Next Friday, February 8th, Eva Gladstein will work her last day as deputy director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. She was appointed to the position about a year ago, after successfully wrapping up Philadelphia’s zoning reform effort as executive director of the Zoning Code Commission. She’s moving on to head the Mayor’s new Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity.
We sat down with Gladstein last week to talk about the formation of the city’s first new zoning code in fifty years, and its chances for survival.
PlanPhilly: You told the Zoning Code Commission in 2008, when you were being hired, that this was the best opportunity you’d ever had to make Philadelphia a better place. I’m wondering what it was that made you feel that way, and how well you felt you were able to actually take advantage of the opportunity.
Eva Gladstein: That’s a nice big question. I don’t remember my saying that, but that’s fine. I have always tried to take jobs where there was kind of a mission—something to do, very concrete, “get it done”—and that the thing that had to get done contributed in some way to the improvement of the community, or the lives of people in that. So for me the Zoning Code Commission work was kind of a perfect example of that. Because while it wasn’t always obvious to me when I was a younger person, or whatever, zoning has become kind of a proxy for people in terms of quality of life, of neighborhoods. So being able to improve that system that so many people try to work with or use to ensure good quality of life was the opportunity in front of me.
So that was the first half of your question, right? Second half was …
PlanPhilly: How well do you feel you were able to seize the opportunity?
Gladstein: Well, we got it done. So that was huge. Hopefully we’ll hold onto it; that would be also huge. And I think we did a very good job of creating a Philly-centric, modern code that will stand the city in good stead for decades and help us live in this new century. We had to balance lots of interests and lots of conflicting ideas, and I think we did a good job with that.
Is it 100 percent of what any one person wanted? Absolutely not. Or 100 percent of what I personally wanted? Absolutely not.
But from the beginning, I knew the nature of the assignment was not to deliver that, but to deliver something that got the job done, and hopefully satisfied all of us 80 or 90 percent, and only dissatisfied us 10 or 15 percent.
PlanPhilly: What you just said about zoning being a proxy, can you explain that a little bit more?
Gladstein: Sure. It was actually something somebody said to me at a community meeting in Mt. Airy when I was in the job maybe a year-and-a-half or two years, trying to explain the community’s view of zoning. Because they kept mentioning issues that weren’t zoning or about zoning enforcement, like litter. A lot of those issues would come up when we went to community meetings.
A gentleman in the room said, “You have to understand—we’re all working to improve our communities or to keep our communities wonderful, and we don’t feel like we have a lot of leverage. There are not a lot of points where we as citizens come into contact with the forces that control that, and zoning is a place where we intersect with controls on quality of life. So maybe we overuse it, but that’s why. That’s a tool that’s available to use, whereas we don’t always have a tool to make sure that people pick up their trash, or that a pothole gets filled, or that the streetlight gets replaced.”
Can I go back to the second half of the first question?
Gladstein: The other thing I would think is that, probably as important as getting the job done was the way in which we did it. And the fact that so many people woke up to—or if they were already awake, thought very deeply about—the intersection of communities and development and what that means and what’s the appropriate role of a neighborhood. We involved so many people in thinking about that. Then we birthed the Citizens Planning Institute and completed the citywide part of the Comprehensive Plan at the same time. So I think just the fact that we were doing it in coordination with those other efforts—with so much transparency and involvement—was as meaningful as the product itself, because that also has a lasting impact.
PlanPhilly: Do you think that that’s part of the product, the example of that process?
Gladstein: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, creating a standard by which not just the city but other processes will be judged in the future. Absolutely. And if people demand more transparency from the Administration or legislature or Council going forward, I think that would be a good thing.
But it also just—using the term ‘empowerment,’ which I don’t love to use—I think it empowered a number of people, because it also gave them information they didn’t have before that they could use going forward, not just about zoning but about how to interact with government.
PlanPhilly: Do you not like the term ‘empowerment’ just because it’s hackneyed?
Gladstein: Yeah. I directed the city’s Empowerment Zone, and my new gig has empowerment in it. It gets overused sometimes.
PlanPhilly: How has the reality of the last two jobs you’ve had—director of the ZCC and deputy director of the Planning Commission—how has that compared to the expectations you had for each when you were appointed?
