Zoning Reform Nightmares
The city of Philadelphia has dreams of finally achieving zoning reform but I admit that I still have zoning reform nightmares. They go something like this: What if after the zoning reform commission works for years to rewrite the code, we get to the end of the process and one or two Councilpersons successfully oppose the passage of the new code? What if we pass it but then the process grounds to a halt and the city doesn’t remap neighborhoods in accordance with the code, or doesn’t enforce the Code? Miami just had the former experience and some would argue that Chicago is experiencing the latter challenge.
Politics as usual kill Miami code after 4 years of hard work. Four years ago, Miami 21 was unveiled. Miami 21, a key project of the Mayor’s, included an all-new form- based code grounded in principles of smart growth and new urbanism. (Form-based codes, unlike Philadelphia’s more traditional zoning code, place a primary emphasis on building type, dimensions, parking location and façade features, and less emphasis on what uses are permitted in a specific location.) Since Miami 21′s debut, the city has held more than 50 public meetings and more than 400 individual meetings with stakeholders, said Luciana Gonzalez, project manager for Miami 21. After more than four years of public meetings, new drafts, extensive revisions, debate, and controversy, Miami 21 was up for vote by the City Commission on August 6, 2009, and everyone expected a few tweaks and an affirmative vote. The Mayor and the city were shocked when the Code failed to pass the City Commission. Two members of the Commission, both candidates for Mayor in the next election, running against Mayor Diaz for whom Miami 21 was a signature project, voted against the plan even though one Commissioner had supported it up until the morning of the vote. Politics as usual caused the Code to be voted down.
But there was another issue. Numerous meetings didn’t seem to clear up all the questions citizens had or allay the opposition. The occurrence of fifty public meetings did not mean that those meetings were productive or that the code writers and mappers responded to the concerns of each neighborhood – for instance, some neighborhoods wanted more development than the zoning allowed, while others wanted less. As a result, many stakeholders didn’t feel that their concerns were met.
Chicago passed their zoning code in 2004 but over the last five years has failed to complete the remapping or enforce the code’s provisions to provide notice to neighbors. After years of work by a Zoning Commission whose composition and workplan was very similar to that of Philadelphia, Chicago passed its new zoning code in 2004. Over the last five years, however, the new zoning code failed to solve some of the problems it was designed to address. For instance, the reform code was intended to give residents more notice of hearings about development in their neighborhood by requiring signs to be posted on every development site to alert neighbors, in place of registered letters. Yet, according to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, the signs-on-site requirement isn’t enforced, with half of all building sites failing to post signs. This is made all the more disconcerting because the new Code removed the need for notice by registered mail and allows notice to be sent by regular mail, which often goes unnoticed.
Chicago planned to remap every part of the city to bring it up to code and remove the need for constant zoning changes. Yet in five years, the map for only one ward has actually been redrawn. As a result, individual aldermen (Chicago’s city council members) continue to dictate what can or can’t be built on a case-by-case basis with continued use of “spot” zoning to meet a developer’s request to build something that is not allowed under the zoning code.
The lessons for Philadelphia must be these: if Philadelphia’s new code is to succeed, the City must respond meaningfully to stakeholder concerns, rather than just holding a certain number of public meetings; the City must recognize that a new zoning code is just the first step and remapping of the city and enforcement of the code must follow; and the City must ensure that City Council members are kept informed every step of the way to reduce the possibility of their later opposition when a “no” vote just might appear to help them pursue their own political ambitions.
We have started running the zoning reform race but the finish line is still far away.
Opinion Piece by Karen Black
Karen has her own policy analysis consulting firm May 8 Consulting and has been involved in the push for zoning reform since 2004.
Update: Miami 21 passed on October 23, 2009 by a 4-1 vote.
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- 11/28/2012 City Council, Fishtown Residents Square Off Over New Zoning Code