Officials in Philadelphia city government expect a certain type of person to object when a new development project comes up for public hearing before the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the City Planning Commission, says Joe Schiavo, chair of the zoning committee at the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition. And for the most part, that stereotype is grounded in experience.
For all the effort and time it takes to show up at a meeting on a weekday and wait through hearings on unrelated projects just to learn, as is often the case, that the hearing you’re interested in will be postponed, the process weeds out those whose passion can be quelled by inconvenience. The rare few who make it through the slog can come off as hysterical, fist-pounding NIMBYites, because they shout and scream, point fingers at officials and, in fact, pound their fists on tables.
Joe Schiavo is not one of these stereotypical objectors, though over the last fourteen years he has become a self-described “zoning geek” and has worked in a number of roles to preserve the character of the Old City neighborhood where he has lived and worked since 1981.
“It’s interesting that in my many attempts to reach out to city council and the mayor, about zoning issues among other things, they’ve been startled that I’ve approached them from a rational perspective. This says a lot about how they see the public,” Schiavo says.
But city government’s apparent surprise, which might offend some, hasn’t changed Schiavo’s approach.
At a recent meeting of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, which represents 19 neighborhood civic groups from across the city, Schiavo showed just how unruffled he can remain even when discussing the maddening world of zoning in the city. Of all the coalition members, most of whom are lawyers and all of whom are well-educated and knowledgeable about city policies, Schiavo was the coolest. He remained calm as he spoke for more than a half hour about the tangled dysfunction of the zoning system, which he has attempted to navigate on the coalition’s behalf.
The other members who commented during Schiavo’s talk were flustered with the inconsistencies. Their voices rose as they described the backward appeals and variance processes for new developments. Others listened as they leaned back in cushioned office chairs around the long, polished board table at the law offices of Aston Kill in the PNC Bank Building on Market Street. Schiavo sat forward in his chair and wore a sleek black turtleneck, his close cropped hair and precise diction betraying his earlier life as a retailer of fine European furniture and lighting. He looked and sounded unlike nearly anyone else in the room, yet he seemed at ease and more sure of the intricacies and jargon of zoning than many of those with law degrees who sat around the table.
As Ryan Briggs reported in City Paper last year, after nearly six years of attempted reform under Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, the Zoning Board of Adjustment still spends an inordinate amount of time and money hearing requests for variances to the newly updated zoning code. Briggs showed that the ZBA’s metrics for granting variances were unclear, often favoring requests that include off-street parking that disrupts pedestrian flow, but refusing requests that exceed the height restrictions or density limits in the code. Lawyers familiar with zoning regulations told Briggs that city council members got their hands on the updated code before it was finished, adding unnecessary complexity which has resulted in the continued dysfunction of the board.
Schiavo, who closely followed the creation of the new code over the last four years, says the problem lies not with the content of the code, but with how it’s applied. “I think the zoning code is good. But a new zoning code doesn’t fix our problems if the culture doesn’t change with it,” he says.
Coalition members say Schiavo and his committee are key in navigating these complexities. Ilene Wilder, chair of the coalition’s communications committee, and a former DC lobbyist, says Schiavo’s confidence and clarity comes with experience. “These guys, like Joe, really enjoy what they’re doing here. They’re good at translating the legal language so the rest of us can understand it. And someone like Joe, who is retired, uses the coalition to keep his hand in the game.”
Sam Little, an architect and former president of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, says Schiavo warned him and others in his group about how proposed changes to the zoning code might affect their neighborhood. Though they didn’t know it at first, the changes could allow a 12-story building to be built right next to a three-story townhouse. Schiavo helped Little and the LSNA draft and present a letter to city council to voice their concerns.
But Schiavo, who says civic engagement was not something he grew up with, did not arrive fully-formed as a dispassionate zoning geek. It took a creeping change in the neighborhood where he lived and did business for decades to spur him to action.
Schiavo and his partner, Janet Kalter, established their furniture and lighting business, OLC, on North 3rd Street in Old City back in 1981, just as the neighborhood started to change. In 1986, William A. Kingsley, then-president of the Old City Civic Association, told the New York Times that the shift from the 1970s, when the neighborhood was mostly wholesale retail and light industry, to the mid-1980s, when it became the center of Philadelphia “yuppiedom,” was dramatic. One developer, at the time, compared Old City to New York’s SoHo.
For Schiavo and Kalter this first wave of changes couldn’t have been more welcome. Who better to market their fine European furniture and lighting fixtures to than young professionals looking for Philly’s answer to one of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods?
But then the neighborhood kept changing. Through the 1990s and into the early-2000s more than 100 restaurants and bars opened in Old City, many of them clustered around Chestnut Street. Schiavo says he saw this process gradually transform his burgeoning residential and high-end retail neighborhood into a magnet for out-of-town late-night revelers. For most, the shift was imperceptible. First, small cafes and restaurants opened in the neighborhood. When those establishments grew to at least 30 seats, they applied for liquor licenses, grew even larger and transformed into bars and clubs that stayed open until 2 a.m., blasting music, their fist-pumping patrons spilling out into the streets.
“The cumulative negative effects – public drunkenness, public urination, fights, stabbings, shootings, late night noise nuisance and vandalism – all of [that] was having a detrimental effect on the quality of life for our residents. Some of us were concerned about the potentially negative impacts of hosting any more of those [bars and night clubs],” Schiavo says.
