Destroy Councilmanic Zoning

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On the one hand, I’m glad to see that Darrell Clarke had the good sense not to subject all the city’s RM-1 zones to the zoning changes he wanted to make for just one part of his District. Parking minimums and minimum lot size rules are still terrible land use policies for a walkable city like Philly, but at least the damage they’ll do will be contained within a relatively small area.

On the other hand, the fact that this bill was passed mere weeks after the new zoning code went into effect bodes poorly for the rest of the process reforms in the code, and that is a huge problem.

I mean this sort of thing – one Councilman making piecemeal zoning changes to his District based purely on parochial neighborhood politics – is exactly how the old zoning code came to be so confusing over the years.

The people who don’t want the code to become confusing and politicized again will abide small change after small change like this one, reasoning like I did that “well, it’s just that one area, it won’t affect the rest of the city”, until eventually the code’s in its horrifying pre-2012 state again.

The point of rewriting the code wasn’t just deciding how the city should grow, it was also about creating a new process for all the various stakeholders to follow when they want to make changes. And the point of doing this was that the old way led to too much slapdash and short-sighted decision making that failed to consider the cumulative citywide effects of all these random downzonings and scotched projects.

The Councilmanic Prerogative policy on land use encourages precisely the opposite approach from what the new zoning code is trying to do. Whereas the new code pushes Council members and neighbors to act in the whole city’s interests instead of just narrow neighborhood interests, the whole idea of Councilmanic Prerogative is that nobody should think of the whole city’s interests.

To that way of thinking, development is only district business, not citywide business. But how fast the housing supply grows is absolutely citywide business!

I’m not so naive to think that scolding from political blogs is going to make Council members follow the new rules, but this is the challenge – now that you’ve got some better zoning policies, how do you force politicians to actually follow them? Everybody’s got an individual incentive to break the rules, so if there’s no binding process you’ll just have mass rule-breaking and the code will be meaningless. If the new zoning rules are going to stick, the political fight people need to pick is over process reforms.

Something along the lines of David Schleicher’s “zoning budget” is the best idea I’m aware of, where reductions in the zoning envelope in one place have to be matched 1:1 with increases in the zoning envelope someplace else.

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