Zoning Watch Archives

Neighborhood leadership wants to level the playing field for the public in development review

01/24/2010 | 

Special Workshop

Representatives from community groups, civic associations, and other neighborhood-based organizations met on Saturday to help define their role in the development review process that will become part of the city’s new zoning code. The six-hour workshop was one of three designed to identify areas of agreement between neighborhoods and developers about how to improve public involvement. Members from the development community met January 19 and a combined session is scheduled for January 27. To protect neighborhood interests, community organizations said they want a more equitable role in project review.

Participants began by discussing what they valued most about their neighborhoods. Maintaining diversity, access to open space and public transit, the affordability of homes and taxes, strong business corridors, job opportunities, and neighborhood character were common themes. They then shared stories about their efforts to protect these neighborhoods from the impacts of new development. Experiences were described as positive when developers were encouraged to meet with the community early in the process and neighbors understood their rights. A developer’s need for a variance from existing zoning regulations was viewed as key. Requests for variances are made at a hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment and public notification is required. Neighbors then have an opportunity to testify at the hearing and provide input on the project. When a proposed development is “by-right,” the community is not engaged in the process. Although sometimes described as a messy system, participants credited the variance process with saving historic buildings from demolition, for example, or preventing incompatible uses and architecture. So city plans to fast-track minor applications and reduce the number of variances were raised as issues of concern.

When asked what else about the project review process worked well, participants spoke of the benefits of prior planning and knowing in advance what the community wants in terms of development and growth. Access to reliable information, sufficient notice, and persistence were also helpful. The process failed them when existing rules were not followed or enforced, politics interfered, or any one stakeholder had undue influence over the decision.

The workshop initiated discussion about where tensions exist as well. Participants questioned what actually constitutes “community.” They discussed what happens when a community group does not represent the interests of the entire neighborhood or when a small group is able to derail a project. They noted that citywide interests sometimes conflict with those of neighborhoods and that a project may be good for the neighborhood in general, but have negative impacts on individual property owners.

Finally, the group developed principles to help define how and when the public is involved in the development review process. The list included:

  • Broader and timelier notification
  • Improved access to information and procedures throughout the process and for all residents
  • Standards and ground rules for how community groups are defined, operate, and interact with other neighborhood organizations
  • Standards for how the ZBA makes decisions and the qualifications of its members
  • More balanced standing of stakeholders
  • Early and on-going involvement with the community
  • Objective standards for what types of projects trigger public input
  • Transparency of all negotiations
  • More convenient hearing times and locations
  • Less politics
  • The right to a neutral arbiter or fact finder
  • A codified role for the public
  • Zoning that is linked to neighborhood and city planning documents


On Wednesday, January 27, participants from this workshop and the development community workshop held January 19 will meet to identify areas of common ground. A report on the workshops will be posted at, and the AIA and WHYY websites. The ZCC has agreed to review the report and respond to the results.

“Common Ground for Building Our City: Developers, the Public and the Zoning Code” is a joint effort of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement and the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The project is made possible by a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

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