As his concerns grew, Schiavo joined the Old City Civic Association in 2001 and started down the path to zoning geekdom.
And like a true geek, Schiavo describes the complexities of zoning with a metaphor, well, actually two metaphors. In the first, Schiavo depicts the zoning code and its many neighborhood overlays as a number of transparencies laid over each other on top of a map of the city. Each one of these transparencies changes how development is governed in the underlying areas. The second metaphor is less exact, but perhaps more evocative. Decoding the zoning code, Schiavo says, is like peeling back the layers of an onion. And like the metaphorical onion, zoning regulations make most people want to cry.
But not Schiavo.
For him, the process is straightforward, if not without significant problems. When a developer wants to build in Philadelphia, they must follow the zoning code. As the regulations are written, if the developer believes the zoning code presents a significant hardship for developing their property, they can request a variance from the ZBA. This variance details how the developer wishes to break the code. The problem is that developers and the ZBA have stretched the meaning of “hardship” to include economic factors, Schiavo says.
“The variance request should address something unique to the property being developed,” Schiavo says. A legitimate hardship, under the code, could include topographical features, such as hills or waterways, which make it very difficult to build on the property according to the rules of the code. But developers request, and are often granted, variances for both size and commercial use, based on maximizing their profits.
Many developers wish to exceed the height or square footage restrictions built into the zoning code and request variances to do so. The bigger the residential or commercial space, the more money the developer can make on the property. Others, like the proprietors of those restaurants-turned-bars in Old City, want to skirt the zoning code because it stands in the way of their business plans.
“When someone wants to propose a 12-story building in a three-story neighborhood, it’s upsetting. You have to ask if the project is in contextual scale,” Schiavo says. In Old City, for example, the overlay to the zoning code restricts developers from building structures over 75 feet wide. This part of the code preserves the nature of the neighborhood: packed with row houses and larger, but still varied, residential buildings with first-floor retail and businesses. Without the code, a developer could buy up a string of adjacent properties, demolish them and build a massive, wide, uniform structure, changing the look and feel of the streetscape.
The way Schiavo explains it, zoning may be a needlessly complicated issue, but influential developers have an even more backdoor way to receive a variance to the code. City council, in special circumstances, can grant such variances through legislation. In these cases, having someone like Schiavo review bills dealing with zoning is essential, says Wilder, the coalition’s communications chair. “We have the benefit of these people who can interpret these bills. Especially someone like Joe, who is so thorough. And even more important than interpreting what is in the legislation is knowing to look for what’s left out,” she says.
Most developers don’t need to go the route of legislation though, as the ZBA grants nearly 80 percent of developers’ variance requests, according to Schiavo. This record of lenience with the code adds to the frustration and sense of futility with which most people approach the variance appeals process. “People who attend these [ZBA] meetings think decisions have already been made, that the rules are dictated by the applicants. Even I always expect to lose. But I go in hoping to at least pause the process,” Schiavo says.
Despite this seeming futility, Schiavo still sees the ZBA appeals process as vital in any community’s struggle to retain its character.
Neighborhood groups like the Old City Civic Association play another key role in this process. Before a variance request is even heard by the ZBA, a registered community organization – usually a civic non-profit group – informs people in the neighborhood of the request and holds a meeting where private citizens can voice their concerns directly to the developer. If the variance falls within a certain threshold of breaking the zoning code – in other words, if it’s not too egregious – the stakeholders then meet as part of a process called the Civic Design Review, where an advisory board will hear each party’s testimony and make recommendations to the ZBA.
Sam Little, the former president of the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition says frequently the developers get what they want early in this process, with residents agreeing to the variance even before it’s heard by the ZBA.
Still, the most controversial variance requests often move beyond these meetings. And although the members of the ZBA make the final decisions about whether to grant a variance or not, the dysfunction of the system comes from the top, Schiavo says. “You have to change the culture of land use decision-making in the city of Philadelphia. We’ve changed the code, but not the culture.” Schiavo proposes that the mayor, whether it be Nutter or his successor, set a mandate that not more than 15 percent of variance requests be granted. Variances, after all, are a deviation from the plan.
“The goals of the ZBA should be the goals of city government, not the goals of the developers,” Schiavo says.
But Schiavo’s experience over the last few years has been anything but indicative of a change in the way development and zoning works in the city. Back in 2006, Schiavo and his partner sold their business to two of their employees. This gave him more time and energy to invest in his work with the Old City Civic Association as the chair of its liquor license committee and vice-chair of its development committee. Then in May of 2013, after 40 years of activism, the association disbanded after lawsuits filed by disgruntled developers made it impossible for the nonprofit to insure its directors and officers. Schiavo has since been a vocal supporter of State Senator Larry Farnese’s Anti-SLAPP legislation, which would protect individuals and civic groups from such frivolous legal actions.
Ironically, though he now serves as the chair of the zoning committee for the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition, Schiavo cannot become an official member of the coalition. After all, it’s a coalition of civic groups and Old City, where he still lives, no longer has a civic group to represent it.
– Text by by Michael Buozis.
– Photograph of Joe Schiavo by Anna Hiatt, Courtesy of The Truth About Trees.