By Gregory Heller
Philadelphia is in the midst of a zoning reform effort that will affect the city for decades. Yet since the Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) was approved by voters in May 2007, it has been unclear about how it plans to carry out its work, and how the public will be involved.
While much attention has been focused on the cumbersome and archaic zoning code, Philadelphia's outdated zoning map is perhaps the larger culprit behind our complex and frustrating development process. The code is simply the rulebook, describing classifications for different types of structures. The map is where zoning truly affects our neighborhoods - assigning each piece of land one of these classifications for what may or may not be built. If the map is not updated - for example, when an industrial area becomes redeveloped as a residential neighborhood - then the process breaks down.
Because of this breakdown, developers often find they cannot reasonably build what the outdated code and map specify, which is why major development projects now require a variance hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. What is supposed to be the exception has become the rule.
Community groups realized that they could use the zoning board to make their voices heard. Now, the zoning board and elected officials often favor informal negotiations between developers and local groups, outside the legislated process.
The motives are good, but this is a broken process that often yields frustration and unpredictable results. If we fix our zoning, most projects will not need to go before the zoning board. This, however, will remove what has become the major venue for community input. Still, the answer is not to leave things as they are.
It is important that the ZCC continue its charter-mandated task of revising the zoning code and creating a strategy for remapping. At the same time, the Nutter administration should look at reforming the development review process, adding steps for both professional and community input.
Our problem is not that the current process has too many steps; it is the lack of clarity, consistency, and enforcement. If our development process were to function properly (a big "if"), Philadelphia would have fewer review steps than many cities. In other big cities, development projects must undergo more legislated reviews, but while the process is lengthier, it is streamlined, clear and consistent.
Philadelphia should follow the lead of most major cities and create steps for development review by planners and design professionals, with a venue for community input. Cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Portland and Seattle use design review - a professional board that considers projects for their architecture, planning, and impact on the community.
Philadelphia should make the City Planning Commission a mandatory step to obtain a building permit, with an advisory design review board. This would be a much more appropriate venue for community and professional input than the Zoning Board.
A final issue is that communities have been creating plans on their own, without clear guidelines or a means to integrate those plans with city action. The Planning Commission should produce a set of criteria, ensuring consistency among community plans. The city should reward compliance with these criteria by giving benefits to communities whose plans are adopted, such as grant funding or inclusion of projects in the capital program.
Local plans should be required to include recommended changes to the zoning that can be transferred to the official zoning map. If the map were consistently updated each time we finished a community plan, Philadelphia would likely never again have to undertake the process of citywide remapping that now looms on the horizon.
If we want Philadelphia to achieve its bright future, we must get involved, relinquish our dependency on old ways, and commit to fixing the process for good.
For more information on the work of the Zoning Code Commission, go to
To read the report "Promoting Civic Design Excellence in Philadelphia," go to