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One of the biggest roadblocks to construction in Philly? The board that approves projects.

Wait times at Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment have doubled since the pandemic, frustrating business owners and making it harder to open small commercial enterprises.

Pedestrians walk past a vacant storefront in Philadelphia.
Pedestrians walk past a vacant storefront in Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Paul Kermizian thought it would take six months to open a downtown location for his popular video-game-and-bar concept, Barcade, after he inked a lease in May 2022.

But because of Philadelphia’s sluggish zoning review board, he’ll be lucky to open by autumn 2023.

“We didn’t anticipate such a long lead time for zoning,” Kermizian said. “Our lease has started, and we will be paying rent all through construction. … It’s lost revenue. It’s also lost taxes for the city, too.” Kermizian’s rent is $27,000 a month.

Business owners large and small have been stymied by wait times that averaged six months in 2022 before a case could be heard by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), which considers exceptions to the zoning rules that dictate what can be built in the city.

In Philadelphia, the regulatory body considers an average of 1,330 cases a year — an unusually large amount compared with other cities — which can range from an addition of a rowhouse roof deck to the opening of a takeout eatery to a big developer trying to tack an extra floor onto an apartment building.

Since the pandemic, case delays have worsened even as the city has added staff and funding to the board.

The situation is especially acute for small-business owners. In many parts of the city, zoning rules make it difficult to open any commercial enterprises. To make matters worse, City Council continues to place additional restrictions called overlays on specific neighborhoods or commercial corridors. Originally designed to discourage what neighborhood groups saw as a nuisance, they often force businesses as anodyne as ice cream parlors to receive a zoning variance to open.

Before any negotiation begins with the zoning board, businesses owners must first sign a lease or show some other proof that they are going to operate out of the property. That means they either have to find a landlord willing to give them a half-year break on rent, or suffer the cost with no income as they wait months for a hearing that, if they are lucky, can be over in 10 minutes.

For big developers, delayed appeals are an inconvenience that adds to costs in a city already known for high expenses and low rents.

But for small-time operators — such as owners of coffee shops, ice cream parlors or other takeout spots — the delays can be prohibitive. Rachael Pritzker, CEO of the Pritzker Law Group, said she has heard from many small businesses that can’t afford to wait six months, with no revenue, to have basic cases heard.

“Larger developers are more sophisticated, they’re aware of the nuances of zoning law, and their projects take years to build so six more months isn’t as big of an issue,” she said. “But it penalizes smaller groups, more inexperienced entrepreneurs — who are more often women and Black and brown individuals.”

Why has the ZBA become so inefficient?

Before the pandemic, the average wait time for a hearing at the zoning board was under three months. But those delays began to increase in late 2019, peaking in February 2020, and have remained elevated ever since.

Although the process showed signs of easing at the beginning of 2023, the average wait time in 2022 was half a year.

If a community group is contesting a case and a business owner faces multiple hearings, delays can drag on for well longer than a year before the board renders a decision.

The situation has grown bad enough that a long established system for expedited permitting, allowing applicants to speed up their cases by paying more than $1,000, has bogged down since the pandemic because so many are using it.

In the Barcade owner’s case, he signed a lease in May, filed for a variance as soon as possible, and learned that the case wouldn’t be heard until late December — even after paying for expedited permitting. When he finally came before the ZBA, the proceeding took only 10 minutes.

After the brief Dec. 22 hearing, Kermizian waited 30 days to submit permits to allow the monthlong appeals window to expire. Construction began in February, more than eight months since the lease began.

“We’ve incurred costs in rent and legal fees, but this is our ninth location,” Kermizian said. “We’re not a guy trying to open his first restaurant, who this would probably be crippling for.”

The city can’t say exactly why the delays are occurring.

The number of cases filed today hasn’t risen dramatically compared with pre-pandemic. The zoning board is meeting as often as it did in 2019, city spokespeople say, while the number of staff committed to the process has actually doubled in the last four years from five to 10.

City spokespeople cited possible delays ranging from the availability of witnesses to the degree of City Council involvement, community opposition, and notice requirements.

But all of those were factors before 2020.

The effect of virtual meetings

Some veteran zoning lawyers argue that it is remote hearings themselves that are causing delays.

“Virtual hearings are good for talking; they’re not good for dialogue,” said Matt McClure, team leader of Ballard Spahr’s zoning and land use team. “The failure to have good dialogue means longer hearings.”

When meetings were held in person, disputes and misunderstandings between project applicants and opponents could often be cleared up in the hallway outside the hearing room. Lawyers could give abridged version of their cases if they knew no one was arguing against them.

In a virtual setting, McClure and other zoning lawyers say, it is more difficult to know whether projects have opponents and it’s harder to reach accord with them in advance. As a result, zoning lawyers have to give a full presentation of their case no matter how minor the relief requested.

“Online you have to go through and show every thing every time, so it takes longer than it would in person,” McClure said. “That’s clearly added to the delay.”

As a result, fewer cases can be heard at each hearings. Starting in early 2020, the number of cases heard at each meeting fell by about half. Although there have been recent improvements, the new status quo seems to be fewer projects reviewed per meeting than there were before the pandemic.

City spokespeople agree that virtual hearings take longer, but they do not plan to bring back the pre-pandemic norm.

Remote hearings are more accessible, they argue, giving people a chance to participate whose schedule, employment, or mobility restricted attendance before.

“We are seeing increased and more equitable public participation,” said Bruce Bohri, city spokesperson. “This is a positive development, but a consequence is longer hearings.”

A hybrid option — returning to in-person meetings while continuing to provide remote access to the general public — would require “significant technology upgrades,” which would require more funding.

Even if there were an in-person option, the inability to address concerns from possible online opponents before a hearing would continue. So would the necessity of laying out the entire case, with lengthy testimony, no matter how minor the variance requested.

“During virtual hearings, the required quasi-judicial procedures must take place sequentially and within the view and hearing of all hearing participants,” Bohri said. “In person, the tendency is for there to be more cross-talk and nonverbal communication, which, while quicker, can be more confusing and less transparent.”

What’s to be done?

The need for the zoning board to review variance requests is only likely to increase as City Council members continue to pass laws that add special zoning rules, known as overlays, that often require special permissions such as any business selling takeout food — including coffee shops and ice cream stores — to go before the ZBA.

If virtual hearings and councilmanic prerogative are sacrosanct, what can be done to fix the process?

The city could change how the zoning board members are compensated for their time. Members receive $100 per session, no matter its length, and salary is capped at $22,000 annually per board member. After a certain point, there is a financial disincentive for members to consider more cases. Raising the salary cap, which hasn’t been tweaked since 1988, would be one way to schedule more sessions.

Philadelphia could also consider best practices from other cities, where there are different processes for considering breaks from the zoning code depending on how dramatic a change the owner is seeking. In that case, minor variances — which apply to most small business owners’ cases — would be placed on a different track than major cases where property owners are seeking to add significant density or height to a project.

Another solution is rethinking accelerated appeals.

“The accelerated process will lag if too many people use it, like trying to beat Schuylkill traffic by using the same shortcut as everyone else,” Bohri said. “We are looking for ways to improve the process overall without sacrificing the transparency and accessibility gains we have seen.”

For most applicants who go before the board, its inner workings are a mystery. All they know is that the process is crushingly burdensome at a time when Philadelphia is trying to recover its pre-pandemic buoyancy.

“It makes no sense,” said Kermizian of Barcade. “They really want to keep momentum going in Center City and in every neighborhood. But this is working against all that.”