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Parker Admin Moves To Prevent Pandemic-Era Zoning Delay Crisis From Happening Again

Delayed zoning approvals caused months-long wait times for applicants during the height of the pandemic and beyond. Now, the new mayor of Philadelphia is taking action to prevent future pileups.

Southern Land Co.'s Eva Walker and Tim Downey listen as Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker speaks at the dedication of The Laurel building at 1911 Walnut St. on April 17, 2024.

Mayor Cherelle Parker moved late last week to allow the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment to reduce the number of members that must be present to hold hearings on applications, asking the city council to introduce a bill that would allow ZBA votes to move forward if just four of seven members are in attendance. Previously, the ZBA, as well as the city's Land Bank, was often short of board members present to make decisions at hearings. 

The ZBA began falling behind during the pandemic, causing about six-month waits for applicants to get necessary approvals, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Those delays reportedly negatively impacted applicants, from arts groups to commercial real estate developers, especially as interest rates rose.

Philadelphia's CRE industry has pressed for changes to the permit and zoning process, which local leaders claim delayed projects for months, Bisnow previously reported.

“Now with interest rates, time is money,” John Mondlak, interim director of planning and development, said in the Inquirer interview. “When interest rates are high, it’s a significant hurt on your carrying costs. If you can get people through the permitting a lot quicker, that saves them money that allows production to increase.”

The legislation is still in limbo since the team for Council President Kenyatta Johnson took issue with some language in that bill, delaying approval to put the measure on the council's agenda.

Johnson’s team is working to introduce the bill “as soon as we can,” his communications director told the Inquirer.

To improve the zoning process, the Parker administration is also seeking to educate business owners on how to apply for zoning changes, as many have had their cases postponed due to misunderstanding what is required. No reform bill has yet been outlined, however.

The administration is also looking at other solutions to streamline the process, Mondlak said in April.

Currently, the city requires those seeking an exception to zoning rules to meet with a local Registered Community Organization, which is meant to force developers to garner community support but can cause further delays.

The mayor's office is also looking at zoning overlays that amount to hyperlocal laws council members can set for specific districts. Center City's zoning overlay allows zoning for the tallest kinds of residential buildings but restricts any type of student housing, for example.

In addition, technicalities can trigger unnecessary hearings for zoning applicants, Mondlak said. Affordable housing projects often turn into cases because of plans to add community rooms, which are technically against the law in some residential zoning districts. Even the city's own Philadelphia Housing Authority has had to plead its case in hearings.

Mondlak said that city planning officials are meeting with the council on the topic.

“Some of them want different zones, they want different uses, they’re specific about certain things,” Mondlak told the Inquirer. “We just have to have those conversations.”