Help Desk: Construction Zone
City Howl is a Web site that allows citizens to post their raves or rants about city services. Every Wednesday, we publish highlights of our investigations into some of these problems.
The problem: A construction project is taking away parking in a neighborhood where parking is already hard to come by.
A building in Rittenhouse Square is being converted into a single-family home - a chain-link fence encloses the construction site around the house, blocking off part of the 19th Street sidewalk and three parking spots on the residential street on the other side.
Once the project is done, the driveway to the new house's garage will eliminate an on-street spot permanently. We got an e-mail from one woman who didn't want to be named because she didn't want to antagonize her neighbors. She's upset because she hasn't been able to find parking on her street for more than a month now.
She has some questions: Are her neighbors allowed to block off parking for this long without consulting the rest of the block? And can they just take away an on-street parking spot? How much say does a neighbor have in this sort of thing?
The answer: Sadly for our frustrated e-mailer, as long as her neighbors have the proper permits, they're not doing anything illegal. But the process of getting those permits can sometimes involve input from neighbors.
The Streets Department does grant permits that allow people to circumvent normal parking rules for construction. The department decides how many spots can be taken and for how long depending on the nature of the work being done. The permits can last for up to a year, and there's no obligation to tell your neighbors you're getting one, though the department recommends it.
As for the construction itself, it's the Department of Licenses and Inspections' job to decide whether a proposal follows the zoning code.
If the department approves a project, it grants a permit lasting up to one year. If it doesn't, the decision can be appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, a five-member panel appointed by the mayor. (L&I might also just refer a case to the ZBA). The zoning board then holds a public hearing to review the plan. Appellants must notify their neighbors of the hearing by posting orange zoning notices on their property at least 12 days beforehand.
Do L&I and the zoning board do a good job deciding what should be built and what shouldn't?
The zoning code, last revised in the 1960s, is out of touch with reality and overly complex.
Consequently, L&I refers too many cases to the board (approximately 1,700 a year for the past few years, or about 40 percent of cases). This makes the development process slow and sometimes inconsistent.
There's good news, though: The city actually realized the system was terrible, and, in 2007, voters overwhelmingly approved the formation of a Zoning Code Commission to overhaul and modernize the code. The aim is to create both better rules and a better process.
What will this mean for people like the woman upset about losing parking spots?
We can't say what the new code will mean for projects that eliminate parking, but the commission says it's working hard to create opportunities for community input about new construction projects.
For starters, the commission will propose posting notices for a longer period of time before a zoning board hearing, and reposting notices if a hearing is rescheduled (which happens a lot, but is not now required, according to Eva Gladstein, executive director of the zoning commission).
The commission also wants to increase community input on new development before an application goes to the board.
Though many developers now contact community groups "as a matter of good practice," Gladstein says, the code doesn't require it, and so developers don't know the protocols.
"It wasn't clear what the requirements were," Gladstein says.
So the zoning commission is proposing registering community organizations with the City Planning Commission (which does reviews and recommendations of zoning board cases). These groups can then be notified of proposed developments, and developers can be required to meet with them during the application process.
Community organizations already have the ability to appeal a decision to the board, but they'd now be guaranteed information earlier in the process.
The zoning commission is also considering creating a civic-design review committee that would assess the effects of a proposed development on a community. Along with professionals like architects and urban planners, the committee would include one community member in order to allow the community's voice to be heard.
The zoning commission hopes to present its final report and the new code by this fall, Gladstein said, and it must be approved by the mayor and City Council. How much its proposed process would help folks like our letter-writer to protect their parking spots remains to be seen, but it sounds like it will at least give them more of a chance to weigh in.
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