A brief note about the title of this post: The second half, referring to [mostly] an older (and well-known) era of cronyism in Philadelphia is my own, and was in no way written in the piece or endorsed by Plan Philly.
I recently read a piece by Jared Bray in the always-informative Plan Philly, entitled Old City objects to use of councilmanic privilege for 205 Race St. project, about the apparent circumventing of Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment by Brown Hill Development with the assistance of First District Councilman Mark Squilla. To the naked eye, Brown Hills plan doesn’t adhere to the rules for CMX-3 lots — I looked up the limits for CMX-3 lots while reading the piece, and even I (a lay, non-planner) could see that Brown Hill’s plan exceeded the limits and would require approval for a variance. Somewhere along the way, though, Brown Hill’s request was removed from the Zoning Board’s docket and turned up instead in a bill introduced by Councilman Squilla.
I’m not often shocked by these sorts of events in Philadelphia. As most people know, politics and some of the politicians in the city go waaaay back, with uncles, fathers and cousins (etc.) of some of our current pols having held offices in the bad old days, positions which remained in the family until today. What’s disturbed me so much about Squilla’s involvement in maneuvering around the Zoning Board to get the variance legislated through, is that, from everything I’ve read, Squilla doesn’t come from one of Philadelphia’s political dynasties and, in fact, is described as having gotten his start in neighborhood causes and community organizing. In fact, Squilla’s biography on the non-partisan Committee of Seventy’s web site describes him as a champion of transparency — which flies smack in the face of his seemingly back-door efforts on behalf of the 205 Race plans. That, I think, is what disturbs me most: Has the Philadelphia culture of back-room maneuvering and deals gotten to Mark Squilla, or is this a side that perhaps locals from his past have seen that are now being displayed on a citywide scale? As sad as this may sound, I hope it’s the latter … and that he wasn’t freshly lured over to the darker side of Philadelphia politics.
As for 205 Race, it sure seems like no-brainer to me. Kick it back to the Zoning Board and let them do their job or don’t bother having community-developed ordinance in place if the pols can ignore them (a point argued far more eloquently in an email at the end of the Plan Philly article).