Philadelphia City Council Pushing for More Control Over Zoning Variances

A cause abandoned by the Philadelphia City in 2019 is on the table again.

February 1, 2021, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Philadelphia Construction

Fernando Garcia Esteban / Shutterstock

Philadelphia City Council Darrell Clarke is pushing for a resolution that would create a new Zoning Code Review Commission that would launch a process of overhauling the city's zoning code and give the City Council more control of real estate development in the city, reports Taylor Allen.

The City Council approved a resolution creating a Zoning Code Review Commission in 2019, according to Allen, but the commission never formed and the City Council must now revisit the issue.

"Two years later, amid a pandemic that has sent the city’s economy into a tailspin and its budget into a hole, Clarke wants to get the commission formed with the goal of ultimately remaking the code that dictates city construction and development," writes Allen.

Allen offers more details about the task facing the commission, if it finally takes shape: "Councilmembers and their appointees would lead the proposed commission in a comprehensive review of the code, last reworked in 2012. The commission would hold public hearings and submit a report recommending code changes to City Council and the mayor."

Allen also reports that the process of creating a new zoning code for the city seems to take issue with the high-rate of variance approvals granted by the city's Zoning Board of Adjustments. "While the 2012 zoning code revision was intended to reduce the influence of the ZBA board and the number of variances approved, Clarke and others argue not much changed on that front. In 2017, the ZBA approved 92% of zoning variance cases heard, according to a 2018 City Planning Commission Report," reports Allen.

If the commission does form to draft a new zoning code, the changes are unlikely to pursue the kind of reforms underway in cities around the country to remove exclusionary zoning that prioritizes single-family housing in residential neighborhoods in most of the country. Instead, precedent indicates that new powers of neighborhood preservation are the desired outcome. The 2019 version of the resolution was attached to a bill that prohibited zoning variances for multi-family housing in "Single Family Zoning Districts."

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