Inga Saffron, The Inquirer's architecture critic, writes about architecture, design and planning issues. She was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. Her popular column, "Changing Skyline", has been appearing on Fridays in the paper’s Home & Design section since 1999. In 2012, she completed a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
It was already starting to rain when Councilman Mark Squilla’s turn came to speak at Saturday’s March for Science, but he didn’t let a simple downpour deter him. He urged the soggy Earth Day crowd at Penn’s Landing to support environmental causes, especially legislation aimed at curbing climate change.
The speech was just what you would expect to hear at such an event, a standard, centrist commitment to sustainability. If only Squilla practiced the modest agenda that he preached.
Since the beginning of April, Squilla has pushed through two separate bills that compromise the city’s ability to cut its carbon use and contain flooding from precisely the kind of heavy weather he was personally experiencing. One of Squilla’s measures exempts Society Hill from having to comply with a zoning incentive designed to encourage the construction of rain-absorbing green roofs. The other undercuts the ability of electric-car owners to access their home charging stations.
On their own, these two bills won’t cause the melting ice caps to suddenly flood Philadelphia. But their passage sends an unfortunate message about the city’s priorities and opens the door for other Council members to nibble away at Philadelphia’s green agenda. If we are serious about doing our part to save the planet, we can’t keep paring back our already modest environmental to-do list.
What makes Squilla’s legislation especially disappointing is that he is generally supportive of sustainability issues. Two years ago, he won plaudits from Philadelphia environmental groups for sponsoring a bill that discourages the use of plastic shopping bags. In an interview, he professed to be a proponent of electric cars and argued that his recent bill would spur the city to develop a broader network of publicly accessible charging stations.
And yet, like so many members of Council, he is only too willing to compromise his values and pander to constituents who believe they should be excused from the rules that govern the rest of the city. Squilla was able to win passage for Society Hill’s green-roof exemption thanks to the pernicious Philadelphia tradition called councilmanic prerogative, which guarantees that fellow legislators will never challenge a measure affecting another Council member’s district.
Kenney came up with the policy initiative at a time when the electric-car market was still in its infancy. The vehicles were enormously expensive and their batteries needed to be constantly charged. Recognizing that the technology would take time to evolve, Kenney crafted the program to encourage early adopters. The program guaranteed electric-car owners a dedicated parking space in front of their homes in exchange for their spending huge sums to buy the vehicles and install curbside chargers.
But in parking-crazed Philadelphia, people resented the perk. The loudest outrage came from Society Hill, where there are ten spaces dedicated to electric cars.
Squilla responded to their parochial concerns with a bill that wrecks the program for the whole city. His bill makes it harder for the city’s band of 56 electric-car owners to access their dedicated chargers during the day -- chargers that they paid for with their own money at the urging of the city. In defense of Squilla’s bill, some have argued that the electric-vehicle owners were usurping a public resource. But if that were the real issue, wouldn’t it have been more productive to outlaw garage-fronted rowhouses, whose driveways have gobbled up thousands of public spaces, asked Anna Shipp, head of the Sustainable Business Network.
As disturbing as the electric-car bill is, Squilla’s measure on green roofs is even more regressive.
INGA SAFFRON / Staff
The Friends Center at 15th and Arch Streets installed a green roof over its office building.
Like many older cities, Philadelphia is stuck with an antiquated sewer system that has trouble handling big rainstorms. To keep the overburdened pipes from discharging untreated water into the city’s rivers, the Philadelphia Water Department encourages people to install green roofs. The vegetation acts as giant sponges, slowing the flow of rainwater into city drains. These mini-meadows have the added benefit of reducing the amount of heat reflected into the atmosphere. So substantial are the environmental benefits that cities around the world have been looking for ways to turn their rooftops green.
It was a generous deal, but like the electric-car program, it has gotten off to a slow start. Only 26 developers have sought the zoning bonus so far. But as costs come down, the hope is that builders will make green roofs a regular feature.
Squilla’s bill undermines that goal to appease density-averse Society Hill. The neighborhood civic association has been fighting a developer's proposal for a five-story apartment building on the site of the Acme supermarket, claiming it is too tall. The developer had initially planned to take advantage of the green-roof zoning bonus to increase the number of units. Although he later abandoned the incentive, the civic association asked Squilla to outlaw the zoning bonus within the neighborhood limits as a tactic deter other projects.
The decision was driven by a discomfort with density, and Squilla was happy to indulge residents with what is known in the zoning world as a “carve-out.” Unlike the electric-car bill, he didn’t kill the green-roof incentive for the whole city, just Society Hill. (The bill would also eliminate the zoning bonus for including a grocery store, but, again, only in Society Hill.) Squilla conceded that the carve-out wasn't the best approach but said he was responding "to residents who are concerned about preserving the character of the neighborhood."
It’s not just the environment that is harmed by Squilla’s Society Hill pandering. The city spent years reforming its zoning code to purge it of special provisions like this. “We hate carve-outs,” planning director Gary Jastrzab told me. “The new code was created to establish a uniform set of rules that everyone would live by.” If other Council members take Squilla’s approach, Philadelphia would end up with 10 zoning codes, one for each district.
With green roofs and electric cars, a reasonable argument can be made that the programs need to be updated. So, update the rules, then introduce bills to revise the programs. The mayor is so concerned about the city’s electric-car program falling apart that he has asked the Office of Sustainability to come up with new rules within a year, director Christine Knapp told me. His goal is to reduce the city’s carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Squilla’s actions suggest green initiatives are fine in Philadelphia so long as they don’t inconvenience anyone. But when Philadelphia starts to feel the impact of climate change -- excessive heat and more frequent flooding -- it’s going to be a lot more of a problem than Society Hill’s petty concerns about parking and five-story buildings.
Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the number parking spaces in Society Hill devoted electric cars. The total is ten.