Philly’s New Zoning Ordinance: Pretty Decent

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I think retaining the mandatory minimum parking requirements for development in walkable areas of the city is pretty awful, and putting height limits on waterfront buildings is also a bad idea, but Inga Saffron seems persuaded that one of the worst parts of the old Philly zoning ordinance is fixed:

Under the new rules, more high-rises can be built in Center City’s commercial district and the waterfront by right – that is, without a variance. The trade-off is that “it will be harder to get a variance” to build such projects elsewhere, says Greg Pastore, a neighborhood activist who served on the Zoning Code Commission.

The variance issue is what persuaded former Councilman Frank DiCicco to get the project off the ground, back in 2007.

Variances are supposed to be an exception to the rules, granted only rarely. Because the previous code was so outmoded, the Zoning Board of Adjustment had gotten in the habit of handing out variances almost at whim, even when a project deviated dramatically from the neighborhood context. The haphazard process invited abuse from powerful gatekeepers, most of them Council members. It often seemed you only needed to make a campaign contribution to obtain a variance in Philadelphia.

Despite benefits for those who knew how to work the system, many developers were still eager to end the charade and the long, costly legal battles with neighborhood groups. They maintained that Philadelphia would never be able to compete with other big cities for residents and jobs until its development process became “predictable.” People use the word reform too loosely, but that’s exactly what the new code promises.

One of my goals here on the blog is to persuade you that metro-level economic policies are a matter of importance to state government.

78% of PA’s economic GDP comes from the top 5 biggest metros. If those economies start growing faster, then the state gets more money to fund your your favorite programs, or lower tax rates, or whatever your priorities may be.

It’s important for the state to focus its economic development spending on improving the performance of its largest economies, but it’s also really important for local governments in these metros to pass pro-growth economic policies on the issues that they control – namely land use and tax policy.

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