Councilman Brian O'Neill (District 10) Representing the Northeast
Councilman Brian O’Neill (District 10) Representing the Northeast

Every time Brian O’Neill decides to tinker with the Philadelphia Zoning Code he tries to fuck it up.

In legislation introduced yesterday, Councilman O’Neill who represents District 10 which runs up Oxford Circle to Somerton in the Far Northeast has decided that councilmanic privilege over just City-owned property is simply not enough.

He wants to expand it to all property in Philadelphia, including land that you own.

The amendment he proposed in Bill No. 160525 inserts very innocuous-looking language into the Zoning Code when it comes to the requirements for housing subdivisions:

(.2) The applicant shall provide documentation, in the form of a letter, that the District Councilmember supports any proposed changes to the City Plan before the Commission may consider approval the Preliminary Plat.

Councilman O’Neill’s bill effectively makes all subdivision creation solely at the whim of the councilperson before any development could proceed to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission or could be heard at zoning.   Effectively this allows a councilperson to have direct approval power over private development–even development that is by-right under the Philadelphia Code.

A subdivision has a special definition in Philadelphia.   It is typically a single parcel of land with multiple homes built on that parcel.   Or, it’s a grouping of parcels that is tied together, with houses that sit on them as part of a shared entity.   Anyone with a large enough piece of land can create a subdivision.   If you’re thinking “the suburbs” where there’s many of these things, you’re not far off the mark.  There’s plenty of them in Councilman O’Neill’s council district.

But subdivisions exist elsewhere in Philadelphia.  Particularly in places like Fishtown and in South Philly where parking is tight and developers have to find more creative ways to create parking with new home construction that doesn’t involve garage fronts.   To eliminate the garage-front problem, some developers will bundle a larger piece of land into a subdivision to create a shared driveway and then create a condo association which sells the rowhomes built facing the street while the condo association maintains the shared driveway in the rear which all the condo owners use.

Subdivisions require extra approvals than just building permits and zoning.   All of them have to prepare stormwater runoff plans before the City can authorize development on a site.   Under the proposed change you need a letter of support from your city councilperson before anyone at the City can look at your plans.  Moreover, the language doesn’t require the Council-member to write a letter of support, or explain why he won’t write a letter—so he can pocket veto it.   He doesn’t have to return your phone calls or e-mails asking for a letter.

With this proposal from Councilman O’Neill you literally have to suck Councilmanic Cock before you can go apply for regular permits.   This isn’t about buying City-owned land or going through zoning.   This is even more basic than that.

It is a massive expansion of councilmanic privilege.

And yeah, this legislation came out of the hands of a Republican too boot.

The only way this could get worse is if O’Neill then proposed you get his permission before you switched from Comcast over to FiOS for your apartment tenants.

I said at the beginning of this article that O’Neill can go eat a bag of dicks.   When the new Zoning Code was put into effect he didn’t even wait a year before he tried to start messing with it by trying to fatten parking requirements on most residential and commercial property.   He then came back very quickly and went for another bill to ban automotive businesses in his district (remember, it’s the Northeast).  Then O’Neill came back again with a dim-witted bill going after daycare centers.

Every single time Councilman O’Neill has attempted to tinker with the Philadelphia Zoning Code it’s been for dumb-ass shit that doesn’t make sense outside his district and rarely makes sense in his own.

I hope Johnny Doc is reading this article today.   This bill certainly doesn’t help Local 98 electricians get any new business.   Maybe Doc can make some quick phone calls to ensure this thing never finds its way out of committee.

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phillysreal

In case you haven’t heard, Point Breeze has a bit of a Hebrew problem lately.

Specifically it has to do with those of the Hebrew persuasion who play in the real estate market, owning rental properties and developing property. Even more specifically: in the case of a late-night zoning meeting at South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., with Jewish people presenting development projects slated to go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

All but a couple of presenters at a zoning meeting Monday evening were Jewish.  There were eight items calendared for the meeting, which is a lot.   At the very end of this meeting, Tiffany Green of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze made a rather anti-Semitic comment which infuriated Ori Feibush, a real estate developer seated 5 chairs beside her.

Feibush was told to “go back to Israel”.   Feibush is originally from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and has been a Pennsylvanian his entire life.

Feibush, who lives in Point Breeze, was not proposing any developments at that meeting.

Most of the meeting was the same group complaint that has existed in the neighborhood for the last ten years:  A group of people upset over taxes and the sales price of real estate still continue to believe that the zoning process is the way to go to voice complaints.   The Philadelphia Zoning Code only regulates what you can do with your land and the maximum dimensions of improvements (i.e. buildings) that can be placed on that land.

Zoning doesn’t regulate how ugly something can be or what someone decides to sell their home for.  It never has.  And it never will.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone.   Concerned Citizens randomly appears at every zoning meeting proposing any development.  Neighborhood residents call the dynamic duo “TNT”, for Tiffany and Theresa.

Recently there was a wild diatribe from Tiffany Green calling out the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to be racist.   She threatened to summon the Reverend Al Sharpton to come to Philadelphia to admonish the Kenney Administration and the Planning Commission.

City Council has also had drop-ins from TNT from time to time.  Councilman Bobby Henon got an earful once over a bill intended to keep single-issue community groups from pretending to be general-purpose civic associations before the City Planning Commission, overturning a measure from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell that temporarily allowed Concerned Citizens to become a Registered Community Organization–where it would vote “no” to any zoning case and then communicate to the City that it speaks on behalf of every Point Breeze resident.

Point Breeze has been dominated by absentee landlords for the last half-century.  Many of those landlords live in Southampton Township and Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania–long known to be an exodus suburb for many Jewish families who left Philadelphia since the 1950s.   Consequently many of those landlords have sensed the market in Point Breeze shift over the last 10 years and have been selling and upgrading properties, and thus raising rents and racial tension.

I caught some video outside the RCO meeting which basically is a culmination of all of the last 10 years worth of griping, back-and-forths which sounds like TV static.

At first glance, all this seems fairly ugly.   In reality the transformation of Point Breeze into an upward-moving community is all but completed.   Rehabbing of existing two-story homes now happens at a much faster pace in Point Breeze than new home construction, a trend that kicked off four years ago.  Most home rehabbers don’t pull permits that would trigger zoning, so they never have to appear before neighbors to upgrade existing homes to install quartz countertops and plank flooring.

In reality the best answer for affordable home development are Housing Choice Vouchers, PHA construction and loan assists for the rehabbing of more shells to give to lower income residents.   Councilman Kenyatta Johnson has instead preferred to hold land out for large scale tax-credit affordable housing construction which has average sales prices of $195K-$250K a home.

Given these realities, pulling out some Jew-hate is about the only trick out of the bag that Concerned Citizens can use to get attention (which, it this case it worked).   How bringing up the Hebrew religion will do a thing about real estate prices is a mystery.

Point Breeze will someday reach a point where there’s few vacant lots worth building on, zoning requests will decline and the opportunities to create shitshows like this one will become fewer and farther between.  Until then, the shitshows will continue.

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“Point Breeze Zoning Meeting” probably should be the name of the next great hipster-millenialkin band.

 

I don’t know if anyone gives a shit, but this was what the zoning meeting was about.  I’ll put it in non-technical language for you.

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On this map there’s two magenta blobs.  The zoning meeting was for the bigger magenta blob on the left: 2010 Wharton Street.  The smaller magenta blob on the right, 2012 Wharton Street, has already gone to zoning.  Neighbors thought they finally had a valid argument to defeat that project by complaining about parking.   So, parking was added, which immediately flipped the opinion back the other way: now there is too much parking.  It appeared before the Philadelphia City Planning Commission three times, has gone before the Zoning Board of Adjustment twice, and finally the City decided that having industrially-zoned property surrounded by a sea of dense residential RSA-5, RM-1 housing and CMX-2 commercial is stupid.  [On a Philly zoning map, shit that is industrial is colored some shade of purple]

Then, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson gave a boost to the registered community organization, South Philadelphia HOMES, to appeal the zoning decision in court.   This means the appellants are trying to convince a Philadelphia judge that a factory or a gas station is the best use of property next to their homes.   This parcel had an abandoned warehouse which has since been demolished.  The developer of the right-side parcel is, of course, OCF Realty.

The left-side parcel is what the meeting was about last night.   It’s nearly the exact-same development as the right-side parcel.   Another vacant industrial building.  Another demolition permit.

ICMX [Industrial-Commercial Mixed Use] zoning has an unusual twist about it:  housing is not included as an allowable use on ICMX-zoned land, unlike almost all the other zoning categories in the Philadelphia Code.

The only complaint that ever comes up at a Point Breeze zoning meeting is the same running theme:  the price of privately-owned property.

And, once again, residents still have a perception that the zoning code is the way to control housing prices.

Nowhere in Title 14 of the Philadelphia Code, where zoning, use, signage and historical preservation laws for the city are set, is there any mention over housing prices.   Title 14 also can’t regulate how ugly houses can be; what color you paint your house, whether you use cheap lumpy stucco and laminate windows [unless of course your house is on the Historic Register], etc. etc.

But, that won’t stop the bitchfest.

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Honestly.  I don’t think I even need to comment on how stupid this is.

