New day, new way indeed: we now have a David Auspitz-less zoning board

The king of zoning has given back his crown.

From the Inquirer:

David Auspitz has resigned as chairman of the city Zoning Board of Adjustment after nearly five years in the job.

Auspitz, a board member for 10 years, said yesterday that he submitted his resignation Dec. 17 and officially left the board Monday.

Mayor Nutter, who had criticized Auspitz's stewardship, is expected to name a replacement soon.

This opens space for a real shift in the balance of power between the ZBA and the city planning department. With an ongoing wholesale redrafting of the zoning code, the new administration is entering with something close to a blank slate.

The old day and old way is pretty familiar. Mandatory central air systems and near-autocracy:

While chairman, he was known to offer his opinions on development, parking garages, architectural design, and even his favorite foods. He also could dress down a powerful zoning lawyer or a civic-association volunteer or crack jokes.

Nutter once compared the board's proceedings to television's Judge Judy show.

Dan and I saw this in action. The room was Mr. Auspitz's domain, and everyone else was a supplicant. The planning department was both literally and effectively sidelined.

We have a chance for a much more efficient and transparent system. So it is crucial that the zoning redrafting process effectively balance interests. Keep an eye on for chances to participate, learn, and weigh in.

So much hope and expectation has been laid on this new administration; everyone wants this to finally be the city we know it can be. But here's literally a chance to create a framework for good development and to change the way things get built.

See ya, old way.

In other participatory city planning-related news...

The City Planning Commission plans to hold five public meetings in different areas of Philadelphia this month to hear how residents envision the city's future.

The effort, called "Imagine Philadelphia: Laying the Foundation," is aimed at helping the commission in developing a plan for the city and assisting the Zoning Code Commission in rewriting land-use regulations.

The meetings, all to be held from 6 to 8 p.m., are scheduled as follows:

Jan. 15: North Philadelphia Seventh Day Adventist Church, 1510-14 W. Oxford St.
Jan. 16: Lithuanian Music Hall, 2715 E. Allegheny Ave.
Jan. 22: Convention Center, Rooms 102 A-B, 12th and Arch Streets.
Jan. 29: Center in the Park, 5818 Germantown Ave.
Jan. 31: Roxborough Memorial Hospital, 5800 Ridge Ave.

Additional meetings will be scheduled in February. For more information visit

There are also some steps being made on the Plan Philly-cherished idea of getting subway or light rail transit down Delaware Avenue along the waterfront:

The Philadelphia proposals are:

Old City to Pier 70. A light-rail or trolley route would run from the now-closed PATCO station at Franklin Square (at Sixth and Race Streets) to Spring Garden Street, then down Columbus Boulevard to the Pier 70 shopping plaza. Later extensions could be made to the stadium complex and to the Navy Yard. Estimated cost: $700 million (to Pier 70 only).

A variation on that proposal would extend the existing SEPTA subway-surface trolley lines to Franklin Square via subway under Arch and Cherry Streets, and then continue to Pier 70.

Eighth and Market to Pier 70. This would extend SEPTA's subway-surface trolley service on or under Market Street to Front Street, where it would cross over I-95 and travel along the median of Columbus Boulevard, north to Spring Garden Street and south to Pier 70. Later extensions could be made to the stadium complex and to the Navy Yard. Estimated cost: $1 billion (to Pier 70 only).

The information sessions will run from 6 to 8 p.m. No formal program is planned, and visitors may arrive at any time during the open house to view presentation boards and talk to DRPA representatives. These are the locations:

Jan. 22: Painted Bride Art Center, Gallery Cafe, 230 Vine St.

Jan. 24: Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1001 S. Fourth St.

Re: particpatory planning -- expanded

(because I want this to go back up towards the top of recent comments).

Does anyone know of any particular civic/advocacy groups that will be a part of these public meetings?

It seems that these meetings could be a great opportunity for a NN or a PFC or other advocacy groups to function to represent citizens.

A comprehensive and collaborative participatory planning process should, necessarily, involve civic and advocacy groups to help educate contituents and represent the collective needs/goals of various stakeholders.

