that didn’t belong there,” he said. “I consider myself the equalizer in this.”
O’Neill’s opponent in this year’s election is Democrat Judy Moore, who has made his handling of development in the Northeast a campaign issue. If elected, Moore said she would support ending the practice of councilmanic prerogative, which O’Neill says he helped start in the 1980s.
Carl Primavera, a lawyer who helps developers navigate city bureaucracies, said O’Neill has the most detailed knowledge of the zoning code of any district Council member.
“In the old days, you would say, ‘Oh, this person can really fix potholes.’ Well, his thing is zoning and land use. If you say, ‘Brian O’Neill,’ I think of zoning and land use," Primavera said. “He doesn’t just say, ‘Well, the community met, and they’re opposed and so I’m opposed.’ He gets into the nitty gritty.”
O’Neill’s skepticism of development proposals and his mastery of the rules has led to a string of would-be projects in the Northeast — a CrossFit, a Wawa, a luxury condominium building — that never came to be or are currently tied up. It has also led to enormous changes in projects that are built, as O’Neill frequently makes demands for the projects he approves involving construction quality, the number of housing units, or parking. He has a keen sense of his constituents’ concerns and is almost always aligned with community organizations, as was the case with Wills’ proposal.
O’Neill has a “tough reputation” among developers, Primavera said, but he is also more straightforward about his intentions than some other Council members, and can work well with developers if they understand what he values.
“If you examine the facts, there has been a lot of development, and you can’t say he’s anti-development," Primavera said. "You just have to understand that he’s involved, and he’s got a point of view, and if you’re not doing what he thinks is appropriate to protect the community, you’re going to have him fight you.”
While some district Council members have been accused of using their power over land use to do favors for friends or squeeze campaign donations from developers, O’Neill gets involved to achieve his vision for his district. He wants the Northeast to maintain what he sees as its suburban feel, and has spent decades ensuring it doesn’t get swept up in trends that have defined other areas of the city.
"I just am very passionate about it, and I think it’s the most important thing that keeps the neighborhood strong, at least in my [district’s] case,” O’Neill said.
At the zoning hearing on Wills’ variance request, O’Neill attacked the proposal by saying it belonged in one of the city’s hipper neighborhoods.
“I think the owner has an idea of doing this magnificent, ‘I’m kind of taking Passyunk Avenue up to Academy Road, and I’m going to live upstairs on the fourth floor, and I’m going to have all kinds of great things,’” O’Neill said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “The neighbors don’t want it. It’s quiet, residential, single homes. It’s totally different than the mixed use that this might fit in some other part of the city. It might fit in well.”
Wills, who grew up in Chalfont, said he thought the notion that Northeast Philadelphians wouldn’t enjoy his proposed business was insulting.
“Why wouldn’t it be wonderful up here?” Wills said. “Do you hear what he’s saying about you? He’s talking about you, Northeast Philadelphia.”
Moore, an executive with the Garces restaurant empire, said she was motivated to run in part because she came to believe O’Neill was holding the Northeast back.
While she, like O’Neill, favors high-quality housing, she said she was open to higher-density projects and also wants the district to get “a couple good restaurants, some supermarkets that sell organic food. You need to keep up with the times, so people don’t leave the city.”
“I definitely think that had there been a change of leadership at least once or twice over the last 40 years, that we would certainly see a little bit more community development in the area," she said. “It’s just very little change at all.”