May 10, 2023 - Business

Long waits for hearings at Philadelphia's zoning board

Illustration of Philadelphia City Hall with lines radiating from it.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: BasSlabbers/Getty Images

The city has yet to figure out how to speed up months-long wait times for hearings before the zoning board, which have ballooned since 2020.

Why it matters: The board considers requests for exceptions to zoning rules and is an essential step for many projects — big developments, yes, but small business openings and certain residential projects, too.

What’s happening: The delays are hurting businesses (who pay rent when their lease starts, even if their storefront isn't open yet) and Airbnb and other short-term rental operators (who need a zoning permit), along with adding to the costs of large developments, per the Inquirer.

By the numbers: The average wait time to get a hearing in 2022 was six months — more than double what it was before the pandemic, even though the city has added more funding and staff to the board, per the Inquirer.

Zoom in: Several factors are driving longer wait times, including the involvement of lawmakers, availability of witnesses and technological support, Bruce Bohri, a spokesperson for the city’s planning department, tells Axios.

  • So many applicants are seeking to expedite their cases by paying $1,000 that it's causing further delays.

Meanwhile, city leaders continue to carve out special codes in certain areas, known as "overlays," which can cover anything from density to roof decks.

  • This patchwork of neighborhood-specific rules, driven by district Councilmembers, results in even more projects going before the board.

1 idea: Councilmember Mark Squilla has proposed adding a day of scheduled hearings each month for cases that are non-controversial, his spokesperson Anne Kelly tells Axios.

The other side: Martha Cross, the city’s deputy director of planning and zoning, tells Axios the Kenney administration is focusing on improving existing processes rather than adding more days for hearings.

  • Changes include clarifying what’s needed for a hearing, technology upgrades, and creating a how-to video to help first-time applicants.
  • “We expect that these improvements will result in more applicants being prepared for their hearings which will reduce continuances and decrease waiting times,” she says.

Between the lines: Squilla’s spokesperson questions whether the Kenney administration can fully address the delays before the mayor's term ends.

  • “The preference may be to wait" for the next administration to make changes, Kelly says.

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