Zoning Code Commission approves revamped city rule book

After four years of work and weeks of ironing out the sometimes sticky final details with City Council, the Zoning Code Commission Wednesday unanimously approved a huge reform of Philadelphia's antiquated rule book for building and development.

The new municipal zoning code - a relatively svelte 438-page document - now faces a hearing in the coming weeks and an up-or-down vote in Council.

The fate of the effort has been tenuous at times. Influential Council members, community groups, and special interests have raised fears and objections - a stew of issues capturing the street-level warfare that occurs every time someone tries to build a methadone clinic, nightclub, or other controversial use.

The code now headed to Council seems to have broad support after incorporating a number of concessions to those concerns.

"It appears everything we wanted accomplished was accomplished," said Councilman Brian J. O'Neill, who raised some of the most serious early protests.

After the commission meeting Wednesday - its 50th since voters created it four years ago - executive director Eva Gladstein predicted the code would be "a fair and usable document" that would help the city grow.

"Our zoning code has been a barrier to development," she said. "It's been a barrier . . . toward sustaining and maintaining the quality of life in neighborhoods, because it's 50 years old and doesn't address modern-day Philadelphia."

That's a sentiment shared by most city residents and outside developers who have tried to build anything in recent decades.

The code is so outdated that 40 percent of projects require a variance, a process that gives great weight to organized groups and politicians but makes for cumbersome and messy development.

The new code is meant to simplify the permitting process and create predictable rules for what can be built and where. That means less need for variances.

"It should make development easier to do," said Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who chaired the commission. "It should attract more outside investment, and it gives communities an organized method to have their input heard, understood, and felt."

Councilman Bill Green, who sat on the zoning commission, cautioned that "this is the beginning and shouldn't be trumpeted as the end."

He said the change won't spur significant development until the long process of remapping the city to conform to the code is completed.

In that process, some areas now zoned industrial - such as abandoned factory districts and stretches of the Delaware waterfront - can be changed to residential and commercial.

Only that "is going to cause the kind of impact everyone's talking about," Green said, calling the new code "a big baby step."

"It is not transformative," he said. "Remapping is transformative."

The city has been divided into 18 districts for remapping, which could take up to five years. Green has been advocating for more resources to shorten that time to two years "if we want to see any benefit in the Nutter administration."

Greenberger said remapping "is really going to look carefully at that kind of obsolete land use and fix it to modern expectations."

But he said the process takes time because the changes need to be made in consultation with the neighborhoods and communities.

The code won't go into effect until eight months after passage. A vote isn't likely until the Dec. 15 Council meeting.

That's also the final meeting for six outgoing members, including Frank DiCicco, a progenitor of zoning reform on Council.

Greenberger said the eight-month delay allows "everyone a chance to read and reread" the document, and gives the city time to train the personnel at the Department of Licenses and Inspections who must enforce the code.

The commission also adopted a Council idea to have several city departments, including L&I and Planning, produce a report one year after the changes go into effect.

"We have the opportunity to fix anything that we think is problematic by way of unintended consequences," Greenberger said.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or @troyjgraham on Twitter.