Let's call a spade a spade-this guy was an embarassment

Why is the press, except for Inga Saffron, so hesitant to say what we all know, including Mayor Nutter, that David Auspitz was an EMBARASSMENT. "Dress down"? How about downright insulting and a bully? He made no pretense of ever applying the zoning code. He even told the real estate bar association "don't come at me with the Zoning Code". He would rubber stamp the big projects, but the losers were the smaller developers, small businesses and howeowners and the city as a whole. He made a point to insult everyone who was involved in the process: lawyers, architects, planners and residents alike. No one ever got a fair hearing. Good riddance.

The only good thing that came of this guy is that his abuses spurred zoning reform.

Haha, priceless

"Don't come at me with the zoning code."

Putting aside the politics

Putting aside the politics of the ZBA/Planning Department balance of power aside, and as much fun as everyone has knocking both Auspitz and the "old way" more broadly, I'd like someone to briefly state how it is that planning can be as specific as to dictate what happens on a property by property basis, and secondly, (since you really only get one shot at this) how it is that planners with limited expertise can possibly take into account shifts in the economy we'd be nonsensical to even dream about today (i.e. will planners leave room in 2008 for Francis Xavier's 2020 dream of building steel plate in Philadelphia? I won't hold my breath.).

My strong belief is that, in both cases, it cannot.

And while, yes, a good discussion about how the city can better link zoning and planning would be incredibly healthy for all of our futures, if you want planning to be as specific as property by property, you should be ready to answer what I am characterizing as the central question of the zoning code rewrite: if you want to be crystal clear about what uses/designs are allowable on what properties (thus limiting variances), whose power you will be taking away: local residents/neighborhoods or businesses and developers?

I go back to my original example:

Let's say that I want to open up a dog kennel and I find what we can all reasonably argue is an "out of the way" industrial property (say, over 3000 feet from the closest residence and surrounded by...I don't know...permitted concrete plants). A planner would probably say, ok, this is an area of the city we've designated to be used for industrial purposes. But, zoningwise, let's say this is a G-2 property, which means that to put certain users here, per the Zoning Code, we need to go before the Zoning Board. For all intents and purposes, this use should be granted a permit. But let's say that XXX Neighborhood Association is up in arms. They don't like that there will be increased traffic, and they "fear" it will smell (and let's say the reality is that it will not).

Now, to clean up the overcrowding of the ZBA's schedule, we've "reworked" the Zoning Code to say that this property is no longer G-2, but instead LR (or, planners have deemed this property to be for industrial uses and this falls under that category so...bang, instant permit). A hearing is no longer required for this use, and L&I can grant you a permit the same day you come in and apply for it. You've eliminated the need for the hearing and simplified the zoning code, but effectively taken power away from local residents (whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a separate debate). Let's say instead that your "reworking" process updated the code to say that this is a nuisance regardless of where it is, and therefore this use is no longer allowed on this or any similar property. You've not taken power away from local residents, but you've effectively taken power away from prospective users. Oh and by the way you've also significantly increased the property values of every one of the (limited) properties on which this use is actually allowed, probably above what the market will support for this (or similar uses). (And as an aside, expecting the Planning Department, with their limited expertise, to possibly define "nuisance," or even, I would argue, "industrial" is inviting problems.)

Assuming that planning is important, assuming that there are certainly ways that you can update the Zoning Code to be more in line with the 21st century, and assuming that there are ways to improve the process itself, to me it comes down to one fundamental theme: if you are going to truly refocus zoning in Philadelphia - as I think has been your underlying argument in this and other posts - who's power are you taking away?

I'm not playin' around about it.

If the reform goes well, everyone will lose a little power

The idea is to reduce the number of variances being requested, and to update the code to better fit our neighborhood and the uses that inhabit them.
The problem right now is that there is no predictability since too many cases go to the ZBA, which compelled the owner to go through a meat grinder which involved the councilman, the community group, and the angry next door neighbor, and the bum on the street. It was a fiasco, and Auspitz loved it because he was arrogant and loved the power.

Get a Clue About Zoning and Urban Planning

Obviously you have no clue about zoning or urban planning and you like a dysfunctional approval system where you think everybody wins, which I guess they do as the rules are largely made up on a project by project basis. That being said, I'll try again.

First, comprehensive plans and zoning codes should be redone no less than every 20 years, not 50 years to reflect changes in society, land use, architecture and other social and design issues. Once a plan and a zoning code is done it is out of date. However, are we better off with 50 year old plans and codes that have been incompletely and non methodically patched and tweaked in a haphazard way or with a new zoning code based on a new comprehensive plan?

