(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)
By Steve Williams
PHILADELPHIA — Community activists said they welcome a new law passed by City Council that expands the zoning board to seven members from five and mandates representation from community groups and certain professionals.
But they also say the devil is in the details.
The legislation was introduced by City Council President Darrell L. Clarke and passed unanimously by Council at its last session of 2021 in December. It requires that the Zoning Board of Adjustment include two members of neighborhood groups, an urban planner, an architect, a zoning attorney and a real estate finance expert. The appointees would have to be confirmed by Council.
“They definitely need to have people from the community on the zoning board,” said Patricia Crosby, president of the Yorktown Community Organization. “The developers are doing whatever they want to do especially in the Black community.”
Mayor Jim Kenney, who opposed the legislation, said it could put a damper on development.
For years, the Philadelphia Zoning Board has been appointed solely by the mayor, who does not need the approval of City Council. In recent years, the zoning board has approved a large percentage of developments, despite concerns about affordable housing, parking, gentrification and other issues — leaving some activists to say, the process is rigged.
Right now, for example, there are several major developments planned or underway within a 1- or 2-mile radius of Yorktown, including a 320-unit apartment building planned at 11th and Oxford streets, an apartment building at 13th Street and Girard Avenue; one at Broad Street and Girard Avenue; a 13-story apartment building and retail complex will have 14,000 square feet of retail space and more than 200 apartment units on North Broad at the site of the former Blue Horizon boxing venue at Broad and Thompson streets: and a 19-story, 225-unit apartment building with retail space at 1451 N. Broad St., across the street from Progress Plaza, on the site of a former church. But it will have 21 parking spaces.
None of the developers addressed any of the above concerns, satisfactory to residents.
“The purpose has always been to give more of a voice to community organizations,” said Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Clarke. “We heard from many neighborhoods and they said they felt they were not being listened to. Their voices were not being heard.”
Since the law requires a change in the city’s Home Rule Charter, it must be approved by Philadelphia voters in the next election. The question will be on the ballot in May.
The zoning board needed more professionals, Grace said, people with backgrounds such as urban planning. “So they can understand better the pressures of development in the neighborhoods,” he said. “The next step is in May. Now the voters will decide.”
Herb Reid III, vice president of development of Maze Group Development, in Philadelphia, said the changes in the zoning board might work.
“More smart people in the room to address the changes, I think will be good,” Reid said. “I think the zoning board has been good up to this point.”
Maze Group has apartments in the Temple University area, mostly catering to students. Reid said he goes before the zoning board a couple of times a year.
“When you have some detractors they are listened to,” Reid said. “They’ve done their best. Our experience has been 100% positive.”
In November 2021, Kenney appointed William Bergman, a former Temple University executive and city police official as chairman of the Philadelphia Zoning Board, replacing former City Councilman Frank DiCicco. In making the appointment, the Kenney administration touted Bergman’s years of working closely with community groups.
But activists in North Philadelphia are not happy with the appointment. They said Temple University’s development interests have sometimes been opposite of the interests of North Philadelphia residents. As an example, they cited the failed attempt by Temple to build a college football stadium at Broad and Norris streets, without much input from neighborhood groups.
Neighborhoods groups fiercely opposed it, saying it could force existing neighbors out, citing a potential increase in traffic, game time drinking and congestion. Temple student and faculty groups also opposed the stadium.
Paula Peebles, president of Renaissance Community Development Corp. and Pennsylvania Chair of the National Action Network, said Bergman is not a good fit.
“Absolutely, we would support community representation,” Peebles said. “We’ve been advocating for that for years.”
But Peebles said the process might get “cumbersome.”
Tiffany Green, president of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, said the changes to the zoning board sound good, but she needs more information.
If Philadelphia voters approve the changes, they would take place in October.
“I am almost certain that the voters of Philadelphia will give it an affirmative,” said Peebles, adding that she would recommend that voters approve it.
Crosby said she would do the same.
“The community feels powerless. The developers have all of the money,” Crosby said. “We have to come together and show City Council that they can do better.”
Steve Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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