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Philadelphia modernizes zoning code - and itself

At today's signing ceremony for Philadelphia's new zoning code,there was a sense that history was being made in more ways than one.

Bill signing ceremonies are generally pretty rote affairs. City Hall staffers and a few interested parties pack the seats in the portrait-bedecked hall known as the mayor's reception room. The politicians deliver a list of obligatory 'thanks yous,' and that's that. But there was a sense that history was being made at today's signing for the new zoning code – in more ways than one.

The new streamlined code is historic, of course, because it replaces a bloated and busted rulebook dating from the Kennedy era. It took four, excrutiatingly long years to rewrite the zoning code, and another half a year to convince council to pass it. Things got pretty ugly in the final months. The reform effort  became a legislative sumo match, with council heavyweights vying to squash the life out of the proposals before council went out of session. So the mere fact that Mayor Nutter had a bill to sign was a big deal.

But what really made the event special was that the room was filled with many regular citizens who devoted large chunks of personal time to the seemingly arcane project. Unlike so many things in Philadelphia, the new zoning code was not the product of top-down, backroom deal-making (although there was certainly a little of that) but a true citizen effort. The project involved people on all sides of the development spectrum, from high-priced zoning lawyers to neighborhood activists. Hundreds of meetings were held, all of them public.

This type of citizen-led policy making is becoming the norm in Philadelphia. As a result, the list of people to be thanked was longer than usual.  During the recitation of the names, it occurred to me that such public engagement has its roots in the 2006 effort to rethink the Delaware waterfront. Politics and policy-making in Philadelphia were forever changed.

Of course, this isn't the last we'll hear about the new zoning code, which is intended to make it easier and cheaper to build in Philadelphia. Thanks to the last-minute wrangling in council, the new code won't formally go into effect until Aug. 22, 2012. And then it will take another five years to revise the city's zoning maps, which will allow the code to be put to use. But one senses that Philadelphia has already become a more modern and progressive place.