City Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s efforts to place strict new controls on construction continued Thursday, as a new overlay limiting building heights on residentially zoned land and banning roof decks in swathes of North Philadelphia unanimously passed City Council.
The bill affects an area defined as the “Brewerytown-Sharswood/Celestial Community,” which stretches from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to the north and Poplar Street to the south, and from Fairmount Park east to Ridge Avenue and 19th Street.
It requires that the maximum height allowed be equal to the tallest building on any abutting lot. If there is no building on an abutting lot, the limit will be 35 feet, or “a height equal to the majority of the buildings existing within that block.”
Clarke is one of the strongest advocates of such overlays. These laws essentially create carveouts within the city’s larger zoning code to establish hyperlocal rules in response to neighborhood concerns or to advance a councilmember’s goals in a way that would be difficult to achieve at a citywide level.
“The Brewerytown Sharswood overlay legislation is a continuation of our ongoing efforts to ensure that community residents’ voices are clearly heard in determining the character and shape of their neighborhood,” said Clarke in a statement to The Inquirer.
Clarke has long been a critic of the new zoning code the city created in 2012, which he believes allows too much density and requires too little parking in rowhouse neighborhoods. Some of his efforts to change the larger code have failed, but overlays specific to his district are a tool that play into the tradition of councilmanic prerogative — and are therefore almost guaranteed to pass.
Bespoke zoning codes across the city
Councilmanic prerogative is the unwritten tradition that gives district council members deference over zoning and streets bills that only effect their own territory. Votes on such narrowly cast bills usually pass unanimously, or at least with a veto-proof majority, allowing overlays like this one to be enacted with little fuss.
Critics of City Council’s traditions argue that overlays effectively create a patchwork of mini-zoning codes across the city, which complicates development and effectively privileges real estate companies with local knowledge, political ties, and the money to hire good zoning lawyers.
It’s also faster and easier for City council members to write a new subset of rules to placate a neighborhood group than to analyze the zoning maps and make changes within the existing rules to achieve similar ends.
“That’s why you’re doing overlays, because you’re trying to tailor it to a certain constituency without having to overthink it,” said Greg Pastore, a former member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. “You’re doing something, but without the hard work of learning the code, planning, and applying it.”
Pastore isn’t the only critic of Clarke’s new overlay. The city’s Planning Commission, which is largely advisory, unanimously voted to not recommend the bill.
The commission’s staff also noted several errors in the first version of the bill, including a missing western geographic boundary for the overlay that made it unenforceable. They also noted that parts of the bill’s map overlap with the previously existing Strawberry Mansion neighborhood conservation overlay, which regulates height in a different way. (Clarke’s office since amended the bill to address those issues.)
“We don’t believe it’s going to work on the Girard Avenue and Ridge Avenue commercial corridors,” said David Fecteau, a city planner, at the Planning Commission’s October meeting. “We also believe that it’s going to cause some problems both for Girard College and with the housing authority’s many larger buildings.”
While the overlay wouldn’t cause immediate problems for the two institutions, which have many buildings in the area covered by the bill, it does mean they would have to seek relief from the Zoning Board of Adjustment if they ever want to expand.
Clarke’s bill has the support of the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Civic Association, which spoke in favor of the bill at a City Council hearing in October.
“These regulations are essential for maintaining our community’s unique character and feel,” said Julia Mollner, a member of the community organization’s zoning committee. “These regulations … balance the need for growth with the preservation of our unique character.”
The Kenney administration’s perspective on the overlay is not immediately clear, but the bill’s unanimous passage would make a veto a purely symbolic gesture as Clarke clearly has the votes to overturn it.