This story broke over the holiday week so it didn't get as much play, but the Court of Common Pleas struck down the Zoning Board of Adjustment's highly political ruling against Post Brothers' proposed industrial-to-residential conversion of the Quaker Building in North Philly.
Post is proposing to retrofit the Quaker Building, a giant industrial building at 9th and Poplar that's been vacant for 20 years, with 350 apartments. The ZBA always approves industrial conversions like this, and had recently approved several similar projects close by. The ZBA also approves more than 90% of all zoning variance requests in general, and this has only increased since Mayor Kenney's appointees were seated, so it's always a little odd to see them vote something down.
In this case, the No vote was entirely political. The building trades have a controlling vote on the ZBA, and at the hearing, things started going south for the Quaker proposal after a project supporter brought up that Post had struck a minority hiring agreement as a condition for receiving support from one of the RCOs, Richard Allen Homes. The project supporter saw this as a selling point, but for the ZBA it was a major demerit since the building trades members are mostly white men from the suburbs of Philly and South Jersey. ZBA members discovered a newfound sentimentality for industrial uses and voted it down.
The Board was nearly embarrassed into holding a rare revote after they received a lot of critical media attention, but then they declined to do that, leaving the issue to the Court of Common Pleas to decide. Now the Court has decided, and they reversed the ZBA's decision.
That was clearly the right call in this case, and it's good to see there's at least some backstop to prevent the most egregious special interest corruption. Having the courts function as our zoning board is obviously not ideal, but they've been playing that role more and more, with very little political accountability.
The best solution would be for City Councilmembers to finish zoning remapping, with an eye toward matching the zoning to what is most economically feasible for the location, taking land values and market conditions into account along with neighborhood preferences. Instead, several Councilmembers (most notably Jannie Blackwell, Kenyatta Johnson, and Cindy Bass) are choosing to leave outdated zoning in place to preserve more veto points for them to negotiate. That's the exact opposite of how things are supposed to work post-2012 zoning reform.
That's not usually Darrell Clarke's M.O.—he has no problem rezoning neighborhoods, but has bad ideas about what to do—though in this case he should have stepped in after the ZBA nonsense and rezoned the Quaker Building legislatively, rather than rolling the dice in the courts.
To stay in the loop on political news, events, and updates from Philadelphia 3.0, sign up for our email newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.