The Kenney administration’s Department of Planning and Development has found itself in the absurd position of having to appeal a bad decision by the Kenney administration’s Zoning Board of Adjustment—a board that nominally lives within that very Department—to allow a large self-storage facility just steps from the subway on Broad and Spring Garden Street, and across the street from where Eric Blumenthal just announced he’s now planning a new high-rise.
Inga Saffron details the agonizing stupidity of this situation in her column this week:
The Planning Commission vigorously objected when [owner Michael] Grasso put forward his proposal for the giant public closet on Spring Garden’s eclectic boulevard. So did the Callowhill Neighborhood Association. Councilman Mark Squilla also weighed in, urging the zoning board to reject Grasso’s variance request.
Yet members ignored them, even the district councilperson, and handed Grasso his variance on a silver platter. (Hey, doesn’t councilmanic prerogative mean anything anymore?) […]
It’s not the first time since Mayor Kenney took office that the board has handed down a decision that runs contrary to the rules of good planning. To the astonishment of just about everyone, its members last year tried to block the Post Bros. company —considered Public Enemy No. 1 by Philadelphia’s powerful construction unions—from turning an empty warehouse at Ninth and Poplar Streets into apartments, even though dozens of similar buildings in Philadelphia have been converted to residential use. The zoning board’s ruling was later overturned by the courts.
There’s a lot of wrong happening in this situation, but I want to focus on the chain of command aspect because I think it’s the most important structural problem.
The Zoners serve at the pleasure of the Mayor, and if Mayor Kenney is serious about any of this, he’ll toss the hacks over the side and seat a new board with some subject matter credibility on these issues, and a verifiable commitment to the goals of the Department they live under.
I’m old enough to remember back to 2015 when Council President Darrell Clarke pushed a ballot initiative to combine a bunch of planning-related departments and boards under one roof in what would become the Department of Planning and Development, on the theory that this would force more coordination and a less siloed approach. Those silos were planning—the democratic forward-looking process through which we collectively decide what the City’s land uses should be like; and development—the private processes through which individual buildings come into being.
Fast-forward to 2018, and we see that these silos haven’t broken down at all, despite Council’s smushing everything together into one Department, and instead you still have a rogue Board openly thumbing its nose at what the planners think is best—and not for any good reason either! The mixed-use housing allowed under current zoning at this site is perfectly buildable and presents no hardship, as evidenced by the tallest building outside of core Center City slated to go up right across the street.
One major problem is that the Zoners don’t answer directly to Anne Fadullon, the Director of the new-ish Department. As Fadullon confirmed via email, she has no say over what the ZBA does, and the appointees serve at the pleasure of the Mayor. So what good is combining these functions if the ZBA’s decisions have zero relationship to all the exhaustive planning work the Planning Commission just completed with the Philadelphia 2035 District plans? What use is all that work if the recommendations have no bearing over what actually gets built in reality?
This particular case is so egregiously bad that the administration is appealing their own appointees’ decision, but this zoning board makes bad decisions all the time that run counter to what the Planning Commission is trying to accomplish, and nothing ever happens to them for it.
Planning doesn’t do themselves any favors by declining to keep track of their own staff recommendations on zoning variances, to compare with the ZBA’s actual voting record. As Inga says in her column, Planning opposed this variance. And they actually weigh in on variances all the time. But Planning’s positions aren’t recorded anywhere public or released as open data, so there’s no way to do an analysis of how often the ZBA’s votes go against Planning’s recommendations. If there was a regularly updated record showing the ZBA never listens to Planning, despite the two bodies supposedly being coordinated, that could create some political grist to boost Planning’s authority over the process. But they don’t do this.
The bigger problem, though, is that Mayor Kenney just doesn’t seem to care.
He appointed Johnny Doc’s chiropractor as the head of the ZBA right when he took office. There’s only one architect on there, and everybody else is either a political hack or a construction industry person. There aren’t any lawyers, even though the Board’s decisions are supposed to be able to stand up in court if appealed. There aren’t any civic leaders. There’s nobody with any development experience, as opposed to construction, who might be familiar with the development math and could go toe to toe with developers on some of the assumptions underlying their hardship arguments.
There are a lot of other useful perspectives in this space that aren’t currently represented on the ZBA who could contribute to some better decisions, but for that to happen, Kenney would have to start wanting them to make some better choices, and he clearly doesn’t. This particular case is so egregiously bad that the administration is appealing their own appointees’ decision, but this ZBA makes bad decisions all the time that run counter to what the Planning Commission is trying to accomplish, and nothing ever happens to them for it.
Heads should absolutely roll over this one. They need a strong reminder about who’s in charge. The Zoners serve at the pleasure of the Mayor, and if Mayor Kenney is serious about any of this, he’ll toss the hacks over the side and seat a new board with some subject matter credibility on these issues, and a verifiable commitment to the goals of the Department they live under.
Jon Geeting is the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a political action committee that supports efforts to reform and modernize City Hall. This is part of a series of articles running in both The Citizen and 3.0’s blog.photo via flickr