The Nutter-era zoning code can’t claim all the credit for Philadelphia’s long-running housing boom, but it has certainly played an outsize role over the last eight years. Thanks to the changes adopted in 2011, developers have been able to build the kind of big, roomy houses that Americans love without having to beg the zoning board for permission. The new rules paved the way for more apartments and duplexes, which offer a less expensive alternative to those single-family townhouses. And the code slashed parking requirements, making the sidewalks friendlier and safer for pedestrians.
The transformation has been nothing short of mind-blowing. Sleepy, unchanging neighborhoods now glisten with blocks of slick modern rowhouses. Stores and restaurants have revived several depressed shopping streets. Tax revenue is way up. So are jobs. The city’s population continues to grow.
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But one person’s growth is another’s gentrification. There is little doubt that Philadelphia’s relentless housing boom (fueled by the 10-year property tax abatement) has run roughshod over some neighborhoods, destroying cherished architecture, driving up prices, and pushing out the poor and elderly. The Jewelers Row debacle is partially attributable to the city’s decision to allow much larger buildings on that cozy, quirky, human-scaled stretch of Sansom Street.
Last week, he introduced two bills that could ultimately roll back the core tenets of the 2011 zoning code. To cut to the chase, Clarke wants less density and more parking.
The more significant of Clarke’s bills would create a Council-controlled commission to review and update the zoning code.
Eight years in, it is not unreasonable to take stock of what works and what doesn’t in the 2011 rulebook. Clarke told me in an interview that every interest group will have a seat on the commission — residents, developers, professionals — and that the commission’s recommendations will be vetted by city planners.
None of that is likely to mollify Philadelphia’s hardcore urbanists. They fear that Clarke, who once boasted that he drives everywhere — even to the corner store — is determined to impose a suburban vision on Philadelphia. At a time when American cities are dumping single-family zoning and eliminating parking requirements, in response to an affordability crisis, his views run counter to what is considered the progressive, equitable approach to urban planning.
Still, there is something in Clarke’s proposal that captures the deep unease in our municipal soul over the warp-speed changes. The 2011 zoning code has been much more generous to developers and private interests than to the overall public good. Construction quality is so poor — even for so-called luxury housing — that it often seems like we are building the slums of tomorrow.
This is especially evident around Temple University in Clarke’s North Philadelphia district, where schlocky student apartments are threatening to wipe out what remains of a storied African American neighborhood. Instead of the family-oriented rowhouses that have helped reinvigorate places like Fishtown and Hawthorne, North Philadelphia has been turned into a de facto extension of the Temple campus. What’s happening is far worse than gentrification; it’s dorm-ification.
It would be one thing if developers were erecting real apartments that were attractive to students and non-students alike and that helped diversify the housing stock. But the new construction is the worst of all worlds: rowhouse-size buildings packed with three or four apartments. They’re too small to provide the economies of scale necessary for good maintenance. Developers like them because they don’t need to provide parking — thanks to the 2011 code. The same unfortunate housing type is popping up around Penn and Drexel.
The triplex model is increasingly encroaching on stable blocks where home ownership has been the norm. Talmadge Belo, who has lived on the 2400 block of Sharswood Street since 1966, told me that three homes on his block were just converted in the last year, and another is under construction. “It’s turning this into a transient area,” he complained. “I can’t get anyone to help sweep the block or paint the curbs.”
As a companion to his proposal for a zoning code commission, Clarke has introduced a second bill that would forbid the zoning board from granting variances for such conversions in his North Philadelphia district.
Though well-intentioned, the measure is probably illegal, said Matt Ruben, the longtime president of the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. A better approach would be to change the neighborhood’s zoning to single-family townhouses, he said.
Clarke’s main grievance is really with the zoning board. The five-member board, led by former Councilman Frank DiCicco, seems to have gone rogue. It hands out variances like candy at Halloween, issuing verdicts that run counter to the deeply researched policy goals established by the city planning commission. “There’s no clear hardship,” Clarke complained.
The zoning board’s behavior is also at odds with the promises made during the negotiations that produced the 2011 code. In exchange for streamlining the process to make it easier for developers to get building permits, the public was told that the zoning board would take a tough stance on future variances and would award them only in extreme cases.
In fact, the zoning board is giving out more variances today than it did before, according to the planning commission’s recent evaluation of the 2011 code. That evaluation found that the zoning board approves 92 percent of all variance requests, up from 89 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, because of the more liberal code, developers now skip the process entirely in 72 percent of the projects, up from 67 percent. It’s been a win-win for developers and lose-lose for the public.
Still, Philadelphia doesn’t need a special commission to fix the zoning board. Mayor Jim Kenney could solve the problem in an instant by appointing new members and giving them clear instructions to adhere to planning commission policies.
The real problem with the 2011 code is the planning commission’s lack of authority, a problem that goes back to the 1951 Home Rule Charter. Because the planning commission is advisory under the charter, the new Civic Design Review board is merely a paper tiger. It can complain about proposed architectural designs, but it can’t force developers to go back to the drawing board.
Under the 2011 code, the planning commission ceded what little authority it had to neighborhood groups, now called Registered Community Organizations. In most cities, the planning agency negotiates the details of big projects, like the 2,000-unit apartment complex that developer Jeff Kozero wants to build on the Delaware Waterfront. Here, it was the Pennsport Civic Association that had to do the work. Having inexperienced volunteers go mano-a-mano with canny, well-funded developers is a recipe for disaster.
Clarke’s bill to create a new zoning commission was to come up Thursday in Council. Even if it passes, it will only nip around the edges of the problem. It might even do more harm than good if its members indulge parochial instincts and try to limit apartment buildings and increase parking requirements.