Gladstein: Well I think I didn’t fully—I’m very pleased by it, but I think when I took on the zoning code work, it was just to do the zoning code, and then when I came to work on [the 13th floor of the City of Philadelphia building, Planning Commission headquarters], we quickly created this integrating planning and zoning process. The fact that we were able to combine this with the comprehensive plan and the Citizens Planning Institute made it a much more expansive and meaningful experience for me. Just the fact that we have 150 citizen planners now is great—that’s a real legacy of the process, and it will keep going. So I didn’t expect that although it made sense and it was great that we were able to pull it off.
So that was an important change. I also probably viewed the fact that the ZCC was so large and diverse with a little bit of trepidation at the beginning, but I think it worked well. The individual members really rose to the occasion and really worked well together, and brought their best selves to the process. And I also think that the drafters of the legislation and the charter change were smart about doing it. For example, the heavy involvement of district Council people, and the involvement of community groups, developers and professionals—I think that worked well.
PlanPhilly: So the integration of zoning reform and the comprehensive plan wasn’t a given from the beginning …
Gladstein: No, because the zoning code reform was mandated through this legislative process that started at the end of 2006—then the Council ordinance, then the referendum, and whatever. The Planning Commission, seeing that, started to do some early work to see if they could get some support to do a comprehensive plan. So they did a process I was minimally involved in in 2007 and 2008 that was called Imagine Philadelphia that was like a precursor to the comprehensive plan. And then once I came on the staff of the ZCC we sat down and we said, “Well, if you read a planning text book, you’re supposed to do a plan and then a code.”
We had to do a code. We had a process by which we had to do a code. We had a timeline to do the code, and we didn’t have any funding to do a plan. And we said, “Well, can we do a plan anyway? And how can we make it work?” And then out of that was born the idea of doing the Citizens Planning Institute, primarily because we saw the new code would actually change the dynamics around zoning, and how zoning worked. Citizens’ involvement had always been at the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and to the extent there would be less variances—which was one of the mandates of the new code—we wanted citizens to still have the ability to shape their destiny or their neighborhoods’ destiny.
PlanPhilly: So how were you able to get the money then, for CPI and for the plan?
Gladstein: CPI so far has been grant funded, some significant early funding from the William Penn Foundation, and some funding from OHCD, and putting together some other pieces. The comprehensive plan we did from within the Planning Commission’s budget. And we really shifted the work of the Planning Commission to make its core work the comprehensive plan and the district plans, which meant potentially being less reactive or responsive to individual requests for neighborhood plans, and instead to proactively have a comp planning that we were carrying out.
PlanPhilly: So, for you, what are the biggest triumphs and biggest disappointments of the new code itself?
Gladstein: I think one triumph was we really did try to codify the citizen input and engagement process, and I think we did it in a very good, responsive way, with a lot of conversation with players on different sides of the story. I thought that was really important.
PlanPhilly: Was there pushback on that, when you were trying to do that initially?
Gladstein: There was a whole side process called Common Ground with Kiki [Bolender] and Harris Sokoloff. What we realized early on—from the first survey that we did and the first public outreach that we did, asking people what are the biggest problems, or what are you concerns?—everybody, every constituency said it was the process, it wasn’t the code itself. It was the process. It was the uncertainty of the process, not knowing what the process was, distrust of the other parties in the process.
So our consultant said to us, “Every other city writes its code by first figuring out its districts, then its uses, its standards, and then figures out how to administer it.” And they said, “You really may want to flip it, because all of Philadelphia’s worried about the process.”
So we made it first. It was the first section of the code, which meant we had about two years from when we drafted it to vet it and rework it and rework it and rework it. So we did that first, and then, because it became clear that there was such a need to create more certainty—both from a community point of view (what can be built next to me?) and from a developer’s point of view (how long is it going to take me to get an approval?)—Kiki will tell you the moment I came to an Urban Design Committee meeting of the AIA that she was co-chairing, a light bulb went off.
So she and Harris got together and got a small grant and ran this Common Ground process. We supported it, but they really ran it. They did a four-hour meeting with developers, they did a Saturday meeting with 150 civic reps, then brought both groups together in the evening, a facilitated two or three hours where groups of 10 or 15 would kind of hash it out, came up with a report, the whole thing.
