Philly City Council Trying to Bring Back Everything Bad About the Old Zoning Process

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Read the Philly Planning Commission blog, Jared Brey, Chris Sawyer and Sandy Smith for the details, but here’s the quick take on what’s wrong with the zoning changes Philly City Council members want to make.

To understand the issue you need to know what “by-right” zoning means, and what a “variance” is.

“By-right” means that you don’t need to get political approval to build your building. If you follow the rules as laid out in the zoning ordinance, you can build your project “by right” without any hassle from neighbors or your City Council member.

If there’s some part of your project that varies from what the zoning ordinance says you can build on your land, then you need to apply for a “variance” from the city in order to go forward.

And the process for obtaining a variance is very political. That’s the veto point in the system. It’s where NIMBYs and City Council members can intervene and stop you from building your building.

The problem with the old zoning ordinance was sort of like the problem with the US tax code – over time City Council members crudded up the thing with so many amendments that it was too hard to understand. You needed to lawyer up to get anything built, because you basically needed a variance to do anything. This tilted the power toward anti-development NIMBY groups and corrupt politicians. Want that variance approved? Donate to my political campaign. You get the picture.

The whole point of reforming the zoning ordinance last year was to drastically reduce the need for variances – to depoliticize the process, eliminate red tape, and allow developers to do more things by-right.

What City Council members are trying to do with Bill No. 120774 is re-politicize the process. The amendments they are requesting will force developers who want to build some of the most common types of buildings to run through the political gauntlet, rather than building hassle-free like the zoning reform intended.

Everybody needs to back off, and test this new zoning ordinance out for a year or two as written before making any changes. The temptation to reinsert politics must be huge, given that inner city politics is mostly about competing to please NIMBYs, but council members really need to resist the urge to bring back the worst features of the old zoning regime.

Why does this matter for state and regional politics? Basically, if we want Philly (PA’s largest economy) to prospery, and if we want core cities like Philly to outcompete the exurbs on development and business and population growth in the future – which we should – then it needs to be less costly and more predictable to build buildings there. There need to be clear rules, and most development needs to be allowed by-right.

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