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City Council committee approves major changes to zoning code

Philadelphia's zoning code has been modernized, but this is only the beginning.

City Council's Committee of the Whole approved the first major change to the city's zoning code in nearly 50 years.

The zoning code was first established in 1963 and updated periodically though numerous individual ordinances and overlays, all of which now make-up the city's current complex code.

"The current zoning code is obsolete and broken, which has lead to uncertainty for both your constituents, community groups and the development community," attorney Richard DeMarco told City Council members during today's hearing. "This uncertainty has been poisonous to development and sound planning, and has lead to uneven results, stymied development, vacant and abandoned lots, boarded storefronts and most importantly the loss of needed jobs."

The proposed zoning reform allows developers of by-right projects-which do not need variances, to seek a zoning permit in two stages. The initial stage is the "conditional approval" which confirms the project meets the zoning code requirements such as dimensional standards, regulations, landscaping, parking and loading requirements.

The zoning code proposals will allow the community to appeal a project early-on at the conditional approval stage and not just at the final approval stage. The public and any registered community organizations must be notified that a conditional approval has been obtained.

Secondly, the developer would eventually seek a final zoning permit that would confirm the project meets all of the requirements of the zoning code.

The Zoning Code Commission created the optional two-stage process to provide developers with certainty earlier in the process, said Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

"The process of taking one year, two years to get through processes cause people to miss financing which caused people to pencil projects when it is profitable and have it not be profitable when its built," said Councilman Bill Green. "That whole long process of doing business in this city will be changed such that you buy a property, you know what you can do with it, you get your financing and you're in the ground in three months."

After four years, the Zoning Code Commission created a new code that city officials, architects, community leaders and attorneys all agree will do more to protect the character of Philadelphia's neighborhoods, encourage development and revitalization of deteriorated and vacant properties and remove developmental roadblocks.

But some community groups raised concerns about three-story rowhouses being built in two-story rowhouse neighborhoods –altering the character of a neighborhood.

The new zoning code proposal, which will be up for a final vote by City Council next week, will not take effect for eight months to allow for further discussions with the community and Council members.

"The eight month wait allows us to go through this thoroughly and make changes we think are helpful and the new members coming in may feel differently than the members who are retiring," said Councilman Brian O'Neill.