Civic Design Review Should Get the Axe, Or At Least the Scalpel

If you want to develop a large project in Philadelphia, the zoning code compels you to go through the Civic Design Review process. Your architect has to assemble a packet that can run dozens of pages in length, with floor plans, renderings, elevations drawings, stormwater management plans, a complete streets guide, and landscaping designs, among other things. Packet in hand, you must present your project to the CDR board, and the board will offer feedback, possibly suggesting minor changes and sometimes suggesting significant changes. The board will then either vote to allow you to continue through the permitting process, or to bring you back for a second presentation.

Image of a CDR meeting from Planphilly

Earlier this week, PMC Property Group came back to CDR for a second go round for their project at 23rd & Cherry after receiving some significant negative feedback at their first presentation. The project, in case you don’t recall, will entail a pair of residential buildings with a total of roughly 600 apartments and 200 parking spaces for residents, as well as a supermarket. According to Plan Philly, members of the CDR board took issue with the fact that the project doesn’t include underground parking, the lack of street presence on 23rd Street, and the skybridge between the towers, to name a few concerns. When PMC came back to CDR, they addressed none of these issues, only widening a bike lane and changing some building materials.

Rendering of the PMC project at 23rd & Cherry

Even though PMC hardly made any changes to the project, there’s nothing further that the CDR board can do at this time. The code requires the developer to go before the CDR board, but the recommendations of the CDR board are non-binding. From where we sit, this is a perfect illustration that the CDR process is a huge waste of time and money. Those packets cost tens of thousands of dollars. Surely the members of the CDR board are not paid, and they spend hours poring over the packets and making recommendations that the developers aren’t required to follow. Neighbors and other interested parties come out to these presentations, registering their opinions as part of a non-binding process. Honestly, why does anybody bother?

To be clear, we love CDR. We get some of our best renderings from CDR packets, and since they show up online a few weeks before the meetings, we regularly find out about projects in the first place because of those CDR packets. But for everyone’s sake, it’s time for CDR to change. For all the time and money that goes into these presentations, the CDR board should have some teeth, some ability to influence developers to modify their projects. Otherwise, City Council should do away CDR entirely, and save everyone from the aggravation of a required process that doesn’t necessarily have any impact.

  • kclo3

    I would be a lot more sympathetic of CDR if they made their recommendations tempered under the full contextual knowledge of the legal restraints of the zoning code, and the financial restraints of the developer. Every single parking space is required under the code, which precludes any additional retail space along 23rd, and engineering an entire extra level of parking is obviously cost-prohibitive. With this in mind, focusing more on more flexible project aspects would be far more productive. But their hardline attitude ignores realities and doesn’t make it easy to see the CDR as a beneficial step in the project pipeline.

  • Circa79

    Do not agree that a successful cdrc would be one that could stop any project they didn’t fully approve. Dangerous to say the least. Pmc provided some very logical explanations for aspects of their design such as the fact that ground floor retail in a flood plain wasn’t going to work. Not sure project should’ve been stopped because some cdr members wouldn’t accept that reality

  • Karig2

    Elevating the CDRC to any higher level would, yet again, establish Philly as a place that’s hostile to business, development and change, unless it meets their somewhat questionable criteria. Not a good thing if the city is to grow, change and prosper in the face of competition from other, more business friendly urban areas.

  • NakedPhillyFox

    Then maybe the solution is to simply reduce the burden on the developer in terms of what they have to present to CDR. Require a rendering or two to go along with building drawings and don’t insist on extensive details about landscaping and a complete streets checklist.

    • Circa79

      This stuff is already cranked out for presentations to neighbors and others. Really just recycled renderings, etc.

  • idriveabuss

    Agree that CDR should have teeth. Disagree that developers should get the benefit of less aggravation. We should be aggravating them. We should be demanding of them because they are building something that we’re going to have to stare at and deal with for a long time into the future. And bottom line, they’re going to make money off of it no matter what, no matter how many tens of thousands of dollars they have to spend on this proposal. No $30K cost on a CDR submission ever stopped a developer this big. Mega developers like PMC don’t deserve any sympathy for the crap they pump out.

  • kclo3

    I’m not seeing other specific criticisms that don’t have to do with parking crowding out retail space. That’s the crux of the matter here. Inga could have mentioned public space in the context of the Arch St driveway, the bike access path running behind the building (which they did improve), or my pet peeve, a skybridge over the CSX tracks to the SRT. But she chose to focus on the facade and retail.

    • idriveabuss

      So by your own account there are issues to be addressed – including ones that CDR actually raised if you read the recap after the first review. For example: “The skybridge between the two towers represented the other principal bone of contention.” (http://planphilly.com/articles/2017/10/03/developer-of-23rd-and-arch-site-asked-to-give-two-tower-proposal-a-second-look)

      So they did raise it and PMC unfortunately decided to ignore it.

      • kclo3

        You can have a skybridge accompanying a well-designed public space. If PMC wants that in there purely as an amenity, then they should be compelled to improve the ground level as a point distinct from the skybridge. That wasn’t articulated by the looks of the article.

        • dmv343

          Kcol — Please start showing up to these meetings (which allows time for public comment) and see what is actually said by the CDR Committee rather than taking what you skim from a few articles as the only points of conversation. The pcpc staff and the committee did bring up issues about the skybridge, the public realm as part of Arch Street, and of course the parking concerns.

          Here are just a few of the comments from the first CDR meeting (Oct 3):
          – Arch Street should not function as a private drive and its design should be reconsidered to make it more consistent with the scale of the adjacent blocks to integrate it into the city.
          – A suitable alternative for perforated metal panels for the garage cladding should be explored.
          – Cherry Street, a “celebrated” Philadelphia Street, should have a better termination at the river than loading docks and stairways.
          – The western on-site bike path could be improved with a clearer route and a wider pathway.
          – There is an opportunity to set the stage for gradual improvement, especially on 23rd Street, with uses other than parking, including potential ground floor retail to complement other retail uses coming to 23rd Street.
          – The bridge that connects the residential towers evokes health care or hotel uses and could impede views across the Schuylkill River. A street level connection between the towers would be more effective.
          – Development team is encouraged to address flood plain issues in ways that do not create a sense of a wall.
          – Appreciation of the reduced number of parking spaces relative to the project’s density.

          • kclo3

            I suspected the commission commented on the bike path. But I can’t attend every meeting every time. Maybe they should start posting meeting minutes on the website so misunderstandings can be avoided.

  • Circa79

    Tax abatement is available to everyone. She makes it sound like they got a special break and thus they should be held to higher standard

  • citywide

    Maybe if the CDR was available at the start of the development process instead of the end, it could be more useful.