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The case for city zoning reforms

By Kiki Bolender and Harris Sokoloff How should residents be involved in zoning decisions in their neighborhoods? As naysayers? Or as valued advisers to developers and architects?

By Kiki Bolender and Harris Sokoloff

How should residents be involved in zoning decisions in their neighborhoods? As naysayers? Or as valued advisers to developers and architects?

The proposed new Philadelphia zoning code answers that question by honoring the expertise of neighborhood leaders, and it should be supported by citizens who value that expertise.

At the beginning of this year, neighborhood leaders, developers, architects, and lawyers gathered for a series of workshops on the new code called "Common Ground for Building Our City: Developers, the Public and the Zoning Code." The project was led by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, and WHYY.

The conversations were not easy. Participants struggled to get past stereotypes: Architects and developers were seen as arrogant and paying only lip service to community input; neighborhood groups were accused of engaging in backroom deals and borderline extortion. And some architects, developers, and community groups have engaged in those behaviors under the existing zoning code.

But the workshop participants overcame those stereotypes and found common ground. They agreed on ways to ensure that new buildings are good for the city, neighborhoods, and developers. We sent a report to the Zoning Code Commission in February, and the essence of those agreed-upon principles is in the new code, which is expected to be presented to City Council soon.

The new code would take several steps to incorporate neighborhood expertise into the zoning process:

Notification of coming projects would be more thorough.

Significant projects would require Planning Commission approval.

Applicants would be required to meet with the community, and both sides will submit minutes for the record.

A Civic Design Review Committee would advise the Planning Commission on significant projects. It would include someone with neighborhood zoning experience and a rotating seat for a member of the relevant neighborhood group.

Under the new code and map, zones would more closely match actual uses. This would correct cases such as that of Northern Liberties, which is largely zoned industrial even though it has become one of the city's hottest residential areas.

The new code would define buildings that significantly affect the public because of size, location, or use. Those buildings would be reviewed even if they don't require a zoning variance. And, as outlined above, neighborhood input would be an important part of the review.

We believe zoning matters. With goodwill and a good zoning code, citizens can shape the future of their neighborhoods and the city. And zoning can encourage investment in rehabilitation and new construction, expanding the city's tax base.

The Inquirer recently reported that Camden is considering laying off half its police force and a third of its firefighters because it can't afford them. The city simply lacks the tax base to pay for basic services. Camden's sobering story should spur us to support a zoning code that inspires confidence in Philadelphia as a place to invest, a place where investors are treated fairly, and a place whose "Philadelphia-ness" actually adds value to buildings.

The new code's provisions for citizen involvement are not perfect, but they're on the right track. Under the current process, some neighborhood groups are happy with the influence they have on developers and the power some individuals gain through that influence. But we would argue that under the new code, citizen voices will be given a place of greater respect, to the long-term benefit of their communities and the city.

As Philadelphia's huge, collaborative exercise in zoning reform is drawing to a close, let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let's get the new code passed and use it to make Philadelphia the next great city - a soulful, sassy, energized city of neighborhoods where people will be eager to build, live, and work.