Changing Skyline: Philadelphia City Council seeks to tinker with new zoning code after only two months

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Hurricane Irene's force was felt acutely along the riverfront in Manayunk.

The underlying narrative of the Nutter years has been the clash between Old Philadelphia and New Philadelphia. Old Philadelphia wants to keep decision-making within a tight group of insiders and parcel out changes like packs of fun-size Halloween candy. New Philadelphia likes to cast a wider net and crowd-source big ideas. It can hardly wait for this gritty manufacturing town to be remade.

The new zoning code is the creation of New Philadelphia, and it borrows liberally from the latest urban thinking: It favors density and transit while discouraging parking. It treats public access to the waterfront as a basic right and seeks to protect fragile river systems from rising seas. At the same time, the new code is strongly prodevelopment because it makes it easier to get permits over the counter.

Old Philadelphia, in the form of City Council, acquiesced earlier this year to New Philadelphia and approved the new zoning code, progressive agenda and all. But it was never happy about it. And now, barely two months after the code went into effect, Council is looking to meddle.

There are three separate bills to amend the code making their way through Council. On their face, the proposals appear to be technical adjustments, mere tweaks to improve flawed language.

Don't be fooled: Council's changes are aimed squarely at checking the urbanist agenda that New Philadelphia has been pursuing. Council's intervention would compromise city plans for waterfront recreation paths, make it harder to contain Philadelphia's insatiable appetite for parking, and, worst of all, sabotage the effort to simplify the development process - which was the whole point of rewriting the zoning code.

In the last few years, we've experienced what might be called the "Brooklynization" of Philadelphia, especially in the rowhouse neighborhoods fanning out from Center City. As a tide of post-college-age residents has swept in - call them gentrifiers if you want - the administration has responded by embracing everything this demographic loves: parks, waterfront trails, bike lanes, farmer's markets, outdoor cafes, live-work housing. Even as the nation's housing industry struggles to get back on its feet, multistory apartments are rising around Philadelphia.

It's a mistake, however, to assume such changes are universally welcome. Density remains a dirty word in many parts of Philadelphia, City Council included.

Listen to Council President Darrell L. Clarke: "I don't agree with the notion that we should increase density," he told me this week in an interview. "We have 60,000 acres of vacant land in this city and we should be spreading people around."

That view, which runs counter to the conventional wisdom about rebuilding cities, helps explain why Clarke wants to amend the zoning code. His bill, which was introduced by Councilman Brian O'Neill because the council president can't sponsor legislation, is aimed at preventing developers from dividing rowhouses into small apartment houses. Even with three or four units, they help add density, making Philadelphia a livelier place.

The new code allowed such conversions "by right" - that is, without having to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance - and eliminated the need to provide dedicated parking for tenants. In many Philadelphia neighborhoods, the absence of on-site parking is practically grounds for revolution.

It's no coincidence the neighborhood that has taken the brunt of such conversions is Temple University, Clarke's home turf. After getting an earful from constituents there, and in Fairmount, Spring Garden, and Fishtown, Clarke says he decided to amend the code to restrict small apartment houses. Landlords would be allowed to divide rowhouses into only two rental units, and they would have to provide at least one space for the pair in the Temple area.

That sounds like a modest change, but city planner Eva Gladstein says it could have unintended consequences. Philadelphia has been struggling to stop the scourge of garage-fronted rowhouses. But if developers are required to provide a parking space for a two-unit building, they're likely to gouge out a garage on the ground floor. Not very nice for the neighborhood.

Of course, developers could apply for variances to avoid the changes. But that would take time and money. Just like the old days.

The thing is, Clarke is perfectly right to be concerned about a surge in student apartments around Temple. Even if it means less density, there are good reasons to protect areas with a critical mass of single-family housing in university neighborhoods to keep them from being overwhelmed by noisy, party-happy students. But changing the zoning code for the entire city is like using a cleaver to mince garlic. Better to strengthen the city's nuisance laws.

A second measure, proposed by Councilmen Bill Green and Bobby Henon, is even more inexplicable. For months, they have been messing with the rules governing how far buildings should be set back from riverfront edges.

The zoning code commission spent months debating the issue, finally fixing the setback at 50 feet. The commission agreed preserving a natural edge along waterways would help the city absorb the kind of damaging flooding we saw last week during Hurricane Sandy - or in Irene last year. At 50 feet, the buffer would also be wide enough to support a recreation trail along the Schuylkill and the Delaware River.

But if the two councilmen get their way, that buffer would be reduced in some places to as little as 10 feet. Green says he just wants to grandfather in structures that are already within the buffer area. It's only fair, he adds, that existing structures should be allowed to expand.

Chris Crockett, a specialist at the Philadelphia Water Department, says building so close to the water could have serious consequences. Nearly 29 percent of the city's riverfront property already has buildings within the 50-foot buffer, he says. Why make them permanent? "You wouldn't build next to a volcano, so why would you build next to a river that floods?" he argues.

A third bill, proposed by Jannie Blackwell, gums up the works in a different way. It would give Council power to set up negotiations between developers and neighborhood groups. Though her proposed change springs from a well-intentioned desire to empower residents, it's so open-ended planners fear it could scare developers away.

There's a bigger issue. Philadelphia's zoning code commission spent four grueling years haggling over the zoning code, and the new code is the product of informed, reasoned compromise. The meetings were open to the public. Because Green and Clarke had seats on the commission, they had opportunities to offer input. And because the commissioners knew the code wouldn't be perfect, they included a review clause that will be triggered a year after the code's start date. Why not wait to see how the code functions?

Writing the new code was done in the transparent style that New Philadelphia values. But it looks like amending the code will be done the same old way.

 


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.