By Thomas J. Walsh
The Zoning Code Commission held its first scheduled public outreach meeting Wednesday night, a low-key affair that ended a half-hour early. The meeting was held in City Council chambers in City Hall.
It precedes at least 10 other meetings to be held in each of the city’s councilmatic districts through next spring to discuss the zoning code reform project now underway. About 120 members of the public attended, along with the 31 members of the ZCC.
As expected, Mayor Michael Nutter nominated Eva Gladstein, formerly head of the defunct Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and the city’s Empowerment Zone, to take on the position of executive director of the commission (see previous story: http://www.planphilly.com/node/4270 ). She must be confirmed for the position by a two-thirds majority of the commission, and a vote will be taken at its next meeting on Dec. 10.
Seven people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, several of whom expressed a desire to see amended zoning to allow for more child care facilities, especially in neighborhoods where it is difficult for parents to negotiate public transportation for both themselves and their children.
ZCC Chairman Alan Greenberger, the new executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, started things off before the arrival of Nutter. Greenberger introduced project manager Don Elliott, of Clarion Associates, the Denver-based company contracted by the city to lead the zoning reform effort.
Elliott gave an abbreviated “Zoning 101” class for the public, and said the city’s zoning code is “badly broken, arguably not functioning much.”
“Philadelphia is a place people yearn to work for and with,” Elliott said. “Frankly the most useful part of this evening for the zoning commission and myself is to hear from you. Philadelphia made clear from the very start that they wanted a very strong community involvement.”
Public involvement will include more local community meetings, code user interviews, online surveys, a new city Web site and an “open email notice list.” More links, information and a place to ask questions online can be found at www.zoningmatters.org (a survey is to be up within days, Elliott said).
Zoning addresses dividing the city into districts, uses and site designs, Elliott told the crowd, in addition to illustrating any given building’s envelope and landscape. Zoning code reform is about the “text,” he emphasized, and not the “re-mapping the city of Philadelphia’s zoned districts.”
In updating usability, Elliott said the goals were to reduce inconsistencies and variance requests. Other aspects of reform involve innovative land use and modern building types that were never part of the city’s code. Other reasons to update the code include economic concerns (confusing or demanding zoning can turn away possible new businesses), efficiency and user-friendliness.
Nutter arrived tardy but stressed the importance of the commission’s work. “This is a great commission,” with people who have great concern for this city, he said. “Their work will ultimately determine what the city looks like over the next 30, 40 or 50 years.”
“We’ve had a scattershot approach to planning, zoning and design for a very long time,” Nutter said. “We have overlays on top of overlays on top of overlays” in lieu of reform that’s overdue. Later, he added: “You should not have to be a Penn-, Harvard- or Yale-educated lawyer to figure out how to do development here in this city.”
In addition to looser rules for child care zoning, members of the public who spoke urged the commission to make the new code easy to read, with explanations of why certain zoning was adopted. The issue of affordable housing, with perhaps varying location-specific definitions, was also raised. All public comment is included on the accompanying PlanPhilly videotape of the event.
Included with the agenda was an evaluation form for the public. The next ZCC meeting will be held Dec. 10 at 8 a.m., 1515 Arch Street.
“We have a unique moment in time to really plan for the future of this great city,” Nutter said.