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Cascade: No. 60, Winter 2005

Older Cities Modernize Zoning and Development-Review Process

After decades of disinvestment, many older cities must modernize and streamline zoning and land-use tools to facilitate new construction and development. Philadelphia is one city that has begun to take these steps in order to encourage and manage a new wave of urban development.

The release in October 2004 of a report by the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia (BIA), titled If We Fix It, They Will Come, proved to be a turning point in this effort. This report, which was endorsed by government and civic leadership, provided recommendations to modernize the city’s 40-year-old zoning code — a code founded on inaccurate projections of continuing growth that favored low-density suburban-like building patterns while making the classic Philadelphia rowhome illegal as a “nonconforming use.”

The report also proposed that Philadelphia streamline its antiquated development review process – a convoluted system requiring each developer to negotiate with up to 14 different city departments, agencies, and boards to construct or rehabilitate a single house.

The argument for improving and modernizing government practices is compelling. In recent years, older cities across the nation — Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and others — have rewritten their zoning codes, remapped their neighborhoods, automated their permit systems, and transformed the culture of their development review agencies. As a direct result, they have: (1) lowered their cost of regulating construction by up to 60 percent; (2) supported increases in private investment of up to 400 percent; (3) dramatically increased tax revenue by up to $150 million by bringing abandoned properties back on the tax rolls; and (4) created up to 40,000 new jobs and 250,000 new residents.

In the last year, Philadelphia has made significant progress. Large-scale developers who used to wait for hours in multiple agency lines can now meet with all relevant agencies at once and seek approval for their development project. The city’s zoning restrictions, which have been available only on ancient maps in a back room, will be put online and will include each of the hundreds of amendments and overlays added to the code by City Council over the decades.

Municipal leaders in cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago suggest that rewriting a zoning code to reflect modern market realities can be done in two years if there is a strong mayoral commitment. The mapping of each individual neighborhood may take up to a decade, however. It is my hope that the next Philadelphia mayor will make a modern zoning code a top priority of his or her administration, but in the interim, the city’s planning commission, licenses and inspections department, mayor, and City Council are taking early steps to amend the code to remove a few of the most costly and arbitrary provisions.

For instance, in the spring of 2005 City Council increased the maximum fence height for residential buildings from 3.5 feet to 4 feet so that for the first time in decades Philadelphia homeowners could buy a standardized retail fence at their local hardware store. A requirement adopted in the early 1900s to respond to tenement overcrowding had the unintended effect of prohibiting modern design features. The requirement was eliminated.

Of course, Philadelphia still has a long way to go. It remains one of the only cities in the nation where City Council can pass specific amendments to the code so that R10 zoning in one councilperson’s district differs from R10 in another. Three agencies with three different standards share responsibility for stormwater management and virtually all market-sensitive building designs require a variance in order to be built – the mark of an unhealthy zoning system.

Philadelphia is not the only city in the country that after a half century of decline is unprepared to welcome or predictably regulate growth. Nor is it the only city that lacks a zoning code that reflects a vision of the types of investment it wishes to see in each neighborhood. Like many old industrial cities, Philadelphia has inherited a bureaucracy and code that fail to meet modern realities. By increasing the predictability and transparency of practices that affect rehabilitation of older structures and new construction, Philadelphia is making a commitment to reinvent itself as a modern city that can welcome and accommodate new investment and growth.

If We Fix It, They Will Come is available at www.may8consulting.com. For information, contact Karen L. Black at (610) 891-8260 or kblack@may8consulting.com.