In its first meeting of 2013, City Council voted to override a Mayoral veto—not announced until Thursday morning—of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s bill changing some provisions of the new zoning code’s Registered Community Organization (RCO) regulations. The vote to overturn the veto was 13-3, with Council members Bill Green, María Quiñones-Sánchez, and Mark Squilla in dissent.
Blackwell’s bill passed last fall, after protracted negotiations between her office and members of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. At the time of passage, the vote was 15-2, with Councilmen Green and Squilla in opposition.
Before the vote to override the veto, Councilman Green told Councilmembers that Blackwell’s bill would confuse the code’s community input procedures for both developers and the community groups that want to meet with them.
“This bill creates notice requirements that are almost impossible to legally comply with,” Green said. “They will hold up projects in the courts for years …”
Green also said that the regulations of the new zoning code have not been tested, and that Council should be willing to let them work for a while before fiddling with them.
“This is a big mistake and I urge my colleagues to vote no,” Green said.
Blackwell has maintained that her bill will level the playing field for community groups of varying sizes and capabilities to have the input they deserve on what development goes on in their neighborhoods. Her bill eases the qualifications for becoming an RCO, and expands the requirements for notification of those groups and other residents and business owners in the proximity of proposed developments.
To Green’s assertion that her changes would delay developments, Blackwell responded, “That’s absolutely not true.” Full stop.
Councilman Bill Greenlee recalled the negotiations that took place during the Committee hearings on the bill, and announced that he would be voting to override the veto because it seemed at the time that a compromise was in place: some folks were unhappy, but such is compromise, Greenlee said. Green countered that, compromise or not, he’d be voting to sustain the veto because the bill lacked legislative merit.
The vote was taken, and the only Council member to switch her vote was Councilwoman Sánchez. PlanPhilly asked Sánchez in an email what caused her change of heart. She responded: “No change, I thought there was an agreement and then the interpretations got complicated.”
In other news, Councilman Brian O’Neill amended his most recent zoning amendment to remove its restrictions on urban agriculture uses in CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 commercial corridor zoning districts, as expected. When the Council adopted his amendment to the bill on Thursday, a faint applause arose from the public seats—feeble-sounding in comparison to other expressions of praise and disdain from members of the audience during the wide-ranging Council meeting.
As originally drafted, the bill would have forced new community gardens and market-supported farms in commercial corridors to get special approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and that provision became the most contentious in the last few weeks.
After the meeting, Councilman O’Neill said that it took him a while, but he came around to the agriculture advocates’ way of thinking. If a community wants to use an empty lot on a commercial corridor in a productive way, that makes “immense sense,” O’Neill said. It was the thought of using an existing building in a commercial corridor for farming purposes that O’Neill said he thought was inappropriate, but he said he realized that wasn’t the likely scenario.
Meanwhile, other portions of his bill are still subject to some opposition.
On Thursday morning, Councilwoman Sánchez circulated a memo describing her concerns about the remainder of the bill, even without the regulations on community gardens.
“Most significantly,” Sánchez wrote in her memo, “I am concerned that this bill will impose severe limitations on the number of residential units allowed in commercial properties, restricting many large 3 story structures to a single rental unit. Many of our older corridors are in need of revitalization and need these rental units to make investment possible. This will discourage investment in these corridors and create significant burdens on the Mom and Pop business owners working to keep our neighborhood corridors viable.”
In its current form, O’Neill’s bill would require CMX-1 and CMX-2 parcels to comply with the household living regulations of the strictest adjacent residential district. A three-story building with a first-floor commercial storefront could only have one residential unit upstairs, for example, if it were adjacent to a single-family residential district, which many such parcels are. O’Neill offered that the language in his bill may be too restrictive, but that the language of the new code is too permissive, in his opinion, in that it doesn’t protect adjacent residential properties by allowing “too many apartments” in CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 parcels.
The bill may become more complicated still. O’Neill pointed out that the new code doesn’t prohibit residential uses on the ground floor of properties in the CMX-1 and CMX-2 commercial corridor districts
“You ruin your commercial corridor if you allow residential on the first floor,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said that the bill would continue to be subject to negotiations between his office and other Council offices, and that it likely won’t be ready for a vote by next week.
Mayor Nutter also vetoed a controversial bill passed by City Council last fall which would allow a digital advertisement to drape the south-facing wall of the Electric Factory. That bill passed initially in 2011, and the Mayor vetoed it shortly thereafter. Councilman Squilla revived the bill late last year, with an additional provision that a portion of its revenue would be donated by the owner to a handful of nearby schools. Squilla told the Daily News that he would give his fellow Council members time to consider their options before calling another veto override vote.
Jared Brey writes about development, zoning policy, and city government for PlanPhilly.com. He wasn't interested in being a reporter until halfway through a master's program in journalism at Temple University that he intended to parlay into an academic career. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper, Business Journal, and Metropolis.