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The New Urban Revival

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By Elise Vider

Throughout the dark winter of the Great Recession, in cubicles and conference rooms across Philadelphia, good government types and city officials have been busy spinning cocoons. Now, spring is here and what is emerging is optimism about economic recovery and a new narrative about real estate development in the city: transparent, consistent, predictable, fair and supportive of sustainability and good design.

 

"Philadelphia," says John Kromer, a onetime city official, now a senior consultant at the Fels Institute of Government, "is much better positioned for recovery than many other cities."

 

It's a hard sell for cynical Philadelphians  -- plus undeniable challenges still lie ahead -- but through both intention and happenstance, Philadelphia has used the downturn to put into place a series of reforms that should position the city well for the next round of real estate development.

 

Walk around Center City and environs and it appears it is already underway, with groundbreaking for new retail, residential and commercial properties evident every few blocks.

philly-2035.jpg

"If the real estate market was hot, it would have been a lot harder. Down times are good times to get things done," says Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

 

I count these as the key accomplishments affecting development: the new zoning code; Philadelphia 2035,the new citywide comprehensive plan; reforms at the Department of Licenses and Inspections; advances in stormwater management and waterfront planning.

 

[Read Part Two for a report card on obstacles remaining.]

 

Although some of these initiatives began in previous administrations, Mayor Nutter deserves high praise for making a priority of planning and zoning, "some very unsexy things," notes Kromer.

 

Significantly, upon taking office, Nutter quickly restored the Philadelphia City Planning Commission -- defanged by Ed Rendell, generally ignored by John Street -- to its role as the authority for broad planning and development-related decisions.

Nutter's platform when he ran for mayor in 2007 was shaped by strong calls for reform, notably "If We Fix It, They Will Come," a 2004 report issued by The Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, written by consultant Karen Black and funded by the William Penn Foundation. (Mayor John Street's Managing Director Estelle Richman initiated the study by asking BIA to put in writing what was wrong with the city's development review process.)

 

At the time, the BIA report labeled Philadelphia's development review  process as "unpredictable and cumbersome, involving up to 14 city departments, agencies and boards. Philadelphia's Zoning Code is a 40-year-old, 642-page document, layered with thousands of amendments."

 

Beginnings of reform

 

In 2006, in anticipation of the next mayoral election, the Design Advocacy Group (DAG) drafted its Reform Agenda, another pivotal document that called, among other things, for civic design review, a comprehensive citywide plan and zoning reform. One of the key authors was Greenberger, then a practicing architect and DAG's chair, who Nutter brought into his administration, first, to run the Planning Commission and later to oversee a myriad of regulatory departments as deputy mayor.
(Full disclosure:  I am active in DAG and have participated in the BIA meetings since 2004.)

Today, BIA claims victory on almost all counts. "In 2004, Philadelphia had learned to manage decline, but we were ill prepared to welcome investment," says Black. "Today, we no longer have a system that says 'tell me what you want to build, and I'll tell you why you can't'."

All of this reform doesn't come cheap, and much of it was achieved with the largesse of the William Penn Foundation, which has invested millions over the last decade to support key initiatives. Among them: the BIA's Fix It Philly coalition; the Citizen Planning Institute, which handles community engagement in support of the comprehensive planning work; planning on the Central Delaware Riverfront; reforms at Licenses & Inspections and stormwater management.

Now, says Shawn McCaney, the foundation program officer who has stewarded mostCentral Delware Waterfront.jpg of the work, "An updated regulatory framework for development is largely coming into place for Philadelphia. The challenge ahead will be ensuring that these regulations are properly interpreted and effectively enforced."

Zoning reform is the biggie -- a monumental, four-year effort to wrestle to the ground the 1962 code, which had morphed into 642 pages of arcane rules, overlays, exceptions and cross-references. Out-of-date zoning designations and antiquated language (slaughterhouses, tanneries and sawmills were all addressed; computer stores, urban agriculture and solar panels were not) forced 40 percent of all applications and virtually all large-scale development to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance.

ZBA was slow, inconsistent and sometimes capricious in its findings, frequently requiring developers to seek community support - a double-edged sword that guaranteed community input, but also allowed for sometimes questionable "community benefits" such as cash donations.

A new zoning code
The new code, which was passed unanimously by City Council in December, goes into effect August 22. It is intended to be simpler, more concise and user friendly. It is expected to drastically reduce the number of variances and Council zoning ordinances and make the development process more predictable.  It also promotes sustainability and improving development quality and design.

While the Zoning Code Commission was hammering away, the Planning Commission was undertaking the first citywide comprehensive plan in almost 50 years. Philadelphia 2035 lays out a broad vision for the city of the near future, emphasizing neighborhood revitalization, economic development, land management, transportation, open space, sustainability and historic preservation. Eighteen smaller scale district plans are next, drilling down on neighborhood land uses and providing a basis for new zoning maps.

The long-neglected riverfronts are also getting serious planning attention. Following up on years of work started under John Street, the city has a brand-new master plan for the Central Delaware Waterfront, with the critical goal of reintegrating the waterfront to the grid of city streets and creating a series of riverbank parks. A plan for the lower Schuylkill River is currently in the works.
New Townhouses 2nd and Vine.jpg

BIA reports that the time required for review of development proposals has effectively been cut in half since 2003, largely due to significant reforms at the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I).

