“This is a great city,” someone will say, and I’ll doubletake and ponder what I know about the 331 years since William Penn set things up, and I’ll nod and look at the sidewalk (or the floor if we’re inside).
“It’s a very, very human city,” I’ll say, perhaps to myself, and out loud I’ll probably say, “well, sure.” What I mean–or meant, had I said it aloud–is that it’s a perfectly imperfect place, imperfect down to its very toes, and thus human, or authentic, in the parlance of food TV.
Perfection always seemed silly to me until I foolishly got it in my head that a really excellent urban neighborhood should have lively streets and mixed uses and inviting civic spaces (like sidewalks) and architecture that treated the pedestrian. As soon as that happened and I started to notice every time I was greeted by a garage door instead of a flower pot or a window display, I became surly and dissatisfied and angry (in an authentic Philadelphia way). Soon the cost of being a perfectionist was clear: I was no longer my old philosophic self.
But then last summer, City Council passed the new zoning code. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it wasn’t imperfect either. The sheer miracle of Philadelphia adopting this fine new set of principles was enough to dissuade me from giving up. Now this new zoning code really does say we ought to have excellent, lively urban neighborhoods that are a treat to the pedestrian. My expectations rose some more.
Recently, some folks have come into my neighborhood, Bella Vista, which really could be one of the liveliest American urban neighborhoods, with the idea of building buildings on the few remaining vacant lots. These folks don’t care about whether Bella Vista is one of the liveliest American urban neighborhoods, they only want to make as much money from the land as easily and quickly as possible. It’s their right, you’re likely to say. The easiest, quickest thing to do is put up a single family house in the style of 1910 Toledo, but with a garage where the living room used to be, and a garage door on the front, like a shuttered birth canal facing the street. House buyers, apparently, will pay extra for this sort of design.
Well, upon hearing about these proposals, the perfectionist in me shudders, and puts his hands on head in disbelief and wonders if the builder who has requested a zoning variance for his garage has shown any proof of the hardship that is required to be granted a zoning variance, and wonders if we don’t want to protect a public amenity like street parking (for each of those birth canals costs two public parking spaces), or why we should sacrifice the pleasure of a traditional stoop (or God forbid, a storefront), or if it really makes sense to subsidize the bottom line of the builder so he can profit by making the neighborhood worse? Don’t we want to support transit and pedestrian life and a sense of community?
Silly me, I’ll even say these things in a community meeting thinking that the nodding heads and the raising of hands and the other impassioned speeches on behalf of the perfect ideal urban neighborhood mean something, or that the new fine zoning code that outlaws the vinyl enclosed birth canals and privileges the sorts of things that make urban neighborhoods lively (and therefore more valuable) matters.
Because apparently what matters in this most human of all cities is the number of bodies lined up on one side or the other when the case comes before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the members of the Board have to decide to grant the owner his vinyl sealed birth canal. It isn’t the intent or the ideas or the rules or the principles or the big picture implicit in the fine new zoning code or the letters of opposition to the zoning variance written by the two neighborhood associations charged with listening to public opinion or the loss of public amenities to people whose property taxes have just gone up 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 percent while the owner of the new garage/house pays no property taxes for 10 years or the lists of people who have signed and written letters–pleas–of opposition to the loss of yet more street life, more character, indeed more parking. All that matters in the end is the body count.
Two weeks ago, still imagining myself a perfectionist, I wrote of the case of a proposed development at Eighth and South, where despite the proximity to a major shopping district, the developer wishes to put up two garage/houses. (By right, the developer could put up a six unit apartment building, thereby increasing density at a major transit corner and bringing more shoppers to the stores on South Street. But two $850,000 single family houses with garages is much easier and more immediately profitable.) At the subsequent meeting before the zoning committee of the Bella Vista Town Watch, neighbors spoke emphatically against garages/houses. The committee, representing the neighbors’ response, was thus to write a letter of opposition to the garage. But later today, when the developer, Mr. Volpe, stands before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the only thing to matter will be how many people stand with him and how many stand in opposition.
So I must ask, readers, if you are not attending the Hidden City lecture and panel discussion this evening on the future of the Reading Viaduct (where I will be), to please attend the ZBA meeting on 606 S. 8th Street. The meeting takes place on the 18th floor of 1515 Arch Street, in the ZBA hearing room at 5PM. The case is 606-608 S. 8th Street, a large empty, and poorly maintained lot one parcel in from South Street. The 32 foot wide parcel could, if the building is built without curb cuts and garages, support two to three public parking spaces. Moreover, at street level, assuming in a perfect world that the builder uses good materials, this would become an inviting entry into Bella Vista.
Should enough people show up to the hearing this evening to oppose the curb cut, ZBA will be forced to act on behalf of the new zoning code. It isn’t a perfect way to plan a city, but I suppose it will have to do.
About the author
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.