By Kiki Bolender

Today the City Council Rules Committee has the chance to reaffirm one of the best ideas in the new zoning code: registered community organizations, which give citizens a real seat at the table in the development process.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has introduced a bill that would gut these organizations. She argues that her proposal would give her constituents more say on what's built in their neighborhoods. But it would very likely have the opposite effect.

The bill would consolidate even more power over development decisions in the hands of district Council members. It would do so at the expense of the fine-grain local democracy of neighbors working with developers toward good design, which the new community organizations facilitate in an apolitical environment.

Specifically, the councilwoman's bill would:

Require individual notifications of neighbors, which would exhaust volunteer citizens and deter developers.

Assign district Council members to pick and choose among community organizations and decide whether they should meet jointly or separately with developers.

Modify the requirements for registering as a community organization so that closed, exclusive groups are on an equal footing with open, inclusive groups.

Make the new code's advisory Civic Design Review Committee unworkable by allowing district Council members to appoint as many local representatives as they want.

These changes would deeply politicize the new code's review process. They would make it harder for the people most affected by projects to inform and be heard by developers. And the worst aspects of the old zoning and development process would be enshrined in the new code.

Neighborhood inequity

Some sections of Philadelphia have benefited from organized civic groups for decades. They know how to work within the system to get their views heard; they may even have a few lawyers living in the neighborhood who help them out.

Too often, though, this is not the case in poorer neighborhoods. In places where people are holding down two jobs or working late shifts, it's much harder to establish a core group of volunteers to keep tabs on zoning applications. But it's vital that these citizens have a say in development decisions, too. And that's where registered community organizations come in.

So what does a group of people have to do to be recognized as such an organization? Simply identify the geographic boundaries of the area they represent, show evidence that they are open and democratic, provide a contact person and a means of reaching him or her, and renew and update the information annually.

What happens once such a group is registered? Any developer who has a project before the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the Civic Design Review Committee is required to set up a public meeting with the group to hear its views. Both the organization and the developer must document the meeting and send their minutes to the board or committee, which must seriously consider them. In addition, one representative of the local community organization acts as a voting member of the design committee for each project in the neighborhood.

Everyone still has the right to be heard at zoning hearings, and the same holds true for the new design committee. The registered community organizations simply add a new, strong, and respected local voice.

Resolving conflicts

In many neighborhoods, there will be more than one registered community organization. They may have different points of view, and there may be conflicts between people living next door to a proposed building and those living further away. When that happens, the idea is that the groups will work out their differences among themselves, not in front of developers.

Getting these groups talking to each other is part of the rationale for establishing them. They can help focus attention on the design of buildings and on minimizing any negative impact. Community groups can help people focus on zoning, which is just a way for people to live together in a city, steering them away from counterproductive conflicts and toward opportunities to improve their neighborhoods.

Registered community organizations can elevate building design while furthering democratic ideals at the most local level. And more democracy in communities will only help elected officials do their jobs. Council should reject this legislation and give these groups a chance to succeed.

Kiki Bolender is the principal of Bolender Architects, a founding faculty member of the Citizens Planning Institute, and the chair of the Design Advocacy Group. She can be reached at kiki@bolenderarchitects.com.