Northern Liberties: Zoning Committee Integral to Neighborhood Development

Developers cleaned up a vacant lot before construction began.

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The Zoning Committee of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association has considered the needs of numerous commercial, industrial and residential projects for years, striking a balance that has allowed the neighborhood to flourish. This committee has kept busy maintaining the desired luster of Northern Liberties, an area that has grown out of its ‘up-and-coming’ phase.

According to the NLNA’s website, the zoning committee reviews applications for zoning changes, reviews liquor license approvals or transfers, considers other neighborhood development issues and recommends action to the NLNA Board of Directors and the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment.

NLNA’s 15-member zoning committee is made up of volunteers, however, there are membership requirements. Zoning committee members have to live, work or own property in Northern Liberties and must have attended three prior NLNA meetings.

Larry Freedman, chair of the NLNA Zoning Committee, discussed the typical agenda of committee's monthly meetings.
Larry Freedman, chair of the NLNA Zoning Committee, discussed the typical agenda of the committee’s monthly meetings.

Despite the requirements for committee membership, Larry Freedman, who has been on the committee since 1987 and currently serves as its chair, could not recall a time when an interested applicant was not allowed to be a part of the committee. Freedman does note that zoning is not always simple.

“Zoning is really hard, so we want people who can think, come up with motions, who are objective and who listen well, because that’s really what it’s all about. It’s less technical than it is social. People come in and say ‘I don’t want that next door to me’ and then we have to sift through it.”

The committee mainly reviews variance requests. There are multiple kinds of variances, though the most common, Freedman said, are use and building variances. If the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment receives a request from an entity intending to build residential buildings in an industrial zone in Northern Liberties, the zoning board of adjustment would instruct that entity to request a use variance from the neighborhood zoning committee. An entity would have to request a building variance if, for instance, it wanted to construct a building that was 40 feet high in an area with a zoning code that only allows buildings up to 38 feet high.

The zoning committee’s motions, including granting or denying variances, become official motions once the neighborhood board of directors ratifies them. These recommendations are given to the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which has final say on zoning matters citywide.

While the committee alone votes on requests and presentations at its meetings, the meetings are public, allowing the committee to act as a liaison between residents, developers, the board of directors and the city’s Zoning Board. When a zoning meeting is requested the committee puts fliers up within a one block radius of the address of the zoning issue at hand to let residents know that the matter will be discussed at that month’s zoning committee meeting. Announcements are also sent to the NLNA email list, which has over 2,000 recipients and are posted on the NLNA website.

“We let the people figure out what’s going on on their block,” Freedman said. “But we offer some leadership and my job is really just to navigate through the meeting. Someone’s got to run a meeting. They don’t run themselves.”

Developers cleaned up a vacant lot before construction began.
Developers cleaned up a vacant lot before beginning construction.

Though the zoning committee does not have the ultimate authority in zoning matters, it manages to stay busy due to the continual development of Northern Liberties. During the late 1990s and early 2000s the committee was exceptionally busy, Freedman said, seeing 10 to 12 zoning matter presentations each month.

The Northern Liberties Urban Design Committee was created to aid the zoning committee in reviewing developers’ plans for construction or renovation. The urban design committee, composed of neighborhood volunteers with backgrounds in architecture, construction, planning and more, reviews and discusses issues including the design and environmental impact a given project could have on the community.

“The tricky thing is that the Zoning Board of Adjustment doesn’t care about design,” Freedman said. “We don’t have rules here. What we did find was whatever you’re presenting, whatever your design is, do a good job. Execute it well.”

Even with the neighborhood’s best interests in mind, some zoning recommendations are controversial. The Piazza at Schmidt’s, a residential complex that opened in 2009 and that hosts outdoor events like free concerts that attract large crowds, has caused residents to lodge complaints, Freedman said.

But some residents have a more positive view of the Piazza’s events.

“I can hear stuff but it’s not to the point where it’s intrusive,” Joe Livewell, who lives a block away from the Piazza, said. “Working at a business in the area, there’s a lot more people. It’s good for local business and restaurants.”

A new business that will feature live music is slated to open at 914 North Second Street. The owners of the property have met with the zoning committee multiple times and are scheduled to meet with the committee again for another presentation. The proposed business, a restaurant featuring live jazz music, is under serious consideration. However, Freedman said the committee has to be conscientious of the future of the property if it is ever sold.

“The zoning won’t say ‘jazz,’ it’ll just say ‘live music’ because there’s no such thing as ‘jazz’ in zoning. So we now have to say, ‘alright, you’re asking for live music and it’s a big place. What is music, alcohol and a big place? It’s a nightclub.'”

914 North Second Street was bought with the intention of transforming the property into a restaurant and jazz club.
914 North Second Street was bought with the intention of transforming the property into a restaurant and jazz club.

While the zoning committee must tread lightly while considering all future possibilities for the property, Livewell was supportive of the potential restaurant and jazz club combination.

“I think that’d be cool. I’d be into that.”

Zoning committee meetings are open to the public and take place on the last Monday of each month. Meetings are held on the last Tuesday of each month if extra time is needed. Meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. at the NLNA office at Third and Fairmount Streets.

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