City Council, Fishtown Residents Square Off Over New Zoning Code

By Hayden Mitman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 28, 2012

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Since 1962, Philadelphia has followed the same zoning code to guide construction of development projects throughout the city. That changed in late August, when the city finally adopted a new code that streamlines development by requiring less time and money getting variances approved for every project. 

Yet some City Council members have already introduced bills that would alter the code, and residents worry Council’s interference would undo much of the streamlining the new code was intended to create. One bill in particular, introduced by Councilman Brian O’Neill on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, would introduce minimum requirements for parking spots—at a rate of three spots for every 10 residential units—in many areas in the city. The new code had removed these minimums all together. 

In response to residents’ complaints about the possibility of having little to no parking in their neighborhoods, Council Bill 120656 was changed: While parking minimums will be still be required, they will be necessary only if a residential property has more than six units. (Councilman Mark Squilla has called the changes “a good compromise.”)

As a rapidly growing neighborhood with many development projects in the works—multimillionaire casino owner Steve Wynn has even proposed a new casino there—Fishtown could be greatly impacted by the parking plan. PW sat down with the chair of the Fishtown Neighbors Association’s zoning committee, Matt Karp; committee members Tim Potens and Matt Pappajohn; and Henry Pyatt, commercial corridor manager for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

Why would this bill have a drastic impact on the community if it had passed in its original form?

Tim Potens: The thing is that it’s not just new buildings on empty lots. It’s every time you modify your existing structure, you’d need a variance. And, since 95 percent of this neighborhood has zoning that doesn’t match what exists, every time you go to zoning, you’d need a variance.

Matt Karp: The idea was to streamline the way the new code works. We’ve spent so much time going through simple projects and all the malfunctions of the old zoning code, we don’t want to bring those back with the new one.

Karp: The worst would be [building] “by right.” If a building needs parking, [developers] can build by right. Then, there’s a driveway on Frankford Avenue.

So, as the bill was originally worded, there could have been hundreds of new parking spots required throughout the neighborhood to allow residential developments to meet code?

Karp: Right, because of the three-to-ten ratio. If you were going to modify one of those [small residential developments] or build a new one, even if you only have three units, you’d need a parking space.

Potens: When they reformed the code, they got rid of all the parking requirements for these types of lots, since they are small lots and wouldn’t usually have space for it, and now they are adding them back in.

So, locals would rather park on the street or in nearby shared lots than have developers create private garages and curb cuts that would remove on-street spots?

Karp: The community is always going to be upset about parking. But, yeah, the community does lean toward communal parking.

Is there a feeling that it’s too early to start tinkering with the new code as it has only been in place for three months?

Karp: Sure. We are just now seeing things analyzed under the new code. So, while it’s been in place for two months, we are still dealing with variances under the old code.

Matt Pappajohn: It really shows a callous disregard for the community’s input and participation.

Henry Pyatt: It’s giving a nose job to your 6-month-old baby. That’s what we are doing here.
Potens: We don’t want more variances. We don’t want more meetings. We don’t want to have to hold people up for small things.

The bill will be discussed again 
in Council on Dec. 5.

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