As City Council president and representative of the diverse 5th District—which stretches from river to river and from Rittenhouse to Roosevelt Boulevard—Darrell Clarke has an enormous job. That’s why it’s surprising that he’d have the time or inclination to concern himself with vinyl vs. brick or whether your front porch has pressure-treated wood.
This month Clarke pushed through a bill that changes zoning standards in Strawberry Mansion—banning roof decks and certain building materials, and specifying other design regulations. It’s another example of council prerogative, where too many property-level decisions are taken out of the hands of experts and given to elected officials whose job should be to legislate, not decide how each block in their district should look.
Clarke has plenty of company. In October, Councilmember Mark Squilla muscled through an exclusionary Society Hill zoning overlay district that, through height limits and increased parking requirements and elimination of density bonuses, will make it harder to reach the city’s affordable housing goals. The bill was so problematic that it prompted Mayor Jim Kenney to issue his first direct veto. City Council, clinging to its prerogative, overrode that veto.
Last year Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson tried to ban balconies and bay windows from Point Breeze. Fortunately, that effort was so absurd that Johnson was shamed into never bringing it to a vote. But if he had, the bill likely would have squeaked through thanks to councilmanic prerogative.
Often City Council is not so much a legislative body as a group of 10 mini-mayors. But this all too often it leads to a patchwork of regulations that feel unevenly applied, and handicaps the professionals whose job it is to collect neighborhood input, deliberate and decide on these issues for the city as a whole.
Although the Planning Commission testified that Squilla’s Society Hill bill would run counter to the city’s essential affordable housing goals, Council approved the bill anyway, undermining the Commission’s expertise.
Just a few years ago the Planning Commission completed Philadelphia2035, its latest comprehensive plan, whose process included countless hours of outreach to—and input from—every neighborhood in the city. Yet nowhere in the plan will you read about the scourge of Strawberry Mansion roof decks or Point Breeze bay windows. Why spend so many public dollars and work hours creating thoughtful plans if City Council is just going to do whatever it wants anyway?
That’s not to say these measures lacks merit. Strawberry Mansion’s ban on roof decks might be more of an attack on symbols of gentrification than an attack on gentrification itself, but its height limits and design standards should help preserve the architectural character of this historic neighborhood. Even the Point Breeze and Society Hill bills, though flawed, grew from a desire to preserve what makes each of these neighborhoods special.
Last year’s City Council elections elevated the issue of council prerogative to the point where most at-large candidates said they’d either end or modify the practice. But unless anyone actually does something to unwedge this archaic practice, we’ll be having the same debate in the 2023 elections, and shouting your position from the rooftops won’t do any good … at least not in Strawberry Mansion.