Today is Election Day, which means that all of you are presumably going to rush to the polls to vote on our presumably neck-and-neck mayor’s race. Will it be Michael or Al, Democrat or Republican?
Only time will tell, but let’s assume for some reason that Michael Nutter will not squander his 90-point lead and officially become mayor by this evening. While pondering this, I wondered, how future-Mayor Nutter could best confront the daunting task of revolutionizing urban development in Philadelphia?
Harris Steinberg is the executive director of PennPraxis, a major planning and design group from the University of Pennsylvania. PennPraxis has been at the forefront of the movement for planning reform in Philadelphia – and came up with the waterfront design I profiled in last week’s column.
Steinberg underlined a need for change in the culture of development in our city, starting with a complete overhaul of the zoning process.
“The codes are ancient and include provisions for land uses from the 1950s,” Steinberg said. “The way things are structured now, both the City Council and the Zoning Board of Adjustments have become de facto planning commissions.”
What Steinberg is referring to is the complex process of building in Philadelphia that arises from our outdated zoning codes. Because virtually every modern building violates these ancient zoning codes in some newfangled way, almost every builder must either get the permission of City Council or petition the Board of Adjustments for a special construction permit – called a zoning variance.
A CORRUPT SYSTEM
This process renders the point of having zoning regulations meaningless because existing zoning codes are being constantly undermined by City Council, a body with no implicit expertise with planning matters.
On the other hand, there is the Zoning Board of Adjustments, the agency that has final approval over almost every building proposal in the city, especially if the builder didn’t have the pull to go through council. The Board reviews every project that must file for a variance, of which there are many. Because almost every builder needs a variance to work through our obsolete zoning regulations, the Zoning Board Chairman has gained an undue amount of power, with the ability to stall or rush through virtually any project that comes under his eye for whatever reason he wants.
Of course, Zoning leadership is handpicked by the mayor and is currently chaired by political insider David Auspitz, a former deli owner whose relevant experience includes operating the Famous 4th Street Cookie Co., an upscale cookie factory. I genuinely hope that I need not elaborate on why it’s bad to have a cookie maker with ties to the city’s political machine acting as gatekeeper to all future development in Philadelphia.
CHANCE FOR REFORM
Absent from this whole mess is the actual City Planning Commission, who are ostensibly the only people that should be laying out future plans for our city. The hope is that the Commission is currently involved in an overhaul of the zoning codes with a specially created body called the Zoning Reform Commission.
This sounds fine, but the Commission includes none other than Auspitz and three City Councilpersons.
This is an important juncture for planning in Philadelphia. Strong guidance from our future mayor will mean the difference between a progressive zoning code and staying mired in the politics and bureaucracy we have struggled with for all too long.
Ryan Briggs can be reached at email@example.com.