It's only been a few months since Philadelphia enacted a new zoning code. But now City Councilman Brian O'Neill is trying to amend it to make it harder for pet shops, veterans' halls, hardware stores, and other small businesses to open their doors.
As well-intended as O'Neill's legislation might be, it will undermine years of hard work to make it easier for Philadelphia to change old land uses into new ones. For too long, the city had labored under an antiquated zoning code more appropriate for its industrial past. It required variances even for something as simple as a homeowner wanting to build a deck.
Under O'Neill's amendment, business owners would have to jump over time-consuming and expensive hurdles to obtain variances, which will be a lot harder to get under the new code's requirement of proof that there is no other viable use of the property.
Businesses already have to pass inspections and get proper licenses. Adding zoning variances for simple commercial uses would add a fortune in expenses for lawyers, planners, and other experts. That will make it harder to open a business in the city, which is exactly what the code writers tried to avoid.
The proposed amendment adds more than a dozen categories to the list of businesses needing variances, including ice cream shops and delicatessens. It also raises the bar for artist studios, transit stops, and storage facilities. The need for variances would cover commercial corridors like Germantown, Lancaster, and Ridge Avenues.
Council members should play a role in protecting constituents from potentially harmful development - and O'Neill has been a strong defender of his district, which includes much of the Northeast. But there must be balance.
Council has had, and will have, plenty of opportunities to maintain that balance. Council members were included on the commission that wrote the new code during a very open, four-year process, which included numerous public hearings. And Council will continue to play a role in remapping the city and receiving frequent reports to learn how the new code is working.
But there is no need for the heavy-handed intervention O'Neill is proposing. It will weigh down merchants who want to be in the city with expensive variance requirements. That will only serve to keep empty buildings empty when they could be housing viable businesses providing both services and jobs to neighborhoods.