Anyway, so I think that was a significant aspect of the code. And I would say the other one is that it’s really reflective of Philadelphia. A lot of it is context-sensitive standards that did not come from any textbook, or from any other city. We really looked at the lot sizes in Philadelphia, the standards, patterns of development and tried to figure out what would work here. And I give two or three members of the Commission credit for really both advocating for that and figuring it out and doing an incredible amount of work on that.
PlanPhilly: Who were they?
Gladstein: Greg Pastore, Ann Hoskins-Brown, Andy Toy, when he was on the Commission, and some of the architects that worked closely with them.
The third big one is just the way that we were able to weave sustainability throughout the code, and just always keep that in mind as one of our goals, and make sure whatever we could do to remove barriers or to provide incentives or to require sustainable elements, we did.
So disappointments, OK. Well, clearly, Council trying to amend it so quickly is a huge disappointment. Particularly because I feel that it’s disrespectful to the work, all the thousands of people that participated, the efforts of their own offices. It’s like they kind of forgot how hard it was to do this, and how much it was a delicate balance between competing points of view. It’s like one of these puzzles when you take one piece of wood out, it’s got, whatever they’re called—
Gladstein: Yeah. Right. Something else is going to fall, and sort of forgetting how tough it was and how much thought went into it, and not understanding how enmeshed every piece of it is, so that if you alter one thing, it’s going to have some kind of unintended consequence. That’s clearly a huge disappointment.
There’s some stuff along the way, but again this was an amendment: we lost the parking caps in commercial districts, which I would have preferred to keep. We lost some of the transparency we sought by requiring that Community Benefits Agreements be recorded and made public. I thought that would have been really very significant, and we had that in the draft until the very end. So there are a few things like that where I think the code would have been a better code.
PlanPhilly: Are there any other missed opportunities in terms of the work of the Commission itself, in drafting it?
Gladstein: If we had all the time in the world? I mean, clearly we didn’t do the signs at the same time, and I was concerned that that might mean the sign controls would never get done. But we got the accessory sign controls through, and we’re on a path to get the non-accessory signs done … But that was a deliberate decision, because we had such a timeline and a mandate to do the rest of the code. It could have been a huge distraction and really slowed us down, because the constituencies are so different.
I’m sure there are plenty of other missed opportunities. If 2,000 people participated there are probably another 2,000 or 5,000 who woke up one morning and said, “We have a new zoning code.” And the process would have been better if they had been a part of it. I think we did a great job around outreach with very, very few resources, but I’m sure we could have always done better.
PlanPhilly: So, the goals of zoning reform are promoting sound planning principles, environmentally responsible practices, economic development, and fair and consistent procedures. And my question is, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to meeting those goals on an ongoing basis, aside from what was actually codified?
Gladstein: Well, my wish would be that there would be an organized process for amending the code. And I think the one-year report was a start in that direction, and we’ve actually talked about quarterly meetings between the various agencies and City Council, that interact with the code all the time, to have a regular gathering point where people compare notes and say, “Well, this needs adjustment or that needs adjustment.” So it’s done in a more organized fashion, rather than random zoning bills when a particular project or issue arises without doing a broader review.
That would be a wish. Could we ever have the discipline to do it that way? I think both on the Administration side and on the Council side, that’s a big ask. I think that would be a better way to do it. Again, so you’re doing more of a 360-degree scan than a myopic look at something right in front of you. It was incredibly important for us when we were doing this work to have L&I at the table to say, “Well, if you write it this way, this is how we will interpret it.” Or there’s confusion this language might cause, or whatever, and I don’t think people often do that. So it’s just having a process that includes the Zoning Board, includes L&I, as well as Council and citizens.
PlanPhilly: In terms of the planning principles, do you think that the whole process itself opened people up to the possibility that planning principles are something that should be taken into consideration more frequently?
Gladstein: I think people are getting that. And I think you have to give credit to the Mayor for trying to elevate planning, with the comprehensive plan and the way the Planning Commission has reorganized its meetings so that it’s tying agenda items into the comprehensive plan. I think we’re just trying to get people used to the fact that this is a good practice. People do household budgets—those are plans. You don’t have to be able to implement every single aspect of a plan or be able to see into the future, but it gives you a sense of where you’re going and it gives you some guidance. It gives you a way to check back and see if you’re actually heading where you intended to go. I do think it’s raised consciousness about it.
