Civic associations and the new zoning code

Jared Brey of PlanPhilly takes a look at how recent changes to Philadelphia’s zoning code will affect neighborhood civic associations, which have in the past been integral to developers getting green or red lights from the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment:

Much of what developers want to do with city properties requires exceptions or zoning variances. Under the current code, little development is by right. And in order for developers to get a variance, they need approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Since the ZBA takes community input into account when deciding whether to grant a variance, the concerns of civic associations are built into the development process.

Under the reformed code, however, far more development will be by right, which means variances will be more scarce. And without the extra step of a ZBA hearing, some citizens feel the power of civic associations could be diminished.

Neighborhood groups will now have to register with the ZBA as Registered Community Organizations, and developers will need to to notify RCOs if they want to use a property – but only in a “way that is not allowed by right.”

Brey highlights the main concern neighborhood groups have about the new code weakening the community’s voice:

Lorna Katz, chair of the Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee with the Society Hill Civic Association, said that the “one size fits all approach” to zoning that the ZCC has employed will be a detriment to community character.

“The [neighborhood’s] role will be diminished from the past role,” Katz wrote in an email. “In the case of Society Hill I feel that is an inappropriate reduction when I review long-term the relationship between community and development interests in our neighborhood.” [Matt] Ruben of [Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association] echoed that concern. He said that even though community input is going to be a mandatory part of development under the new code, the strength of the input will be less. He worries that neighborhood associations will be reduced to the status of individuals giving brief testimony at ZBA hearings.

Brey also notes that “even with more by-right development, [two neighborhood group leaders] feel that the new zoning code is good for the city and its neighborhoods. ‘What people want to build and what the land is zoned for is going to be much more in line.’”

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