Once one of the most hidebound bureaucracies in city government, L&I today is run by Fran Burns, a surprisingly young, data-driven wonk who takes pride in the enormous culture shifts at the department since Nutter appointed her in 2008.

At a recent meeting, she and Maura Kennedy, a senior L&I staffer, proudly displayed reams of paper with brightly colored graphs, charts and tables of statistics. Burns has initiated annual customer satisfaction surveys, monthly internal "L&I Stat" meetings to measure performance, technical audits and more in pursuit of a professional and customer-oriented culture at the department.

Time was, Black recalls, when applicants would bring lunch while they stood in hours-long lines in the concourse of the Municipal Services Building to talk to L&I personnel. "There was no system for doing anything," she says. "Everything said at the counter was verbal. There were no written development guidelines. Everything was off the cuff."

"Dozens of hand-drawn, hard-copy zoning maps were kept in a backroom and updated with post-it notes and overlays colored in crayon," BIA reported.
Those antiques have been replaced with a single electronic zoning map, a BIA gift to the city, that provides free, public, online access to the zoning designation of any parcel in the city.

Reform at L&I
And upon arrival today at the concourse, L&I reports that applicants generally wait five to 10 minutes to see a zoning reviewer. A goal is to get applicants to a plans examiner within 30 minutes. L&I will schedule appointments for large projects and is attempting to issue more over-the-counter reviews.

The concourse in the Municipal Services Building has been remodeled: a concierge greets and directs applicants to separate areas for licenses or permits; meetings with examiners take place in small cubicles "instead of screaming over the counter," says Burns.

In further pursuit of the holy grail of customer satisfaction, L&I decentralized its operations division, moving building inspectors from a single Center City office to five district offices, and recently added a Saturday shift for construction inspections.
Commercial plan review is now achieved within 20 business days 98 percent of the time and residential plan reviews occur within 15 business days 90 percent of the time - a significant drop in turnaround time, although some of it may also be attributedMutter street after.jpg to the lower volume of projects during the recession. A much-needed, new and improved L&I website is coming soon, and the stalled "fast form," $25 online permit is back on track, Burns promises.

Burns also has "forced" - her word - intra-department communication, for example taking the plans examiners on a first-ever field trip.

 "I want them to think they have a role in building the city," she says. And under Kennedy, the department has gained national recognition for its work to enforce maintenance of vacant buildings, making it much more expensive for owners to hold on to blighted structures.

Another arena in which Philadelphia is nationally recognized is in its progressive handling of stormwater management, which could result in more attractive neighborhoods and more environmentally sensitive private development.

New federal regulations require the city to take steps to manage runoff, to reduce flooding and water pollution caused not just by big, less frequent storms, but also by more typical rainfalls.

A green city
Glen Abrams, the Philadelphia Water Department's watersheds planning manager, says the conventional solution would have been to dig a big, expensive tunnel to channel the water. Instead, the city is emphasizing green infrastructure on public and private property: bioretention planters, green roofs, porous pavement, rain gardens and the like. The Water Department envisions a triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental benefits.

The 2009 "Green City, Green Waters" 25-year plan has huge implications for neighborhoods, Abrams says, with potential for new parks and green space, more street trees, restored streams and waterways and enhanced development.
Green Roof planned for SJU.jpg

Updated regulations adopted in 2006 require new development to meet stiff stormwater regulations, which promise to get tighter still.

"There will always be pushback and there's no way around that it does add additional cost," concedes Abrams. "But with good design and thoughtful planning, those costs can translate into an amenity that is good for the development and for the surrounding neighborhood."
Call it enlightened self-interest: "We are very pro-development," he adds. "We need a customer base. So our goal is to get neighborhoods redeveloped, get people working and living in the city. That will definitely benefit PWD."

The Water Department is also phasing in new rates for commercial properties based on the amount of impervious surface. Parking lots, for example, are getting billed much more than in the past. To ease the blow, PWD offers low-cost loans, grants and design assistance as incentives for property owners to install green stormwater infrastructure.

So skeptical Philadelphians - you know who you are - it may be time to acknowledge that times are changing, that the 21st century has brought progressive reform. Says Greenberger, "Philadelphia's narrative has lived in the fumes of 50 years ago. Time's up on that."

Adds Kromer, citing the litany of the ongoing reforms, "all of that packaged together at any city with a name other than Philadelphia would be 'Wow, when can I move there'?"

 

Elise Vider (elisevider.com) is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor and sometime activist with a special interest in the built environment and economic development.

 

Illustrations:

Cover: View of Center City from a condo at Naval Square

1. The logo for the city's comprehensive plan.

2. Illustration of the new plan for the Delaware Waterfront.

3. Mixed housing/commercial development at 2nd and Vine Sts.

4. A former derelict rowhouse on the 3300-block of Mutter St.

5. A green roof planned for new construction at St. Joseph's University

 

 

 

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