Last week, a bill quietly passed through Philadelphia City Council’s Rules Committee, making subtle alterations to the city’s reformed zoning code, implemented in August. The proposed changes threaten to roll back policies meant to encourage density and discourage auto-centric development.
The legislation will now go into readings before the Council, with a final vote to be held in the coming weeks.
The bill, introduced by Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill, primarily focuses on what are called RM-1 or RSA-5 districts — encompassing virtually all of the dense rowhome blocks that typify older sections of Philadelphia. Initially, the language in the bill required on-site parking for any such structure that is divided into more than three units, but protests from the Planning Commission reportedly pushed that number up to four units.
The original version of the code put on the books in August had no parking requirements, a change that, if upheld, could drastically reshape development patterns by allowing new structures to be built without garages or unsightly surface lots.
Another change included in the O’Neill’s bill reverts the minimum size of a housing unit back to 480 square feet for the first 1,440 square feet of a structure. The reformed zoning code allows for units as small as 360 square feet in order to allow for Philly’s many small rowhome lots — which average around 800 square feet in some older neighborhoods — to host multiple housing units. The hope is that by allowing more units to develop out of existing stock, pressure on the housing market would reduce and more affordable units would be created.
The Planning Commission has already spoken out against the proposed bill — albeit through the somewhat anonymous medium of its staff blog, Philadelphia Planeto.
The proposed parking requirements and decreased density represents “a reversal of one of the most fundamental improvements to the zoning code so early in this supposed age of reform that we don’t have a significant sample of projects to say anything definitive about how great or disastrous the new rules
are were,” a Planning Commission blogger opined.
Outside of City Hall, too, the Council’s move has stoked fears that the Nutter administration’s efforts to encourage denser and less car-centric growth in Philadelphia will be stymied.
Harris Steinberg, executive director of the design advocacy group PennPraxis, said the new proposal was “all about the car,” adding that the fact that they were the first changes since the implementation of the new code was troubling.
“It sets the wrong precedent for Council to be monkeying with the code so soon after adoption,” he said.
Steinburg said that his group, like the Planning Commission, recommended a grace period to collect data before arbitrarily modifying aspects of the code. He believes the changes erode a key element of the new code, which was to circumvent so-called “councilmanic prerogative”, an unspoken rule in Philadelphia that council members have the ultimate say over any project in their district that goes before the zoning board.
“I would recommend that council… resist the urge to do what it’s consistently done for the last 40 or 50 years, which is continually add amendments and overlays until the code is ultimately obsolete before we know it because everyone is going for zoning variances,” he said.
Eva Gladstein, deputy executive director of the Planning Commission, conceded that the Council had a prerogative to update the zoning code as needed, but said her department was also concerned with making modifications to a zoning code that is only a few months old.
“We would have preferred that if Council had this concern, either we would have been involved earlier in the discussion or that the administration could have monitored the effects of the zoning code for one year before presenting recommendations,” she said, noting that few metrics exist to shape revisions to the code at this point.
Gladstein shied away from directly criticizing the Council’s modifications, but said, “We [the Planning Commission] were satisfied with the zoning code the way it was when it went into effect in August.”
Another piece of the commission’s new code seeks to reduce the number of variances required to build in Philadelphia. Variances are special permits issued by the Zoning Board of Adjustment that allow for certain violations of the zoning code after a review of the project’s larger impacts by an appointed committee. The previous iteration of the code was so outdated that some modern construction practices were enough to trigger zoning review hearings for mundane projects, costing developers (and the city) time and money, but affording local council members the opportunity to weigh in.
Gladstein said the bill’s proposed changes could set Philadelphia back on the path back to when the city issued more variances than nearly any other big city in America because of unrealistic demands in the zoning code.
“There are many instances in rowhome neighborhoods where you simply cannot provide parking by right because of factors like narrow lot lines,” she said. “We thought these changes would send too many cases to the zoning board.”
Gladstein also noted that lack of a parking requirement in the original code was intentional, as on-site parking, which often manifests itself as a front-loading garage, actually diminishes the supply of public parking spaces.
Although O’Neill introduced the bill, representatives from his office said he did so on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, whose staff actually crafted the legislation. In an email, Clarke’s office defended the proposal. A spokeswoman for the councilmember said the bill in question was drafted in response to residents in neighborhoods like Fishtown, Fairmount and the Temple University area, who reportedly complained about hard-to-find parking and students taking parking spots.
Specifically cited was a 40-unit proposal by developers Harman Deutsch, which contained no on-site parking. The idea behind the bill was to prevent developers from pushing a “cost” — in this case the burden of parking — onto residents. The final version of the bill was supposed to be a compromise between resident and developer concerns.
Clarke’s office said that the new zoning code was passed with the understanding that changes would be made on a rolling basis and that there was not a concrete timeline in place that would delay modifications. They also asserted that the Planning Commission itself had recommended a 3-1 parking ratio.
Ryan Briggs is an investigative reporter based in Philadelphia. He has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia Magazine and Hidden City.