PlanPhilly: How much impact do you think the code is going to have on economic development?
Gladstein: I don’t think the code is the magic tool that will bring new investors to the city of Philadelphia. I think there are market forces, demographic issues, et cetera, that are going to have more of an impact. On the other hand, we’ve already heard anecdotally that, particularly for infill development, which is so important for communities, the code is making a difference. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to make the difference in terms of a new office tower downtown.
I think it will be helpful, particularly if we can keep this community engagement process defined, and working consistently. It’s going to shave a couple of weeks or a couple of costs off a three-year project from start to finish, but on the other hand if you’re doing infill development or 20 residential units, or a couple units on a commercial corridor, I do think it’s probably making a much more significant impact there.
PlanPhilly: Do you think that what Council is doing with amending it is going to have any sort of deterrent effect on development?
Gladstein: Oh yeah. I think the amendments to the RCO process are going to add confusion, adding some burdens that are hard to meet in terms of notice, and definitely adding confusion in terms of number of meetings, who you’re meeting with, who’s where?
And then on the amendments to CMX-2—I’m hoping to see them modified, but if they’re not modified, I think that limit on multifamily is really going to have a very dramatic impact. CMX-2 is one of our most prevalent districts. You did the analysis yourself. You saw, in many parts of the city it’s really the core of the commercial zoning. It will have a very serious impact.
PlanPhilly: On that bill, do you think there’s anything in that that is worthwhile? Is there anything in it that you think is reacting to a legitimate problem?
Gladstein: I never understood what the problem was that was trying to be solved.
PlanPhilly: In terms of the sustainability portion of the code, is there stuff that you wanted to do that either developers or whoever didn’t want done? Most of it is incentives, right? It’s not even necessarily regulations.
Gladstein: This was the mantra from our consultant: we removed some barriers, we made some requirements, and then we provided some incentives. Removing barriers, as an example, now if you want to do solar or wind—small, for your residential development or whatever—or put a rain barrel in or whatever, you can do it now. And you can do it in your side yard or rear yard and there are standards for it. So that was kind of removing barriers, because before there was no provision which meant you had to go get a variance.
And then the requirement is, you know, bike parking, car share, hybrid, the parking caps which got removed. Those are in the requirements system. The incentives I think are almost the least, which is the green building incentive, which we really struggled over. It was really hard to figure out what sustainability features would be known at the time somebody is pulling a zoning permit, because the building’s not fully designed. So it’s got some issues, and we had to think through how to enforce it.
But I think the market is driving more and more people to do LEED. So I think this helps push them along, and it pushes them go to Platinum [certification], or if there’s an alternative they’ll be able to use an alternative. But I don’t think that was the most important, because the LEED is going to be mostly for bigger stuff, not for smaller stuff.
PlanPhilly: Did you view the Transit-Oriented Development part as part of the environmentally responsible …
Gladstein: Well that’s one of the regrets I have. We were trying to do something much more robust with the Transit-Oriented Development. It was a pretty interesting conversation, because the Commission was torn between—we were actually trying to designate the areas at the beginning, not wait for Council ordinance and making it an overlay. The Commission itself was torn. Everybody was—well, many people were advocates for TOD, but even the advocates were torn between: do you pick the five places where you want to drive density and designate those, or do you designate every station along the Market-Frankford line and the Broad Street line and see where development lands. And it was another resource and time question, and we realized that it could be a huge distraction. It really was another planning process that we hadn’t budgeted for, and so we decided we had to kind of create the tool but leave it alone. But, having created the tool, I think now the district plans are trying to apply it, so I think that’s a good thing. But I would have liked to have been able to address it more robustly. We just realized that we could spend six months on that, and then we wouldn’t have gotten the rest of the code done.
At this point, Gladstein left the room for a few minutes to speak to a co-worker.
PlanPhilly: I want to talk about the Deputy Director position. I know that there’s always a deputy director of the Planning Commission, but I sort of saw your role as being the same between the ZCC position and this position. It seemed like what you were doing was being the guardian of the code in both positions.
