It's a prize that's well within reach.
Modernizing Philadelphia's outdated zoning code will enhance the city's ability to grow smartly, yet remain in step with its historic and neighborhood-friendly character.
The only question is whether City Council members, working with stakeholders that include planners, developers, and building-trades representatives, are willing to hunch over the drawing board to get the job done in time to make a difference.
By sending a draft zoning rewrite to Council, a citizens' commission took a major step. Now it's up to Council to hold hearings and offer amendments that will assure eventual enactment of an update to rules that go back nearly 50 years.
The Zoning Code Commission - including delegates from Council - has been laboring for much of Mayor Nutter's first term. The panel deserves kudos for moving this herculean effort so far, but this is the year the makeover must be finished, because Council will encounter a learning curve in 2012 with six new members.
The draft blueprint aims to do all the right things, including stressing growth around transportation hubs, and favoring tall, slender skyscrapers that minimize their footprint while raising the sizzle factor in Center City.
Perhaps most important, the rewrite would create more certainty for property owners, developers, and businesses seeking to grow. It would do that by scaling back on the mishmash of zoning rules known as "overlays" - in the process, limiting the near-feudal control by district Council members over the shape of development. Even though it will mean a lessening of Council clout, it's the right way to go to move the city forward.
Along with that flash point, a dispute is brewing over whether to enact zoning rules citywide, before each neighborhood's land-use map has been updated. Councilman Bill Green, who is on the zoning panel and raised the issue of phasing in the rules, said he's concerned that adopting the code citywide might give "speculators or other opportunists" a window for out-of-character property uses that clash with a community.
But a zoning makeover that is phased in over many years could mean stunting smart growth in some areas of the city, while others benefit.
Fortunately, Green also pledges to be "Council's strongest advocate" for a zoning rule book that promotes "development and respects the character and charm of our neighborhoods." In the spirit of that pledge, Council should debate the zoning timetable and other issues, but with an eye toward avoiding any lengthy delay in this vital update.