Every property in Philadelphia, and in nearly all incorporated areas in America is zoned. If you do not want zoning either move to Houston or buy your own island. If you want consensus and discussion of every development project move to a kibbutz. (You could actually try to combine both ideas by starting a kibbutz in Houston and seeing what happens. There might be some grant money for this someplace. Also, a potential for a documentary or a reality show. You might want to move forward with the reality show idea now as the networks need content due to the writers' strike.)

Second, as I've mentioned before, there will be winners and losers with a new zoning code, though overall, the City and the building and design process will benefit. The real power you are taking away by redoing the zoning code is the power of City Councilman and cretins like Auspitz who like to control power and make decisions based on whims and a sense of what they view as being good for a property and more importantly good for their own sense of well being and self actualization. The current (lack of process) costs time, money, energy and effort for developers and residents, and leads to a sense that in many cases there are no rules as nearly any project of any size requires a variance, and as noted before by others Auspitz and the ZBA could have cared less in most cases what the zoning code called for.

Without going into a long discussion about zoning, in your dog kennel case, if it is not allowed on a specific property, the owner of the property will be allowed other uses for the property. The person wanted to buy or use the property for the dog kennel will be able to buy or use another property zoned for a dog kennel as a dog kennel. Might this be inconvenient and disallow a property for a dog kennel, where there would appear to be no real problem, opposition or downside, yes; such is one of the aspects of zoning. Maybe there is a good, but not obvious, reason for not allowing a dog kennel on a specific property, or maybe it was an oversight when the zoning code was written. Maybe dog kennels could result in health issues that can impact the concrete plant next door or can result in overburdening the sewer system in the area when combined with the sewer needs for the concrete plant. Maybe concrete dust is dangerous for dogs' respiratory systems. Or in your second case, maybe dog kennels are a good use in industrial use areas and this is decided when the new zoning code is written. Maybe there is a cat lover (who of course hates dogs) who owns the concrete factory next door to a location where a new dog kennel is opening as of right under the new zoning code. Maybe the new dog kennel will be painted red and the owner of the concrete factory hates red but likes green. You know what, society benefits from zoning and sometimes things happen in life that we do not like but that are generally considered reasonable and good for the health, safety and welfare of the community.

Planning departments can readily define a nuisance and what constitutes certain appropriate uses in a industrial area. ("Gee, Mr. Planner, would a playground be a good use in a industrial area?" "I'm not sure, I have no training in land use or zoning or development, nor any idea of where to get information to help me formulate a wise decision.") Believe it or not, there is a whole field of professional training and practice know as urban planning. There are extensive books, conferences and best practices in this field.

Well said, ELP

Three businessmen are caught in a monsoon on their way home, and are forced to find a hotel for the night. Unfortunately, there is only one room left at the hotel where they all arrive simultaneously. Told the room costs 30 bucks, they each throw in a ten-spot, and head to their room. Realizing he forget that there was a special $25 rate that night, the manager gives the bellhop five one-dollar bills, and tells him to give the businessmen the $5 refund.

The bellhop thinks to himself, 1)how will they divide five one dollar bills and 2)Coors light is on special, and he could use a drink. So, he pockets two bucks for himself, and gives the dudes a dollar a piece.

So, the guys each paid 9 bucks for their room- or a collective $27. The bellhop took his two bucks. That is a total of $29. What happened to the other buck?


The answer is that the equation (3*9)+ 2 is itself wrong, and just designed to get you thinking about the wrong thing. In fact, the real equation is that the room cost 27 bucks, $25 for the room and $2 for the bellhop tax. They split it evenly.


Why do I bring that up, other than I am in a motel room in Alameda, CA, and sort of bored? Because the underlying problem of incorrect math is what I thought about when I read Fran's post.

In other words, it is not about taking away the rights of developers or community members. You can make a zoning code exceptionally lax or exceptionally strict, each with their own issues and balances of power. The point of this 'ding dong the witch is dead' moment is not that we are taking power away from community groups, but that we are taking it away from a cookie laced dictator.

OK, so, I read what I wrote, and think, 'boy that reads like the comment of a crazy person.' I should have just said 'ditto.' Or, well said.

This is War, Peacock.

