Those who tackle the challenge of trying to explain Philly like to call it “a city of neighborhoods” — but even they might be staggered by the number of “neighborhoods” newly represented by local Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), in accordance with the city’s three-month-old zoning code. The epic list of groups, in addition to long-standing civic associations, includes police-district advisory councils, political party ward committees, park groups and little-known upstarts. Each, as an RCO, now gets a say in what gets built where.
“Confusing and overlapping jurisdictions” have become an issue, Jeff Hornstein of the Queen Village Neighbors Association told City Council’s Rules Committee last week, at a hearing about RCOs. “We were as excited as someone might be about something like zoning” when the code was enacted. But the association has seen as many as five different groups eating into its boundaries. “We believe there is perhaps too much inclusion.”
Nonetheless, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has introduced legislation (one of an onslaught of tweaks to the fledgling zoning code) to relax, not restrict, the rules for becoming an RCO, and to put Council, whose control she feared was being eroded, more squarely in the middle of zoning conversations. “We’re elected to protect our citizens. We’re gonna be involved as long as we’re elected,” she said at the hearing. Her bill would let Council members stand in where there’s no RCO, and choose whether overlapping RCOs can hold separate hearings.
Some worry that will work against the goal of the new zoning code: to peel away the red tape and make it easier to build in the city. Cedar Park resident Amara Rockar recounted to Council how a one-man civic group threw together an ad hoc meeting this summer in an attempt to derail a project that the area’s civic association had already supported.
In any case, the current rules make assembling an RCO within easy reach for many. For example, a handful of residents along Hope Street in Kensington, who felt they weren’t well represented by the Norris Square Civic Association in a debate over the redevelopment of a blighted bank building, recently got together and launched Hope Street Neighbors for Better Living. It won RCO status. Those excluded, though, have been vocal. Ruth Bazemore, whose Haddington group hadn’t been approved, told Council: “It’s a violation of our rights.” Jihad Ali of Southwest Philly called the RCO clause a “Trojan horse” in the zoning code, “to take away the black people’s vote. You’re giving your power to non-elected people.” Now, Council just might take that power back.