City Council owes Zoning Commission more
OH, COUNCIL. You were doing so well. Back in 2007, you wisely asked voters for permission to rewrite the city's antiquated zoning code. Voters gave it, and you initiated a four-year public process, guided by a diverse and inclusive commission. We were on our way toward having a clear, fair and modern code. You and the Mayor made the appointments, and several of you sat on the Zoning Code Commission.
But now you seem to have lost faith in that effort, and it's such a shame.
With the exception of a few moments, seeing the commission in action made me proud to be a Philadelphian. In the thousands of unpaid hours that commissioners and citizens spent at work on the zoning code, we were finally doing something right. Professional code consultants, who have worked with cities all over North America, said they had never seen anything like it.
In Baltimore, the whole process hummed along without a peep from the public. In Philadelphia, citizens voiced their concerns at regular meetings, informal get-togethers and neighborhoods meetings at every stage of the zoning reform process. In fact, zoning became (almost) cool. You could mention the subject at a party and not necessarily risk standing alone for the rest of the evening.
The commission took in hundreds of suggestions, analyzed them and accepted many, modified many and rejected some. Commissioners could do that with difficulty, but with confidence, because by doing all that listening the group developed a collective wisdom greater than the sum of its members. Zoning regulates building size and use to help us live more peacefully in close proximity with one another. Zoning embodies policy, and as a group duly appointed by our elected representatives, the commission was not afraid to set policies for the good of neighborhoods and of the city as a whole.
So Council, what did you do when you received the almost-final draft of the new code last month, the result of all that work by the commission and your fellow citizens? Did you send nice thank you notes like your mothers taught you to do? Did you pull over on the way to the office and buy them some assorted Dunkin' Donuts?
No. You said, "Umm . . . we don't really want this new code after all. We changed our minds, because we know better than you." You took an old draft of the code, slapped on 40 amendments, did some favors for one another in an election season and replaced the commission code with your own Bill 110766.
Never mind that the commission had already painstakingly considered each of your 40 amendments and had accepted (sometimes reluctantly) almost all of them. Here are some examples.
BED & BREAKFASTS: After much discussion, the commission caved to the wishes of one Council member and took recognition of bed and breakfasts out of the zoning code draft. Not a great loss to society, but an odd misstep for a historic city in 2011.
GROUP HOMES for individuals who are not able to live on their own. Never an easy subject and some Council members wanted to impose every possible restriction, which would have violated the federal Fair Housing Act. But the commission relented by removing group homes as a category, so now group homes of as few as four people are regulated in the same way as big fraternity houses and dorms.
METHADONE CLINICS: Another tough subject about facilities that most people would like to keep at a long arm's length. Initially, Council wanted to regulate these separately, flying in the face of federal law that ensures access to heroin addiction recovery services. The commission did not regulate them separately, but relented and tightened restrictions on all group medical practices and wellness clinics, moving them further from residential and neighborhood commercial districts.
Never mind that making these changes subverted a process that you invented. In 2007, you decided that the best way to get a fair and comprehensive code was for you to finally vote up or down, with no last-minute tinkering. To downplay your switcheroo, one of you went to the newspaper and demeaned the work of the last four years, calling it "a big baby step."
Like the bad spouse in a domestic quarrel, you had to have the last word.
Council, you displayed the opposite of collective wisdom. You showed a lack of interest in the complexities of the subject, and showed that politics still comes first in Philadelphia. As for we the people, our collective wisdom doesn't mean much to you.
Council, you owe us a little - no, a LOT - more respect. You owe it to us to abide by the rules that you set for yourselves four years ago. You owe it to the commission you created to respect its work, which, remember, has also been your work for the last four years. Drop your patched-together bill and pass the code as submitted to you last week by your Zoning Code Commission.
And then say thank you.
- The author is an architect in
Philadelphia and a member of the People's Editorial Board.