MyFoxPhilly came to cover the meeting (see their emotional, black-and-white, gentrification vs. development piece above), but the zoning chair Claudia Sherrod told reporter Dave Kinchen that the network was not permitted to film the meeting. When Kinchen asked if it was a public meeting Sherrod replied, “This is not a public meeting. This is about zoning.” She then told gathering crowd the same thing. She's dead wrong. It is a public meeting, and the more light that is shown on a decision-making process, the more accountability there is. Keep recording, everyone
Protocols vary widely among neighborhood zoning committees. Point Breeze's zoning decisions are arrived at through a written popular vote, a choice that allows proponents or opponents of a particular project to pack the meeting. In Point Breeze audience members are asked to fill out a form (personal info and vote) on signature sheets that are circulated. Signature sheets are reviewed, and the community's zoning approval or opposition is announced after the fact. (Stay tuned.)
OCF’s Ori Feibush wrote
on Philadelphia Speaks
on Monday night that his project received 3 votes. That smells fishy to me, and Feibush claims he saw someone willfully removing signature pages to sway the vote. If that’s true it’s a travesty and South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S’ legitimacy as a zoning body should be seriously questioned.
SPHINC has a long history as a positive community force in Point Breeze, and I believe the people who work there have the neighborhood's interest at heart. But the whole dynamic of their zoning meetings creates little space for meaningful dialogue about what kinds of development residents actually want and what developers are willing to give. There’s no room to find common ground.
And yet, as I listened to go-to zoning lawyer David Orphanides discuss OCF’s proposal and field questions, I couldn’t help but feel that the deck was stacked. How could residents not
feel like decisions are being made for them? By the time a development comes in for a zoning variance, it’s all but a done deal. Is one informational meeting 6 months ago, as Feibush recalled, enough to keep the peace in a charged, changing neighborhood like Point Breeze? The information gap reinforces feelings of mistrust and resistance among folks protesting development.
The More You Know
Waves of development are washing over Point Breeze. Neighbors who want to shape that process (rather than putting energy into stopping it) should arm themselves with a deeper knowledge of the city’s zoning code and how the community's role in zoning decisions is about to change
. Clearly the community is motivated - put all of that energy to productive use by planning for the things Point Breeze residents of every stripe want, and arrive at development discussions with clear questions and requests. Better still, meet with developers early
in the process.
Developers are fond of saying that they’re reluctant to invest in Philadelphia because the process isn’t transparent, and community demands are too unpredictable. The city’s new zoning code
sets up a new, more standardized process for Registered Community Organizations to review projects. Developers are required to meet with one community group and present their projects to the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) within 45 days. That's a lot less time to stall meetings or have protracted fights. And should neighborhood disputes spill into ZBA meetings, their rules will only get tighter. I fear that the more NIMBY neighborhoods become, the less time there is for substantive conversation about development, and the more the city will push to streamline development processes. That would mean even less community control. I can only hope the new zoning code's changes will lead to better community meetings in contested neighborhoods like Point Breeze. But that is a two way street.
OCF Realty brings their variance case to the Zoning Board of Adjustments on February 15.
- Development Battle in Point Breeze Neighborhood [MyFoxPHILLY.com, January 30, 2012]
- One Wild night in Point Breeze: ballot theft, racial fighting and more! [Samantha Melamed, The Naked City, January 31, 2012]
- The Battle of Point Breeze (part 1) (part 2) [Ryan W. Briggs, Metropolis, November 2011 ]
- Special report: How tax delinquent properties thwart development [Patrick Kerkstra, PlanPhilly, August 15, 2011]
- See this YouTube playlist for videos from the crowd.
- Here's my recording of the bulk of yesterday's zoning meeting: