by Wesley Ratko

Last month, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission tabled a vote on a bill that would have amended the city’s zoning code to allow surface parking in the front yard setback of homes in Philadelphia. The bill, #130699, was sponsored by two city council members: Brian O’Neill of the 10th District (Northeast Philadelphia), and Mark Squilla of the 1st District (South Philadelphia, Center City, Northern Liberties).

The move to postpone the vote is credited to a letter sent from the Chestnut Hill Community Association and signed by board president Brien Tilley to councilwoman Cindy Bass, asking her to reconsider the measures put forth in the bill.

Since then, Community Manager Celeste Hardester has been working with Vice President of the Physical Division Joyce Lenhardt and co-chair of the Land Use Planning and Zoning committee Larry McEwen to communicate with Councilman O’Neill’s office.

At Thursday night’s Land Use Planning and Zoning meeting, McEwen reported that they’ve received some additional diagrams and updated wording to the bill. The new bill would change this to allow for surface parking in the front yard. Garage and detached carport parking within any setback would remain prohibited.

McEwen said that while he was opposed to the move generally, he noted that the allowance of parking in the front yard setback could work in some instances. However, the language of the amendment left plenty of room for undesirable results to occur, he said, and relying on the diagrams provided with the bill was not enough to guarantee against a bad outcome.

McEwen told the LUPZ that a major argument of the letter was that for every curb cut made to allow for a private off-street parking space, a public on-street space would be lost. He also noted that allowing cars to be parked in front of houses in Chestnut Hill – both the garden district of Philadelphia and a nationally recognized historic district – would be extremely undesirable.

Others noted that the additional paving of front yard surface parking spaces would further undermine Philadelphia Water Department efforts to control runoff from paved surfaces from overwhelming the storm sewers in the neighborhood above the Wissahickon Valley.

No one present Thursday night knew exactly what the motivating force behind the bill was. Requests from this reporter for comment from the offices of Council members Squilla and O’Neill went unacknowledged.

Ned Mitinger suggested that residents in South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods were interested in parking their cars closer to their homes in order to prevent theft and vandalism. John Haak, LUPZ member and senior planner with the city planning commission simply suggested it was a matter of supply and demand.

McEwen worried that the proposed language in the bill would allow for driveways that were oriented parallel to the street, instead of at a 90 degree angle to the house.

Some asked was why this had to apply to the entire city when it was only sought by certain areas of the city. LUPZ member John Landis asked whether individual variances from the zoning code wouldn’t be a better solution where front yard parking is warranted.

McEwen said that the motivating principle behind writing the new zoning code was to avoid variances.

Landis suggested proposing language that would limit the amount of driveway coverage on a lot as a percentage of the total lot size.

“The point is to prevent cars being parked side by side by side,” he said.

McEwen added that if the bill specified that cars could only be parked directly in front of the structures and not off to the side, it would help to guard against some of the potential negative impacts.

“This is such a Pandora’s Box,” Landis said. “We need to hold the line against this as much as we can.”

He echoed the sentiment of the CHCA board, which voted unanimously at their November meeting to oppose this amendment.

McEwen said a second letter with new language and diagrams illustrating undesirable outcomes could be the next step.

Landis said that other cities have land use committees in order to prevent individual council people from changing the rules for an entire city. He asked whether Philadelphia has anything similar. Haak referred to the Rules Committee, out of which this bill originated, but no land use committee.

McEwen said he would continue working with Hardester and Lenhardt in the preparation of a second letter that reiterates the community’s opposition to the bill and offers some examples of compromise language.