The New Code: Big Changes for Zoning in Philadelphia (Part 2)

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Part Two: Community Involvement and Civic Design Review

In Part One of this Five-Part Series, we provided an overview of Philadelphia's New Zoning Code, which will take effect – ready or not – on August 22, 2012. With the clock ticking, we now move on to a closer analysis of the big changes in store. In this installment, we explore how Chapter 300 of the New Code addresses community involvement and civic design review.

Where can I find the New Code? You can find the entire text online here.

Community Participation

Anyone who has worked on a development project in Philadelphia knows the community has had a strong voice in the zoning process. In fact, some developers have expressed frustration that their projects can be held hostage by activist civic associations. Under the City's Old Zoning Code, the role of community associations was not codified anywhere. But as a practical matter, most large projects required action from the Zoning Board, and the Board would strongly encourage the applicant to obtain community support for the project. Civic associations became powerful players in the zoning process and in some cases used that leverage to win costly concessions from developers.

With the New Code, the City has retained a significant role for affected community members in the zoning process but clearly regulated that role, placing corresponding duties on the part of community associations. Section 14-303 of the New Code sets forth the new rules for community involvement and notice. Some highlights:

  • Registered Community Organizations ("RCOs"). A community organization that wants a seat at table in the zoning process must register with the Planning Commission annually, providing basic information such as the geographic boundaries of the group's area of concern. A community association must register as either a Local RCO (with a geographic area limited to a neighborhood with specific boundaries), or as an Issue-based RCO (for example, a group with a citywide concern for bicycle safety). The Planning Commission is establishing detailed regulations for RCO registration.
  • RCO Notice and Meetings. For any development project needing a Zoning Board hearing, or participating in Civic Design Review (discussed below), the New Code requires the applicant to provide detailed notice directly to the affected RCO(s) and to hold a meeting with the RCO(s). The notice must be provided within 7 days to all affected RCO(s). If there is no affected RCO, notice must be provided to the district Councilperson. Notice must include detailed information such as contact information for the applicant, location where copies of the full application and plans can be obtained, and a description of the project. Within 45 days, the affected RCO(s) must schedule a single community meeting with the applicant to discuss the project, and both the RCO(s) and Applicant must provide the Zoning Board or Civic Design Review Committee with a written account of the meeting. If a meeting is not held, an applicant must show the Zoning Board that it made a good faith effort to meet with the RCO(s) within the required 45-day period.
  • Public Notice. In addition to the specific notice to RCOs, the New Code still requires general notice to the public by posting Zoning Notice posters at the property. The New Code requires a minimum of 21 days of posting prior to a Zoning Board hearing (versus just 12 days of posting under the Old Code), and for the first time requires that new Zoning Notices be re-posted for hearings that are continued for more than 7 days.

Civic Design Review

Another big change under the New Code is an entirely new process called Civic Design Review ("CDR") for large-scale projects. CDR brings together the developer, the community, and the City to review design and planning issues that may impact the surrounding neighborhood. Here is how it works:

  • CDR Committee. The CDR Committee is composed of 6 standing members (4 design professionals, 1 developer/builder, and 1 representative of a community association), with a 7th rotating seat filled by a representative of the Local RCO.
  • CDR Triggers. With a few exceptions, any project that meets the "triggers" shown on Table 14-304-2 in the New Code is required to participate in CDR. One bright line rule is that any project that includes more than 100,000 s.f. of new gross floor area or more than 100 new dwelling units must participate in CDR. The other triggers depend on the specific location of a property and its proximity to certain other types of affected properties.
  • CDR Criteria. The CDR process is not intended to be a "style police," and is expressly limited to focusing on such issues as whether the project design elements (including streetscape, parking and pedestrian access) contribute to walkability and street activity, whether open spaces contribute to public safety and enjoyment, and whether the design, bulk and massing of the project is consistent with the character of the surrounding area.
  • CDR Process. The CDR process is mandatory for any project meeting the CDR triggers, but the recommendations of the Committee are only advisory. As a practical matter, however, if a project requires a hearing before the Zoning Board, the recommendations of the CDR Committee may carry heavy weight with the Board. For a project that does not meet the CDR triggers and is not required to participate in CDR, an applicant may request an "Optional Review" by the CDR Committee. We do not expect to see many developers subjecting themselves to this process voluntarily.
  • CDR Timing. If a project requires CDR, it will be scheduled for the next available CDR Committee meeting, which will likely be held once or twice monthly. Although there may be a second meeting in some cases, the Committee must issue its recommendations to the Planning Commission within 45 days from the initial review meeting. In the event the Committee fails to do so within 45 days, the Committee will be presumed to have approved the project as presented.

Follow us in coming weeks as we delve into some other key sections of the New Code.


Part One: An Overview

Coming Soon:

Part Three: Base Districts and Overlays

Part Four: Use Categories

Part Five: Dimensional Controls and Parking

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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