Gladstein: Well, we didn’t anticipate we would need a code guardian. So in fact I didn’t get as much done as I would have wanted to in the deputy director position, but I was also doing a significant amount of work helping us get the district planning process—figuring out how we were doing it, since we hadn’t done it before, figuring out a system for 18 different districts, figuring out how to segue from the district plans to the zoning remapping. So I was probably spending half of my time doing that, and would have preferred to be spending 100 percent of my time doing that. But we didn’t know the code would need guarding so immediately.
PlanPhilly: If you were going to be the one to choose your replacement for the deputy director position, what characteristics would you think somebody in this position should have? Or what priorities?
Gladstein: Well, one priority is to keep building on the Planning Commission’s experience with the district planning process, and increase the resources that go into the remapping, because that’s a massive lift, and it requires working very closely with Council. But also doing it in a systematic way. It’s sort of like the way the zoning code used to be amended, which was very ad hoc, whatever. That’s how the zoning maps have been amended with these district plans.
It’s more proactive. It’s got to be organized. It’s much more remapping than Council or any of us are used to, so it really has to be done in a more systematic and different fashion. I think that’s going to take a lot of energy and work, figuring that out, and frankly working with Council so that they’re comfortable with it too, because they have to introduce and approve the ordinances.
PlanPhilly: Do you think that there is anybody who is going to carry the torch of guarding the zoning code?
Gladstein: Oh sure.
PlanPhilly: Do you think it’s going to be an individual? Do you think that’s what the Planning Commission that’s going to replace you is looking for?
Gladstein: No, I don’t think that’s going to—I mean, obviously there is a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge here. Natalie [Shieh] is working for Alan Greenberger now, and Natalie knows the code better than I do. Really. Alan chaired the Commission. A number of the Commissioners are still very active. Greg [Pastore] is on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is another key location to guard the code, frankly. Again, there were close to forty staff here at the Planning Commission, a number of staff at L&I who were very engaged, the members of the Zoning Code Commission, so I think there’s a community of people. I know I was—or have been kind of the face of it a lot of the time, but there were always many, many people who were standing right with me. If you think about Kiki, how much work she did, and she was running her own business and chairing a committee, and she had no obligation to do it. Or the folks at the Building Industry Association, or some of the civics—they put in hours and hours and hours. They created this whole Crosstown Coalition for that purpose. I think that there are lots of folks whose interests may be narrower or broader, but have a real vested interest in it.
PlanPhilly: Within the Planning Commission, I feel like I’ve noticed that some of the staff sort of see their role as troubleshooting—sometimes for members of Council, sometimes for whatever purpose—whereas, up here you’re setting policy and defending policy. And I wonder if sometimes it feels like the Commission itself is working at cross purposes?
Gladstein: Well, it’s an interesting agency, because unlike L&I which everybody knows is kind of a regulatory agency—they have to issue permits and enforce the codes—here, we have some regulatory responsibilities. Most of them are in the development and zoning division but also in the urban design division, which does façade reviews, or in the Art Commission, whose staff sits here too. So there’s some narrow regulatory responsibilities. It’s stamping plans, doing subdivision reviews, floodplain reviews, and that’s on a project by project transaction. And then there’s the broader planning.
For the agency, I think it’s always trying to make sure that those two things are integrated and communicating and informing each other. You learn from project reviews, just as an example, you learn from project reviews when you have an issue with the code. When you’re finding three times that the same provision isn’t working, it’s not just that that project is poorly designed. So the two have to really work together, but sometimes they take a different kind of skill or involve different kinds of communication. I think that is a challenge for the agency and it’s a little bit unusual in this city. It’s an agency that’s both creating policy and then implementing the policy, and there can often be a need to translate between the two of them.
PlanPhilly: And even informally, in terms of if Council wants to make a zoning amendment, and then you guys help them draft it …
Gladstein: Right, the Planning Commission provides technical assistance to Council on zoning ordinances, which doesn’t mean the Planning Commission has to recommend approval of those or agree with them. But you have to be very clear in your communication. You have to say, “Yes, we’re happy to draft it, but that doesn’t mean [we support it].” It may or it may not, depending on what it is. So, that’s a tricky spot to be in.
