Developer Brown Hill has proposed a 16-story, 128-unit apartment complex for 205 Race Street. It needs zoning relief to build above the maximum height limit in that part of Old City, among several other variances. Last month, the Planning Commission voted to recommend that the zoning board grant that relief. Old City Civic Association has protested, calling the proposal a “conspicuous overbuild” of the parcel. On November 7th, the ZBA will hear the case and decide whether to grant the six variances sought, based on the zoning law that went out of effect at the end of August.
205 Race Street will be one of the last projects of its kind to get this far in the development process without submitting its plans to a special Civic Design Review Committee (CDR), which would review the proposal before the Planning Commission makes a recommendation. If the variances had been sought under the new zoning code, that Committee would have convened two weeks prior to the Planning Commission meeting to conduct a review of its own.
On Thursday, the Mayor’s Office announced the appointment of the first CDR Committee for the City of Philadelphia, a key component of the new zoning code that went into effect in August. Under the new code, the seven-member Committee will perform advisory review for new developments of large scale or particular impact.
“Establishing the Civic Design Review Committee demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that development projects make the most positive impact possible on Philadelphia’s treasured public spaces, both downtown and in our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, in a press release.
The Committee has six steady members and one rotating seat, to be filled by a representative of a Registered Community Organization with boundaries surrounding the project under review. Per the zoning code, the Committee will be chaired by a member of the Planning Commission, and must include two architects, a landscape architect, an “urban design professional,” a developer, and a “person with experience reviewing projects on behalf of civic associations …” The six steady members are:
In addition, the Committee will also be advised by Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the City Planning Commission; Jastrzab is not a voting member of the Committee.
So what will the CDR Committee actually do?
Advocate, is the likeliest answer, considering its recommendations are non-binding.
From the code: “Design review shall focus on the impact of building and site design on the public realm, particularly streets, sidewalks, trails, public parks, and open spaces. The Civic Design Review Committee’s review is not intended to evaluate the architectural style or compositional aspects of a project outside of their clear impact on the public realm.”
The CDR Committee’s hearings will be public, and must provide time for public comment. The process is intended to provide an extra opportunity for the public—and, in particular, the design and development professionals who populate the Committee—to debate the merits of private developments on the public realm. Code-prescribed criteria for review include whether the project design contributes to ground-level activity on adjacent streets, allows adequate light and air to nearby properties, or reinforces and protects the character of the surrounding neighborhood.
Nancy Rogo-Trainer, who could not be immediately reached for comment, has been among the more vocal proponents of good planning and design principles. In meetings about proposals on the Delaware River, she has been outspoken in support of the new master plan for the Central Delaware, repeatedly imploring developers to provide some public benefits in return for height limit exceptions.
The CDR Committee appointments come just in time. Its first meeting, to review the St. Francis Villa Senior Housing project in Kensington, will be held Tuesday, November 6th, at 1 p.m. And as coincidence would have it, that project is being developed by new CDR Committeeman and architect Cecil Baker, who will recuse himself from the first review.