“The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the spacious comfort of wishes, familiar superstitions, oversimplifications, and symbols. They have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world.” [pg. 13]
-Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
This assertion that city planning is crippled by symbols and superstitions is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the Philadelphia offices of city planning.
Our experience working alongside this municipal apparatus has, on many occasions, prompted us to ask the question- what is really the point of all of this, what is the city actually trying to accomplish? On the surface, the city seems to want simply to organize, or curate, development. However, this parenting paradigm has gone too far, and the child they are raising is headed for a mediocre future at best.
What Are The Rules?
Many of our clients come to us because they have been issued a violation. They either do not have the appropriate zoning, proper permits, or necessary licenses for their property and/ or what they are doing with it. And typically it’s because they weren’t aware they needed these things. There is a massive knowledge gap, (actually many gaps), between the city and the people who live and work here. Many homeowners, developers, and real estate agents don’t know exactly what is required by the city for each property or project. Mainly because that information is not easily accessible.
The best, most reliable information on city planning- rules, regulations, and procedures, comes directly out of the mouth of someone who works at L&I. Which means that in order to access this information you must physically go down to 1401 JFK Blvd. and ask someone a direct question.
This is a problem for several reasons. The first of which is that in order to find the information you must have information first. You must know where to go a what to ask in order to get an answer to something you are unsure about. And the answer you get may be correct, or it may not, depending on who you ask. There are information gaps within the city itself.
There is so much information (symbols and superstitions) in the current system, so many specific details in the zoning code and in permitting procedures that virtually no one understands it completely. So getting an answer to a question, even when you know what to ask and where to look may not translate into success when it comes to actually accomplishing what you need to accomplish.
Sound like a mess?
Ya. Well, this is why people avoid it. Most people do their best to do the things they understand. But the city shows little sympathy for people who don’t understand the system won’t hesitate to file a lawsuit against anyone who doesn’t have exactly what is deemed the necessary documentation for their property, business, or project.
Right now, the best way to avoid getting into this kind of situation is to consult with an experienced expediting firm before you purchase, renovate, or change anything about your property, beyond minor cosmetic changes. If you are more experienced in dealing with these things you can work directly with the city on most things. Depending on how complicated your particular circumstances are you may need to hire an expeditor to handle filing and coordination for you. And if you are dealing with a violation, you may want to consult with a lawyer as well.
The system is broken, but that’s no excuse for avoiding it.
You can’t fix something that you don’t know is broken. And you certainly can’t fix something that you don’t know exists in the first place. So if you work in real estate, own your own business, or care about the overall welfare and growth of this city, get informed! Be proactive. Ask for change.
More Next week on some things that do actually work quite well.