Except… this house is in Kensington and apparently it’s under-agreement.   Well, there’s a sold sign on the front (around the corner) anyway.  This house was one of the last to sneak through the old zoning code before it was changed to ban off-street parking in RSA-5 zoning districts.  Construction start was slow, but It was finally put up recently by Steve Shklovsky and Shimi Zakin of Metro Impact, a Southampton, PA based “luxe” homebuilder.   Or, as I sometimes call them… Metro Impaction.

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When the house went to zoning years ago the refusal was only for rear yard depth. The RCO over the property, East Kensington Neighborhood Association, opposed the variance on grounds of the curb cut and garage front.  With an impending change to the zoning code coming, Metro Impact paid to fast-track this property through under the old code.

One wonders what the Streets Department is gonna do with this problem.   As you can see that’s brand new concrete around the stormwater inlet and that is a fireplug to the left.  My guess here is this design decision to put a garage front art this spot was likely a result of a dispute with the city over relocating the fire plug to accommodate the house, where the car would have went into the rear yard.

There’s not even any parking pressure here and the MFL is literally steps away, so the garage isn’t even a premium.

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2010 Wharton Street (rendering)
2010 Wharton Street (rendering)

Philadelinquency received a call this morning from Deborah Cianfrani, Esq., (who also ran for judge this year!) legal counsel representing a small group of neighbors and three community organizations in Point Breeze trying to stop a set of 22 rowhomes going up at 20th and Wharton, which the ZBA approved last month.

Soon after, Theresa McCormick from Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze filed a pro se appeal which will likely go nowhere.

Now that there is a second appeal with an actual lawyer, the question obviously turns to… ‘what’s the basis for appeal?’

“The appeal is based on hardship and violating the one year rule”, Cianfrani said.

The One Year Rule refers to §14-303(2)(g) which blocks a zoning application from being considered if it’s exactly the same as a previous application which was already denied for the same property.

The other much more fluid objection is hardship.

The concept of hardship comes from two Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decisions which set the tone for how most zoning appeals travel through the courts.   These cases are Valley View Civic Association vs. ZBA (1983)  and E. Torresdale Civic Association vs. ZBA (1994).    A 2008 article in the Legal Intelligencer explains what hardship means:

The reasons for granting a variance must be substantial, serious and compelling. The party seeking the variance bears the burden of proving that unnecessary hardship will result if the variance is denied and the proposed use will not be contrary to the public interest. The hardship must be shown to be unique or peculiar to the property, as distinguished from a hardship arising from the impact of zoning regulations on an entire district.  Moreover, mere evidence that the zoned use is less financially rewarding than the proposed use is insufficient to justify a variance. In evaluating hardship, the use of adjacent and surrounding land is unquestionably relevant.

2010 Wharton Street is nearly entirely surrounded by residential property as it’s buried deep inside a residential community.   The current zoning of ICMX only allows commercial and industrial uses of the property.  No housing is permitted.

I asked Cianfrani if she thinks any appeal judge will consider either the Planning Commission testimony or the ZBA’s ruling that rezoning the property to permit residential uses there is what’s the best course for the property.   She said “while that was planned, Councilman [Kenyatta] Johnson has not passed any legislation to permit residential there.”

One of the hardship arguments brought by objectors to the project indicated that the “community wanted a grocery store there”.    That was considered by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and ruled out because the lot configuration would not allow for any realistically-sized grocery store and parking together on the lot, and not without considerable expense to construct a building on raised piles to have the grocery store elevated above the level of the surrounding rowhomes to give room for parking, or to build a very ugly ramp and cover the roof of the building with parking spaces.

Another objection that some community members raised in the housing proposal was street parking.  This was accommodated by designing a straight-thru drive entrance and a partial ramp under each house would turn the back of each rowhome into a carport.

The parcel is a half block commercial property, far away from Point Breeze’s commercial corridor; Point Breeze Avenue.  Before the warehouse that was there was knocked down it was being used for storage.  There hasn’t been any commercial or industrial interest in the property for ages.

I asked Cianfrani what her expectations are to prevail on the appeal.  She sounds very confident that this will.    It may score a victory in Common Pleas or maybe on a second appeal to Commonwealth Court, but one has to wonder how the Penna Supremes will deal with it.

Before everyone went on Labor Day holiday, there was a dust-up over whether Councilman Johnson was an actual appellant in the case or not.  Cianfrani told Jared Brey, a reporter for PlanPhilly, “the Councilperson gave his consent to be a plaintiff“.   Apparently that story has changed.   Cianfrani now tells me that Point Breeze CDC had told her that Johnson was not going to participate in the case, but South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. director Claudia Sherrod had given mixed signals that he was.

One thing the fracas does make clear though:  Kenyatta Johnon has no intention to approve legislation to rezone this property.  Doing so would undermine both lawsuits.

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