Philadelphia City Council already tinkering with massive zoning overhaul
November 8, 2012By Holly Otterbein
I have one business model in place, ready to go, based on the existing zoning code. Now that's in question.
—developer Nick Pizzola
Most developers wish that they didn't have to get approvals from anybody. I have to be responsive to the needs of the residents. They don't have enough parking.
—City Council President Darrell Clarke
In August, when Philadelphia got a shiny, new zoning code, developer Nick Pizzola saw an opportunity. Believing that the city's building requirements would be more predictable under the code, he bought land in Port Richmond and made plans to build 10 apartments.
"I have an opportunity to grow my business," says Pizzola. "For the community, it's an opportunity for them to have new housing that's affordable. It's a win-win."
But the project is in jeopardy, Pizzola says, because of a controversial bill introduced by Councilman Brian O'Neill on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke.
Clarke says his proposal would attack a serious problem: the shortage of parking spaces in neighborhoods including Fishtown and Fairmount. Critics argue that it's too soon to change the new zoning code and that it was revamped for the first time in 50 years to keep projects from needlessly stalling.
"I have one business model in place, ready to go, based on the existing zoning code," says Pizzola. "Now that's in question."
Clarke's bill, which got committee-level approval last week, would require that developers provide parking in some residential and mixed-use areas where they currently don't have to, and would change certain lot sizes.
Clarke says he's pro-development but has to weigh the needs of builders with those of residents.
"Most developers wish that they didn't have to get approvals from anybody," says Clarke. "I have to be responsive to the needs of the residents. They don't have enough parking."
If Clarke's bill passes, it would be the first change in the city's new zoning code since it went into effect. Philadelphia spent four years and nearly $2 million to adjust the rules that govern development in Philadelphia.
Council has proposed other zoning changes recently, but Clarke's idea has taken the most heat.
"This does not bode well," says Harris Steinberg, executive director of nonprofit design group PennPraxis. "Council had their fingers in the old zoning code so deep that nothing could get done, and that's one of the reasons why we had to have a new code."
The city's Planning Commission recommended that Council approve Clarke's bill with a few amendments. However, the commission's staff — which gives information to the commissioners — was so upset about Council's various zoning proposals that it wrote a sarcastic blog post on its site, philadelphiaplaneto.com.
"Thank goodness everyone's taking the time to really let the new zoning code sink in," the post reads. "Except unfortunately that isn't the case. No, that's not what's happening at all."
Eva Gladstein, deputy executive director of the Planning Commission, won't say which staff member penned the screed, but echoes the staff's complaints.
"Councilman Clarke is trying to address a real issue," says Gladstein. "We were hoping, just in general, to have more time to be able to review the impacts of the code before suggesting changes."
Clarke says the Planning Commission initially brought parking issues to his attention.
"They were keenly aware of this issue," says Clarke. "Then, allegedly, someone who happens to be a staffer whose name has not been attributed to the blog makes a statement. It kind of makes it difficult to respond to."
Gladstein says that the Planning Commission staff is in talks with Clarke's office and that "further refinements to the legislation may be forthcoming."