Compare this to Fifth District Councilman Darrell Clarke’s opinion piece in Monday’s Inquirer
. Clarke is the presumptive next Council President, and he says City Council should control land use decisions.
Clarke’s opinion suggests he likes things just the way they are. He explains away councilmanic prerogative, justifying it on the grounds that because district Council members know their districts more intimately than their Council colleagues, that perspective should carry greater weight when it comes to land use decisions. Clarke writes:
The prerogative is informal. It is not required by our Home Rule Charter or Council's rules. It exists only because it works. And in return for the prerogative, Council expects the district Council member to negotiate on Council's and the city's behalf to improve the project, often dramatically.
Supporters of the project understand that without the Council member's support, the project could stall. This brings them to the table. Compromises are reached; legitimate neighborhood concerns are resolved; flawed projects ripen into worthwhile ones; and good projects become superior ones.
He points to two examples from his district, one of which is the important Gateway South
project at Temple being built at the intersection of Broad and Cecil B. Moore. This is a significant mixed-use project comprised of student housing, dining and retail. It’s a big deal and helps answer one of Clarke’s complaints about the lack of student housing causing neighborhood tensions.
As part of the project’s approval, Clarke negotiated for neighborhood residents to receive preferential treatment when it comes to the opportunity to set up shop in the retail spaces or work on the construction project. But he also applauds the requirement that Temple provide 250 need-based scholarships to neighborhood students in exchange for permitting the development.
Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing with Temple’s duty as a citizen of North Philadelphia to provide opportunities for the young people growing up in its shadow. But zoning changes are inappropriate places to negotiate scholarships. If Clarke was so concerned, he should have worked with Temple separately, negotiating that point on its own merit. Otherwise it just looks like extortion.
Clarke is right about one thing: councilmanic prerogative should be exercised judiciously. Right now, it isn’t. And that should change as the number of projects requiring variances and councilmanic approval drops thanks to a cleaner, clearer zoning code. Not every development warrants councilmanic intervention.
A new zoning code does not take away City Council’s ability to pass whatever legislation it wants. It will modify the code, it will carve out exceptions, and it will hopefully resolve unforeseen problems. A new code will not change how City Council behaves.
But I think people’s investment in the current planning and zoning reform processes underway finds more of us watching the sausage being made. And if we see City Council members playing the same old transactional politics with developments in the days to come, let’s call it like it is.