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After 'Unsustainable' Pace Of CDR Hearings In 2021, Philly's Planning Department Releases New Guidance

Like so many individuals and institutions, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission has been pushed to the breaking point by the seemingly endless pandemic.

Philadelphia City Hall

To both increase predictability for developers and manage the workload of the city's urban planners, PCPC has made a policy tweak to its Civic Design Review process and issued guidance on how to work with its staff and the CDR board.

The most concrete change is that building applications must be submitted at least four weeks before the date of the CDR hearing that an applicant requests, up from three weeks. But applicants should prepare for a 10-week wait from when a completed application is submitted without errors, PCPC Director of Art & Design Beige Berryman told reporters at a virtual press briefing Jan. 4.

"We're trying to normalize and manage people's expectations, because oftentimes there's an expectation that when [a developer] submits an application, three weeks later they'll get on an agenda and be done in a month, when we cannot make such guarantees," Philadelphia Deputy Director of Planning and Zoning Eleanor Sharpe said at the briefing. "We want to normalize 10 weeks so that if it happens earlier, great, but that there's no expectation that it will happen in less time."

The change is not intended to slow down the already-tedious process of moving a development proposal through various city departments, Planning Department spokesperson Paul Chrystie said, citing "peer cities" such as Boston, Portland and Baltimore for which a 10-week wait to have a design hearing is average to above average.

With the 10-year tax abatement that Philly developers say they depend on to make their projects profitable having changed at the end of the year, CDR responded to the rush of applicants by shortening the application wait and squeezing in more proposals and hearings in the back half of the year, Chrystie said. CDR heard proposals for 90 projects in 2021, with 55 in the final six months, whereas only 52 proposals were heard by CDR in all of 2018, according to PCPC data.

Beige Berryman, an urban planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, speaks at a virtual press briefing on Jan. 4, 2022.

“We were a little more amenable to squeezing projects in because of the deadline the changes to the 10-year tax abatement presented," Chrystie said. "Folks need to be cognizant that it’s not going to happen in 2022.”

The elevated pace of proposals is not expected to abate this year as the multifamily pipeline is set to break records again in the city, according to research from Drexel University's Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. With CDR hearings being conducted virtually for the foreseeable future, the technological components of both presenting proposals and facilitating comments from the CDR board and members of the public are more demanding for PCPC staff than in-person hearings were, Berryman said.

"The level of intensity of 2021 is not sustainable," she said. "So we want to get through this as best and as smoothly as we can, but we just currently don't have the resources to continue that level of intensity for 2022."

In the interest of keeping timelines predictable, PCPC is officially stressing three points for developers to keep in mind regarding the CDR process, on top of the new submission deadline:

  • Developers should not bother submitting a CDR application until the Department of Licenses & Inspections has referred the project in question to PCPC staff.
  • PCPC staff is available to meet with developers ahead of a proposal's submission to check applications for errors or missing pieces likely to cause confusion or delays.
  • Developers that already have met with the Registered Community Organization for a project's surrounding neighborhood will be given priority in scheduling over those that have merely scheduled an RCO meeting.