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Philly City Council approved a plan to reshape an important board that decides the fate of proposed developments

The move is a response to the rapid pace of development in recent years and the city’s affordable housing crisis, and it drew opposition from development interests.

A proposal by Philadelphia Council President Darrell L. Clarke could reshape a key board that often has the final say over whether proposed developments can move forward.
A proposal by Philadelphia Council President Darrell L. Clarke could reshape a key board that often has the final say over whether proposed developments can move forward.Read moreRAYMOND W HOLMAN JR

In its last session of the year, City Council on Thursday approved a proposal by Council President Darrell L. Clarke to give Council more power over the the city’s zoning board, a step that could have a significant impact on the future of development in Philadelphia.

The legislation, approved 17-0, expands the board from five to seven members, designates spots for people with specific professional backgrounds, and, most significantly, requires Council to approve the mayoral appointees on the panel, which often has the final say over whether development projects can move forward. Because the change requires an amendment to the city’s Home Rule Charter, it must first be approved by voters on next year’s primary ballot.

Clarke’s bill, which also requires the board to include two representatives from community groups as well as development professionals, further involves Council in building matters and provides more leverage for development-skeptical neighborhood groups.

The board decides whether building projects can get variances to exceed zoning restrictions like how tall a building can be or how many units it can hold. At its hearings, community organizations have the opportunity to express concerns about projects’ potential impacts on neighborhoods. Neighborhood activists say the board it is too friendly to development, while builders have said it often lets neighbors hold projects hostage.

“We have heard from residents and citizens across the city that their voices — the voices of the community — are not being heard by the ZBA as it makes zoning decisions that have a fundamental impact on the quality of life and the character of Philadelphia’s many neighborhoods,” Clarke said.

Council on Thursday also approved an extension of the city’s nationally recognized Eviction Diversion Program through 2022. Championed by Councilmember Helen Gym, the program was established during the early days of the pandemic, and it provides an avenue for tenants and landlords to avoid eviction by resolving disputes out of court.

Additionally, they approved a bill by Council members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Jamie Gauthier that will require some new residential developments in their districts include on-site less expensive housing units. The bill, which only applies to select parts of West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia, is essentially a pilot program for a policy known as mandatory inclusionary zoning.

Council had hoped to return to in-person meetings this fall, but the spread of new coronavirus variants forced Clarke to reconsider. Lawmakers on Thursday wrapped up their work without ever having met in person in 2021.

Given the spread of the omicron variant, Council is unlikely to return to City Hall when members reconvene in January, Clarke spokesperson Joe Grace said.