Zoning Watch Archives

Development community workshop explores how and when the public should have a say in project review

01/20/2010 | 

Special Workshop

The first in a series of three workshops called “Common Ground for Building Our City: Developers, the Public and the Zoning Code” was held at the Union League January 19. The workshops are a joint effort of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The groups stepped forward to coordinate a dialogue between developers and community groups about one of the biggest challenges to zoning reform in Philadelphia – the role the public should play in the development review process. Developers, design professionals, and community/neighborhood corporations with development arms were first to identify the positives and negatives of current city practices and to explore new options. Neighborhood groups will meet Saturday, January 23.

Participants at Tuesday’s development community workshop shared stories about their experiences with neighborhood groups in order to initiate a discussion about what may be wrong with the project review process and what works well. For example, some credited positive results to situations where the public was engaged early, the neighborhood spoke with a unified voice, an openness to discourse and change existed on both sides, and a clear process for engaging the community was in place. Negative results were tied to a lack of neighborhood leadership, insufficient information about the project, and misunderstandings about the character of the community and its philosophy on development. The discussion raised some important questions about how information is disseminated, the role and standing of each stakeholder, the interests of near neighbors versus those of the broader community, which elements of a project should be up for discussion, the time and expense of getting public input, and the level of expertise of those making decisions.

Project review practices in Chicago, Boston, New York, and Seattle were summarized for participants to consider in developing a set of “common ground” principles for establishing an effective process for public involvement. Participants were asked to go beyond individual interests and acknowledge multiple points of view, consider how the free exchange of information can build trust, think about regulation and how the law can help refine the development review process, and be open to the notion that things can get better.

Ideas for best practices and guiding principles included:

  • A definite, predictable timeline
  • Uniformity of process across city neighborhoods
  • Standards for identifying which stakeholders have standing
  • Consensus among competing community groups
  • Reasonably defined parameters to guide negotiations
  • Planning documents that define neighborhood values and goals
  • Zoning that reflects identified planning documents
  • Clear thresholds for what triggers neighborhood review
  • Objective standards on what and how to review


Some participants cautioned that “institutionalizing” the process could discourage innovation, however, and suggested that the process needs to balance the need for flexibility with the need for structure. The lack of objective standards can lead to some really bad things and also to some really great things.

The next workshop is scheduled for January 23 and will include invited representatives from neighborhood groups and civic associations. On January 27, participants from the first two workshops will meet to identify areas of common ground. The results of all three workshops will be posted at, and the AIA and WHYY websites. An overall report will be produced after the final workshop. The ZCC has agreed to consider the results of the workshops as it works to define a public review process as part of the new zoning code.

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