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I've had a chance to parse the new zoning code, and found some rather interesting changes in the language about how the City (well, City Council who writes the zoning code) views vacant lots.
Basically, they're bad news. Something to avoid.
However, with recent public dustups about vacant lots,
first in Point Breeze (vacant lot improved into park contrary to objections and warnings of the City),
second in Roxborough (demolition of a half block of 1800s homes to create, oh-boy, another vacant lot)
it does raise an interesting question
- is a vacant lot really, logically,
a "use of the property"?
It seems that it's exactly the opposite- an intentional NON-USE,
rather than any positive use.
Philadelphia has had many political and community activists over the years. We have had only one Lenora Berson.
Lenora died earlier this month at the age of 83. She was an impassioned advocate who could teach a class, do social work, organize testimony and demonstrations,write speeches, lobby elected officials, initiate candidacies for public office, mastermind election campaigns, write articles and books, take photographs worthy of being shown in art galleries, promote Philadelphia's hidden gems, and organize events to promote the city that no else had thought of.
Woodrow Wilson famously said that America is not a country of people who get their names in the newspapers, and the founding of the founding of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association in December of 1959 did not get any newspaper coverage at all.
At a house somewhere between Broad Street and Ogontz Avenue, between Olney and Chelten Avenues, an interracial group of African Americans who had arrived in the community relatively recently and white, largely Jewish people, whose roots in the community went back further in time, decided that it was time for people of both races then present to work together to improve their mutual community.
The Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) has produced a set of Draft Recommendations for a New Zoning Code, available at http://www.zoningmatters.org. It's a must-read. It's well-organized and full of good ideas. But it's also got a big, fat poison pill that could destroy the ability of communities to have meaningful input into the future of their neighborhoods.
"Although there are currently efforts under way to amend the zoning code, the role of the board is to enforce the current zoning code." -Susan Jaffe, Chair, Zoning Board of Adjustments (Link)
Yesterday, with a commonsense quote that was for too long absent in our City, the Zoning Board followed the law, and rejected Unisys' application for their stupid sign on Two Liberty Place. I don't particularly care about their sign, but I don't like being bullied by a company that thinks they have the City over a barrel, and think it will only make other businesses a)angry and b)think about what they can extract from a City. And, I like that we have laws that are actually followed.
First, on the bullying: I disagree with Brett Mandel about our priorities as we try to create good jobs and a better life in our City, but he and Inga Saffron are exactly right with this:
The real trouble with the Unisys sign is the ambiguous message it sends about Philadelphia. The company has cleverly played into local insecurities by suggesting that a refusal is evidence the city isn't a business-friendly place, and has vowed to break its lease unless the sign is approved. But others will read different meanings into that sign.
Like Philadelphia sells itself cheap. Or bullies get their way.
Tax reformer Brett Mandel, of Philadelphia Forward, argues that special deals "create resentment and anger among those firms we have to retain." Imagine what went through the minds of Cigna execs when they learned they would be occupying the Unisys building. The best way to prove the city is a good home for corporations, he says, is to make sure the rules are transparent, equitable and affordable for all.
Second, not only was Unisys going to get something that would piss other people off and make us look like we are afraid to stand up for ourselves, but, the only way they were going to get it was if the Zoning Board ignored the law, as it has done so many times before. The Zoning Board's job is to enforce the zoning code. Changes to that law are coming, but should stem from our elected officials, not a group of five people no one knows about, who do what they please.
Remember, the Zoning Board ignoring the law has consequences. For example:
- Philadelphia passed a law that banned new billboards in the City, and the Board appointed by Billboard-Industry-backed Rendell and Street simply granted variances, every single time. Who cares if a law was passed? We needed our billboards.
- Or, for the longest time, even if you had a legitimate hardship to be approved by the Zoning Board, the only way you got anything don't was if you agreed to put in central air conditioning, because of the power of the sheet metal workers. Want to build affordable housing in Philly? Well, set aside a little cash, because folks need their AC! Who cared if that made no sense.
- Or, think certain neighborhoods should be designated historic, with restrictions on what can be built in them? Not in the old days of the Zoning Board, where then Zoning chair David Auspitz decided that, besides knowing how to make a pretty good Turkey club sandwich, he also had the expertise and power to decide what went where, the laws of our City be damned.
Say what you want about City Council- and I say plenty- but, they are still are a fairly responsive group of people, who can be swayed by public action (see: Casinos). I would much rather them making the law than an unknown, unaccountable group of people on the Zoning Board.
This ruling is a step in the right direction.
Has everyone been following the saga of Unysis? If you haven't the quick summary is that the company is supposed to relocate their headquarters from Blue Bell to Center City, but after signing leases and getting their name in the press for a couple weeks, they have now basically threatened to back out the deal. They will consider going elsewhere unless the city allows it to break out the Elmer's Glue and magic markers, and scrawl a big red "Unisys" sign on the side of 2 Liberty Place. Let us scribble and graffiti, suckers, or the jobs we promised are gone.
(See the proposed logo here.)
So, the hearings were held yesterday, and with so many people objecting to this, more will be heard. But, this is seriously one of the more ridiculous requests. Unisys is going to occupy less than 10 percent of the building, and no one else in there wants their damn sign:
"If we didn't get the signage, we'd have to re-evaluate how important visibility is to us in that decision," Kerr said of the move.
Unisys signed a lease in December to rent about three and a half floors - 7 percent of the building - for more than a decade.
Asked if the company would try to break that lease if the request for signs is denied, Kerr said: "I couldn't get into that."
Two Liberty Place's first major tenant, Cigna, opposes the signs.
"We feel that the signs on Two Liberty Place would mar and tarnish the building as well as the Philadelphia skyline," Cigna spokesman Chris Curran said.
Cigna has about 1,500 people working on 18 floors in the building. Curran estimated that, combined with the condo owners, that means 93 percent of the building's occupants don't want Unisys signs hanging outside.
Extortion really pisses me off. Obviously, we need more jobs in Philly, and certainly good paying ones. But, if the company is threatening to leave based on this, what are they going to demand in a year? Big tax breaks? That Mayor Nutter walks each employee to the train at the end of the day? And, of course, once we allow one company to scrawl on our skyline like a wobegone child, we know what is coming next.
A City with confidence would not roll over here. Here is to hoping that the City, through its zoning board, stands up for itself, for once.
As if proposing legislation to stifle the First Amendment was not enough, Councilman Darrel Clarke (along with Council President Anna Verna) recently introduced legislation to strike at one of Philadelphian's most treasured institutions - their Wawa's.
And Rita's Water Ice.
And every mom-and-pops little sandwich shop, deli, small restaurant, neighborhood coffee house, bakery, pizza shop, taqueria, noodle shop, Chinese take-out - in-short anything the zoning code defines as a "small retail food establishment" or "take-out restaurant."
The bill, #70913, would redefine all of these types of establishments as falling under the "Regulated Uses" portion of the zoning code, the portion of the code that covers commercial uses like:
(a) Adult book stores;