As much fun as "ding-dong the witch is dead" moments probably are for some, it's not clear to me that having fun at someone else's expense and dreaming up new "cookie" inclusive dysphemisms really accomplishes much of substance (so be nice Dan, or I'll bring up that time you didn't know the difference between a delinquent mortgage and a foreclosure). This is about so much more.

Now, elp, in between mean-spirited statements like "obviously you have no clue" (unless you know that my favorite movie is Clue?), you do say a few substantive things that would be fun to fist-fight over. Although, reading what you wrote, with the exception of the power of planning in terms of its specificity at the property level, I bet we would agree on more things than we would disagree.

you like a dysfunctional approval system where you think everybody wins, which I guess they do as the rules are largely made up on a project by project basis."

There's a grain of truth to the first half of your statement. I do dream of a world where the process incorporates smart planning, but somehow still allows for some form of efficient, low cost, and short-lived project-by-project process by which all sides have some input in reasonable instances. As Auspitz himself once said, "Fewer restrictions in the zoning code would probably benefit developers, and leave communities with fewer opportunities to participate." And as you say in your comment above, "...there will be winners and losers with a new zoning code..." Or, as Carl Primavera of Klehr Harrison once said in a Philadelphia Weekly piece, "Everybody needs to pull back and agree to give up a little bit of power." I'm simply saying: why should this be the case?

Undoubtedly, you and others will argue that input from all sides on the front-end, when the zoning code is rewritten, is the way to ensure a most democratic process. A perfectly logical argument - I just don't believe in the notion that this is or should be a fully objective process whereby all parties can and will sit down and compromise in such a broad manner. I also strongly disagree with your statement that "Planning Departments can readily define a nuisance and what constitutes certain appropriate uses in an industrial area." Even if I did agree with you, my sense is that it would be both unreasonable and nearly impossible to develop something to account for the uniqueness - uniquely good and uniquely bad - of individual projects and the changing nature of industries cited in the code as time and technology advance. My process, which is more of a patchwork (at its worst) and open source (at its best) approach, would account for this.

As for the second half of your statement, the notion that the law allows city council members to alter the code in the self-serving ways that they sometimes do, or that the process allows someone like Auspitz (or his successor) to make decisions based seemingly on whims, is, like most things politically motivated, disgusting. We agree fully here, but the two halves of your statement are not necessarily mutually inclusive as you imply.

There's more to say, specifically with respect to the fact that you've oversimplified my dog kennel example, as is evidenced by the following statement:

Might this be inconvenient and disallow a property for a dog kennel, where there would appear to be no real problem, opposition or downside, yes; such is one of the aspects of zoning.

It actually does not have to be "one of the aspects of zoning," but that will have to wait for another sunny day, as we've unfortunately run out of time.

I'm not playin' around about it.

Here's my stab at some of this

Basically I think about what gets built and what gets denied under the status quo.

Ideally, to me, rezoning would increase the possibilities for what gets built, within certain 'good planning' guidelines.

On a certain level, sure, the ad hoc politically-oriented status quo means that a lot of people get to weigh in with each proposal. That's the power that you say will be lost with the rezoning.

But we all know that that sort of 'democracy' is not perfectly efficient, far from it. Only certain voices get heard, and money is a big piece of that, both somewhat legitimately and less so (the whole councilmatic privilege, machine-style parts of the system).

So, the voices that get heard aren't some universal representation of the interests of the community. What follows from that is that there are a lot of interests that naturally get lost under the current system. The interests of people who need rooming houses or halfway houses or various forms of subsidized housing. People who want to start responsible businesses in predominantly residential areas.

So David Auspitz's ZBA will disallow and disallow responsible mixed use, and then arbitrarily start permitting it when they think a street is a 'lost cause' to commercial uses even though it was all originally zoned residential. Or he'll grant height variances that no one wants but him and a developer. Meanwhile lack of money or political influence stops projects that would otherwise be okayed.

A good rezoning would overcome these inefficiencies. It would open up more room for positive development that nonetheless doesn't fit the mold envisioned by a fifty-year-old zoning code.

And there are always points of political influence to shape and limit development. But they won't be centralized in the hands of one councilperson and one man on one board.

Just checking

Nobody's abolishing the ZBA, right? There still will be a way to apply for zoning exemptions, and for community and neighborhood groups to have a say in what gets approved for an exemption. It's just that with a reformed zoning code, those applications won't be universally necessary for virtually every project, and with a reformed zoning board, those exemptions will come out of a more rational process.



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