Six months after the head of Philadelphia’s zoning board was caught in an FBI investigation involving electricians union leader John Dougherty and forced to resign, Mayor Kenney is considering naming another well-known South Philadelphia figure to lead the powerful development agency: former City Councilman Frank DiCicco.
Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the Zoning Board of Adjustment, confirmed that DiCicco, who retired from Council in 2011, is one of several people now under consideration for the job. She declined to name the other candidates, but said the mayor will make a choice in about a month.
DiCicco, 71, would bring a deep understanding of the zoning process to the job, she noted. Not only did he spend 16 years representing the First Council District, which includes the booming neighborhoods of Queen Village, Northern Liberties and Fishtown, he was instrumental in creating the commission that modernized the city’s zoning code in 2012.
At the same time, DiCicco would have to step carefully to avoid conflicts of interest. Since leaving council, DiCicco has established himself as a lobbyist and now counts several high-profile developers and billboard companies among his clients, including Catalyst Outdoor. Nothing in Philadelphia law would prevent him from continuing his consulting work, but DiCicco would have to recuse himself in cases involving his clients.
Before choosing the next zoning chairman, Guss said, the administration plans to vet the candidates with the city's Board of Ethics. “The appointment would happen only if it could be done in a way that is appropriate,” she said.
DiCicco did not respond to requests for comment.
If selected, DiCicco would replace James Moylan, who ran the Pennsport Civic Association for many years and is a close friend of Dougherty. Moylan, a chiropractor, was forced to resign from the zoning post last September after his home and office were raided by FBI agents investigating Dougherty, who runs Local 98 of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and is deeply involved in city politics.
Because so many building projects in Philadelphia require zoning variances to go forward, the board wields tremendous influence, deciding the fate of everything from roof-deck additions to high-rise towers.
During Moylan’s short tenure, the zoning board became known for taking a strong pro-developer stance, and approving most of the variance requests it heard.
When the new zoning code was adopted, city officials promised that it would greatly reduce the need for variances by clarifying what could be built outright, without special permits. Yet according to data compiled by Matt Karp, who heads the Fishtown Neighborhood Association’s zoning committee, the board approved 82 percent of the requested variances in 2016.
In addition to Catalyst Outdoor, DiCicco’s lobbying firm represents the Goldenberg Group, which has built several high-rise apartment buildings around the city. Two years ago, he helped Catalyst’s Thaddeus Bartkowski obtain a special City Council bill allowing him to install three-story-high digital billboards on several key corners in Center City.
Despite DiCicco’s work on behalf of such clients, several neighborhood activists said they were pleased to hear he might lead the zoning board.
“I think Frank would strive as consciously as anyone for a balance between being pro-neighborhood and pro-developer,” said Matt Ruben, president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. “He’s politically experienced, and understand how the city works.”
Karp agreed that DiCicco was a strong choice, but also argued that the zoning board could use a representative from a civic association. Right now, the five-person board has a strong union tilt, with Confesor Plaza, a field representative with the Laborers’ Union Local 57, and Anthony Gallagher, business manager of Steamfitters Local 420. The other two members are architect Thomas Holloman and longtime board member Carol Tinari, wife of prominent defense lawyer Nino Tinari.
“The part about Frank DiCicco that makes him a really good candidate is that he’s represented community for decades, and he knows how to pay attention to constituents,” Guss said. “He will be a voice for community.”