Citizens flocked to city council chambers and were briefed on the detailed recommendations for the city’s new code that the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission has drafted as it kicked off its fall roadshow schedule Wednesday night. The recommendations were presented at the City Hall gathering by Don Elliott of Clarion Associates, the lead consulting team for the effort.
The packed house heard the detailed run-through and offered some detailed feedback that emphasized the importance of ongoing dialogue between the development community and civic associations as well as making sure the remapping process is transparent, fair and predictable and gets broad buy-in from the community. Some speakers also stressed the importance of exemptions to a code that may or may not be written in stone.
Elliott highlighted key changes to the major code overhaul that has been underway for over two years (and it should be noted that process has included more than 30 public meetings). The recommendations are now in the hands of the volunteer commissioners – more than two dozen in number – and call for “a radical simplification of Philadelphia’s zoning ordinance structure, an ambitious consolidation of zoning districts, the graphic presentation of zones, and ... charts and tables that are understandable to citizens.”
Public comment stressed the importance of taking due diligence in examining the unique neighborhoods in the city and making sure neighborhood impact and neighborhood input were equally valued parts of this process.
Mary Tracy, executive director of SCRUB (The Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight) lauded the efforts but wanted to make sure the ZCC didn't lose sight of Fairmount Park in the remapping and rezoning that will take place over the next few years.
The 90-page document (see below) spells out ways to affect the “modernization and simplification of permitted uses in each district,” and explain a “significant streamlining of many zoning decisions” – meaning more administrative decision-making, a reformed variance process and the codification of a “fast track” process.
A hoped-for bottom line at the Zoning Board of Adjustment: regular homeowners will be able to build a roof deck, or a screened-in back porch, and not expect to face the Spanish Inquisition for permission to do so.
“If these recommendations are followed, Philadelphia will be better able to achieve its planning goals, grow its economy, and improve the quality of its neighborhoods,” say the authors, from Clarion and its main partner, Duncan Associates. Also contributing were the team of subcontractors at work on the first re-write of the city’s zoning code in 50 years: Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC; Claflen Associates; Dyett & Bhatia; Portfolio Associates; CHPlanning, Ltd.; and Hurley-Frank Associates.
More than 125 professional zoning code users were interviewed as part of the process that went into the new recommendations, along with public comment gleaned from 10 councilmanic district meetings earlier in 2009.
The “Detailed Recommendations” come on the heels of an official assessment of Philadelphia’s existing zoning that was presented in March of this year, followed by the “Best Practices Report” delivered by the consultants in June.
The broad goals for the new code, spelled out by the ZCC to date, are to:
• Simplify base districts (including overlay districts, as mentioned above)
• Simplify approvals
• Protect neighborhoods (including new landscaping and design standards, transit-oriented development schemes, etc.)
• Promote sustainability
• Promote quality and design
• Improve readability and reorganization of the code
There will be another round (consisting of four late October meetings in West Philly, South Philly, North Phiily and Northeast Philly) of public outreach and comment later this fall, to be documented by November as the actual re-written code comes together by this time in 2010.
Zoning Code Commission: www.zoningmatters.org.