CORRECTION: Inga Saffron's "Changing Skyline" column Friday referred to a proposal that would require a confirmation hearing for the director of the new Office of Planning and Development. That proposed amendment was not adopted Wednesday.
Philadelphia's powerful council president, Darrell L. Clarke, surprised no one last month when he announced he wasn't going to run for mayor. Why bother with the inconveniences of a campaign when you can simply introduce a bill telling the next mayor how to do the job?
That bill, which had its first committee hearing Wednesday, is all about the inner workings of city government and comes with a killer flow-chart. Ostensibly, the bill is meant to streamline the city's planning, development, and housing agencies by gathering them into a single department under the direction of a cabinet-level head.
Nothing about that sounds particularly objectionable on the surface. The furniture in City Hall gets rearranged all the time, usually when a new mayor takes office. But in Clarke's desire to simplify, his bill would set this organizational chart in stone by incorporating it into the city's Home Rule Charter, which means the furniture might never be moved again. Even worse, a proposed amendment to the bill would give Council the power to approve the mayor's choice for the new Office of Planning and Development.
If you think councilmanic prerogative has gone too far already, wait until the head of planning and development has to kowtow to 17 mini-mayors in a confirmation hearing.
There's no doubt that the charter could use an update, and that Clarke's bill does contain some sensible ideas. It's been 64 years since Philadelphia adopted the charter, essentially a local constitution. Introduced at a time when the city's industrial economy was withering, it helped Philadelphia rout a corrupt Republican Party machine and create a modern government. It also was a true group effort, completed after three years of research, expert testimony, and vigorous public debate.
Contrast that with Clarke's plan to restructure city government. He was all set this week to rush the bill through Council to get it on the May primary ballot. Never mind that there had been no outreach, no community engagement, no official discussion outside the insular walls of City Hall.
Only a small uprising by civic and business leaders at Wednesday's hearing stopped the faulty charter change. Clarke was forced to reschedule it for November, but even that may be pushing things. Meaningful change takes time.
Just how flawed the plan was became clear when an unusually broad cross-section of civic leaders showed up Wednesday to beg Clarke to slow the process and give the proposal a full airing. It may be the first time grassroots groups such as the Crosstown Coalition, the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, and the Design Advocacy Group have been on the same side as the pro-business Development Workshop.
Even some supporters expressed reservations. The Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corps., which focuses on affordable housing, declined to endorse the part of the bill requiring a confirmation hearing for the director, diplomatically calling the proposal "a political issue."
Apart from the problems with fast-tracking the restructuring, it's not even clear the changes are necessary. One of the odd things about Clarke's bill is that it codifies what is already happening. When Mayor Nutter came into office, he consolidated planning and commerce under one department head, the deputy mayor for economic development. Nutter also beefed up a special committee to help big projects through the system.
If Nutter could do that under the existing rules, what's the need to formalize the arrangement with a charter change? Clarke's bill tackles what is essentially a management decision. The world is always evolving. Shouldn't future mayors have the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions?
Clarke, who spoke about his vision in an hour-long interview, still believes that more needs to be done to help developers. It seems these unfortunate folks have to spend hours and hours running around to different city buildings to get their permits stamped. His bill, he said, would require all the permitting agencies to be housed in the same building.
Who knew Clarke was such a champion of the little developer? Wasn't he the guy who introduced the 125-foot height limit in northwest Center City in 2006, forcing developers to make their way through a gauntlet of additional approvals? And hasn't he been among the Council members who have resisted the new zoning code, which was designed to simplify development?
There has long been a myth in Philadelphia that getting things built is a Herculean undertaking. Then how do you explain the existence of construction sites on nearly every block from Kensington to Packer Park?
If anything, the Nutter administration has made it too easy for developers to push through poorly designed projects such as Children's Hospital's Center City campus and Wexford's plans for the University City High School site. In fusing the commerce and planning functions into one mega-department, planning has become subservient to anything that brings in money. It's virtually impossible for the planners to defend the city against developer schlock.
In his rush to get this bill on the ballot, Clarke has ended up with a half-baked mishmash of proposals. And they keep changing.
Originally, Clarke intended to include the troubled Department of Licenses & Inspections on his new flow chart, as a way of addressing the shortcomings that led to a fatal collapse on the Salvation Army store in 2013. But in doing so, he would have undermined two commissions that have been studying the issue for months. After an uproar, out it went.
Meanwhile, two agencies that play a crucial role in the oversight of development projects aren't even part of the charter change: the Water Department and the Streets Department.
In any case, money matters more than organization. The real reason for delays in processing permits is that L&I and planning are perpetually understaffed. But Clarke dismisses the notion of increasing their budgets. Nor has Council been willing to provide money to redraw the city's zoning maps, necessary to support the new zoning code. As long as those maps are out of date, developers will have to slog through the variance process.
Clarke deserves credit for nudging the city to reexamine its charter. Now he should give its citizens the time to do it right.