But, I think the Planning Commission would always prefer to work with Council, whether or not we might recommend approval, because at least—assuming Council will do what Council will do, support it or not—to the extent that the drafting makes it work better and fit into the rest of the code, that’s very important.
PlanPhilly: But it’s almost like you’re doing triage … if you have to assume that if Council introduces a zoning bill, if you have to assume that it’s going to go through, or at least get some support in Council … It seems like you’re automatically pulled into amending a policy that you think is a sound policy.
Gladstein: You know, I would hope—even these recent zoning bills did not pass out—the O’Neill bill was very tight at Rules [Committee, where a favorable recommendation was made by a split vote]. The Blackwell bill had two “no” votes, which is a little bit unusual, so I’m hoping Council keeps looking pretty hard at zoning code amendments. Having said that—and I also hope that Council, and I think this is true for some of them, they really value the opinion of the Planning Commission, they call and they seek it, and they work with us.
This one bill [Councilman Henon’s bill rezoning a large plot of waterfront land in Bridesburg] was an example. It’s just a remapping bill, but it’s an example of where we had a conversation about what would make the most sense, and the Councilman is amending the bill, because they asked, “What’s the planning perspective on this? We want to do what’s right.” I think that’s happening more and more, and I hope that continues to happen. In the end, they’re going to make a decision which is based on a whole set of circumstances we might not be aware of. But to the extent that they are seeking and understanding and talking with us about the planning considerations, I think that’s a good thing and we want to keep encouraging that.
PlanPhilly: What aspects of this work are you not going to miss?
Gladstein: I said to somebody I’m looking forward to forgetting the zoning code. [laughs] I won’t miss being—I’m not the only—but one of the go-to people on the new code. I certainly won’t miss random people calling up and saying, “Can you tell me how the new zoning code would do this or would do that?”
Is there anything else that I won’t miss? I’m not sure. The work was a little bit unusual for me in that it was so in-the-weeds in so many ways. I’m comfortable working at that level, but I also enjoy being able to work at kind of a policy level, and a broader level as you can probably tell. I think with the new gig I’ll be able to do more of that.
PlanPhilly: Were you looking to make a transition in terms of your position or did this come out of the blue?
Gladstein: [After a long, pregnant pause] The Mayor’s Office asked me if I had an interest and it just seemed like a tremendous opportunity.
PlanPhilly: OK. Do you think this work is at all related to the work you’re going to be doing?
Gladstein: I totally do. Yeah. I realized as I was thinking about the new position—I’m not a trained planner; I have an urban studies degree, but I didn’t get a planning degree or a law degree or any of those skills I’ve used—but I realized I was thinking about the new position from a planning point of view. Where are the concentrations of poverty? And in fact, the first charge, to me, is to create an anti-poverty plan for the city. Which is probably less a physical development plan and more of a human development plan, but I think there’s also a physical aspect to it. I think we’ll have to employ strategies that are place-based also: not just based upon services to individuals but rooted in services to communities as a whole. So I started to think about it like a planner would: what are the areas of poverty? What are their characteristics? What are the resources available to people who live there? What are the resources that are difficult to obtain? I think there’s actually a fair amount of—a similar set of skills that I’ll be able to apply. I think I’ve learned a lot being located in proximity with and working with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability around Greenworks, or the work I did before, frankly, with the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which was coordinating a lot of agencies …
PlanPhilly: How big is that office going to be?
Gladstein: Well the Mayor renamed [the Mayor’s Office of Community Services], which has between 50 and 60 staff people. And then coordinating with a number of other agencies, part of whose mission or whose services are aimed at assisting people who are in poverty. So there’s a $700-million-a-year figure in terms of what we spend, between health, behavioral health, housing, homeless, nutrition, literacy—all of those.
PlanPhilly: So, I asked all the questions I was going to ask, but I just wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to any questions I didn’t ask, if there’s anything you wanted to…
Gladstein: Oh man, well, I would just say I’ve really appreciated the PlanPhilly coverage. It’s been great. It’s been a really critical part of the process … I think we all kind of learned how to do this, so really appreciative of that.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what changes are in store for the Planning Commission, and what they might mean for the implementation of the new code.
Jared Brey covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.