It wasn’t hostility that filled the Council Chambers last month, when the committee on law and government held a hearing to consider a proposal to restructure the local government and create a new Department of Planning and Development.
It was more circumspect than that. A collective furrowing of the brow: Is this what we’re doing? Right now?
The proposal, from Council President Darrell Clarke, calls for an amendment to the City Charter that would place the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Historical Commission, and various functions of the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Office of Housing and Community Development under a single Director of Planning and Development, who would be appointed by the mayor. Like any charter amendment, it would need to be approved by a majority of voters through a ballot question.
Clarke had also announced the proposal on the same day that Mayor Michael Nutter received a report from the commission he’d appointed to recommend changes at L&I in the wake of the building collapse at 22nd and Market streets that killed six people in the summer of 2013.
The half-dozen-or-so witnesses who testified at the hearing weren’t outright opposed to a restructuring of the agencies that regulate planning, zoning, and development. But they sounded uncertain about the purpose of the bill, and about how it would change doing business with the city day to day. Most seemed like they hadn’t had time to digest the proposal.
So when the committee voted to recommend the bill after about an hour of testimony—promising amendments—many in City Hall were surprised.
“When they first briefed me on it, it was not supposed to get moved out of committee,” said Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez. “So like everybody else, I was surprised that it was passed out of committee.”
Sánchez said she’d had just one meeting about the bill with Herb Wetzel, a staff member in Council President Clarke’s office and former head of the Redevelopment Authority, who did much of the research that led to the proposal. She says she’s still waiting for answers to some questions she had at the time.
Some of those questions have to do with streamlining development, which is the stated purpose of the proposal. Specifically, Sánchez said, any consolidation of development functions should include the Water Department and Streets Department and other review agencies. Some developers and development advocates testified to that effect at the hearing as well.
“If you’re going to pull a development unit together you would think that all the permitting gets in line …” Sánchez said. “The other piece that they could not answer for me … was how does this impact our legislative framework?”
If L&I were to be moved into a Department of Planning and Development, for example, what would happen to Council’s Committee on Licenses and Inspections (which Sánchez chairs)?
Clarke’s office said amendments are in the works and conversations with Council members and other interested parties are ongoing. He’s still hoping to get the charter change on the May ballot.
Most importantly, though, Sánchez and others question how Clarke’s proposal responds to the push to prioritize public safety in the wake of the Market Street collapse and other ongoing building-safety issues.
“Not only does [Clarke’s proposal] not harmonize with the mayor’s [advisory commission] recommendations,” Sánchez said. “It doesn’t harmonize with the Council’s Special Investigative Committee recommendations.”
(Council’s Special Investigative Committee held hearings during the summer in the months after the Market Street collapse. Its findings are memorialized here.)
Others have the same concerns.
“I don’t think you’d want to, for example, mandate that L&I be under the Office of Planning and Development,” said Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development. “I think that should be off the table.”
Greenberger said the Administration is open to changes in the structure of the government, but that the proposal would need to respond to the recommendations of the Special Independent Advisory Commission before he could fully support it.
Greenberger, by the way, is probably the closest thing the city currently has to the Director of Planning and Development envisioned in Clarke’s proposal. He’s also director of the Commerce Department and chair of the Planning Commission.
The structure proposed in Clarke’s bill more or less mirrors what’s informally happening in the Administration now, Greenberger said, at least as it relates to planning and development, if not to the public-safety functions of L&I. He said his office meets with Commerce and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation weekly to discuss projects coming through the pipeline and work out potential issues. That resolves small differences of opinion on a rolling basis, he said, without letting them fester.
“Particularly when it comes to charter matters,” Greenberger said, “my general belief is you want to take a light touch because circumstances come up that you can’t necessarily predict … It should be given pretty careful and thorough analysis so that bad, unintended consequences don’t flow out of it because you haven’t thought about it enough.”
Greenberger said that coordination between departments can always be improved, but that relationship building is just as important as giving everyone the same boss.
“I haven’t convinced myself yet that [a charter change] is necessary or unnecessary, but it is what’s on the table,” he said.
The Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations (PACDC) sees some real benefits to the proposal. One of the bill’s recommendations is to create an Intergovernmental Housing Commission that would take over much of the work of OHCD and administer the Housing Trust Fund. Beth McConnell, PACDC’s policy director, said such a commission could help coordinate a more coherent, forward-looking housing policy. It could also be a service to affordable housing developers, who often have to cobble together resources from a variety of agencies and funds.
The Crosstown Coalition of civic associations is also working to formulate a letter asking for more time before Council votes on the proposal, which, theoretically, could happen before the end of the month. (Clarke’s office said there will be amendments before any vote is called, which would push the timeline back a bit.)
Joe Schiavo, who is the Crosstown Coalition’s Zoning and Land Use Committee chairman, said he’s personally still mystified about the proposal.
“Frankly, to date I cannot decipher any remedial utility of the bill,” Schiavo said. “I don’t know what it fixes or is intended to fix. In the absence of further detail or supporting data and research it’s very difficult to be supportive of the bill.”
Matt Ruben, who serves as president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, shares Greenberger’s ambivalence about the need for a charter change to improve coordination, though he does support the intent of the proposal. The hard work involved, Ruben said, entails improving the technology systems in each of the various agencies as well as the general culture of inter-agency communication. The proposal needs more public vetting, he said.
“The idea that the public is going to give its input on this issue by voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on the world’s longest sentence is ridiculous,” Ruben said.
“The important work of democracy, for the public, should get done before that,” he said.