Anyone who knows the slightest bit about urban planning knows how fucked Philadelphia’s planning code is and, as a result, how fucked Philadelphia will be for the next 30+ years if nothing is done about it.
That is, everyone except for David Auspitz, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustments... who, conveniently, is in charge of giving out the all-important zoning adjustments to any (read most) new developments coming to Philadelphia.
(Note: It’s a very long article, so we’ve pulled out the most insightful passages. But if you have the time, you should definitely read the whole thing.)
Developmentally Disabled - As private developers flock to Philly, the need for centralized planning and a modern zoning code is greater than ever. […]It’s true. Levy is one of the few people in positions of influence in Philadelphia who recognizes good planning and actually practices what he preaches.
"Philadelphia needs to link planning with implementation."
But even the best-laid plans can't be executed until the city rewrites its zoning code. The last rewrite came in 1962, when planners cared more about cars than pedestrians, and no one had dreamed of luxury condos on the waterfront.
City Council has modified the code thousands of times since then—150 amendments passed last year alone. Now we have a 624-page zoning code that incorporates roughly 15 overlays and 31 residential zoning districts. (Chicago, with nearly double Philadelphia's population, has eight residential districts.)
"The zoning process is totally fragmented," says Levy. "It needs to be modernized. But first we need a large-scale master plan that doesn't sacrifice the neighborhoods."
[…] Barbara Kaplan, who served as executive director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission from 1983 until May 2000, says she quickly realized the Street administration saw little value in city planning.Again, the truf. Street, like Rendell before him, never saw much need for planning. Unfortunately, when you have a case of 'develop-mania,' as Philadelphia does, where developers dictate planning, you get a city built for cars and the rich people who drive them that will eventually crumble under the weight of its own superficiality. (Inga has been saying it for years. As has the Design Advocacy Group.)
"I knew I couldn't be effective," she says. "A lot of people left because they couldn't stand not having any power, and now the commission is chronically understaffed."
Her successor, Maxine Griffith, stuck it out for five years—long enough to collect her pension.
Gary Hack, dean of Penn's School of Design, resigned as chair of the commission in 2004, citing frustration with the outmoded zoning and preferential treatment for politically connected developers.
Though cranes jut across Philadelphia's skyline in every direction, no vision exists for what the city should look like in even five to 10 years, says Karen Black, a consultant who wrote a report on zoning reform for the BIA. "If we don't decide who we want to be, someone will do it for us."
[…] "A zoning code should make it easy to build projects you want and difficult to build what you don't want," consultant Karen Black says.There it is. The ZBA is evil. And it aint no joke.
Variances are meant to be granted only when a property's unique characteristics—a deep slope or an adjacent railroad track, for instance—make it impossible to develop. Proposals for controversial businesses, such as strip clubs, should also trigger the variance process, Black adds.
"But that's gone out the window," laments Barbara Kaplan, the city's former planning director. "If anyone with political clout can get an exception, what good is the code?"
She cites Thomas Jefferson Hospital's seven-story parking garage that was recently completed at 10th and Chestnut streets on what was once a vibrant mixed-use block. The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) granted the hospital seven variances, including ones for height, curb cuts and maximum vehicle capacity.
"We spent so much time testifying on the need for light and street life on Chestnut, and they gave it all away," Kaplan says, noting that it's no coincidence that Jeff is Center City's largest employer.
Some say the ZBA members have become de facto planners. For example, they now require all residential decks to be set back so you can't see them from the street. "And we said no more carry-out restaurants without eat-in tables," Auspitz says. "We want to create a sense of community."
If the ZBA is making these rules, the system is broken, asserts William P. Becker, an architect who chairs the Design Advocacy Group, a volunteer coalition that pushes for physical planning. When developers appear before a panel of mayoral appointees, "it brings political people into the process—people with no design expertise," Becker says.
But wait, to be fair, let’s give David Auspitz a chance to respond…
Auspitz takes issue with the characterizations. […]Ah. There’s the provincialism we’ve come to know so well. If it weren’t for folks like David Auspitz, we might forget we’re in Philadelphia.
Mayor Street's spokesperson Joe Grace counters that while the ZBA may not include planners or architects, it does have people with experience and knowledge about development.
Auspitz warns neighborhood groups to not be "fooled" by reform advocates.
"What we've got is a patchwork approach to zoning, but it's also the quilt that comforts and protects you from the cold," says Auspitz.
But, alas, that is indeed where we are.
So we're going to have to deal with it. And what better time to start than now.
Honestly, we really don’t think Philadelphia can afford to wait for the next mayor to give its zoning code and planning procedures a comprehensive gutting/overhaul.
Let's hope Mayor Street has a similar epiphany.
Philly Weekly: Seriously, we just wrote more than 4000 words and we were really just getting started… [PW]
Design Advocacy Group: This is beyond fucked… time to cut through the bullshit people (PDF) [DAG]