In a reorganization this week, most of Philadelphia’s distinct housing, development, and planning agencies have been officially united under a single Department of Planning and Development.
The department will be divided into three divisions. One will include the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the Historical Commission, the Art Commission, and staff for the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The Development Services agency, formerly housed in the Commerce Department, will be expanded and housed in its own division. Finally, the city’s housing agencies will have their own silo comprised of the Division of Housing and Community Development, which will facilitate coordination with the independent Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, and the Philadelphia Land Bank.
City Council president Darrell Clarke began promoting this reshuffle back in 2015 and voters officially approved the measure later that year. To lay the groundwork for the new department, Mayor Jim Kenney created a precursor Office of Planning and Development in early 2016.
The idea to consolidate the agencies into a single department “comes out of where we are in our growth as a city, in this new stage of our history,” said Anne Fadullon, director of Planning and Development. “This is the first time Philadelphia has considered how planning and development are being coordinated.”
As part of the reorganization, Development Services, the Historical Commission, and the land bank will increase staff, but none of the other agencies will grow.
The land bank’s staffing will be a special priority, said Fadullon. Created in 2013, the land bank still isn’t fully staffed and it currently lacks an executive director, as the interim director recently left city government.
“We are fullforce interviewing for several positions at the land bank and we hope to have it staffed up in 60 to 90 days,” said Fadullon. “There’s definitely a focus on getting that up and truly operational by the end of the year.”
According to Fadullon, the learning curve for creating a new municipal body like the Philadelphia Land Bank is steep, especially given the immense complexities of the land bank’s mission. The agency has begun amassing land from other public entities and private owners. But four years in, its acquisition powers still aren’t formalized. It takes a lot of time to get the deeds and titles to its newly held land cleared.
“I think it’s just that the land bank has a lot of moving parts,” said Fadullon. “And we were hoping that the staffing we put in place on an interim basis would be permanent, but that didn’t happen.”
Development Services will increase staff by a small, but not-yet-determined, number. In its prior role within the Commerce Department, the division focused mostly on large-scale development. Under the Department of Planning and Development, they will expand their purview to provide services to smaller developers, community development corporations, and even the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The Historical Commission, meanwhile, will get two new staffers.
While the Planning Commission won’t add staff, two new seats are being added to the Commission itself. Ariel Vazquez of Blackney Hayes Architects will be joining the commission at next week’s meeting. The former executive director of the Planning Commission, Gary Jastrzab, retired this week and is being replaced by Eleanor Sharpe. It is unclear who will be taking the 11th seat on the expanded commission.
The City Planning Commission staff, meanwhile, are coming to the end of the district planning process that consumed a significant amount of their attention for the past seven years.
Within the next year, staff will complete the final three district plans under the Philadelphia2035 city planning process. According to Fadullon, staff will now focus more on implementation of the goals in the district plans, although she is also considering devoting resources to updating the older plans.
For now, agency offices won’t physically move, making the relocations merely metaphysical. The Historic Commission has shared quarters moved from City Hall in 2015 and now shares quarters with the Planning and Art Commissions on the 13th floor of 1515 Arch Street since 2015. The housing agencies will remain at 1234 Market Street for the foreseeable future. In the next three months, the Zoning Board of Adjustment will move from the Municipal Services Building to the 18th floor of 1515 Arch Street, where their hearings are already held.
Moving forward, a comprehensive housing plan will be another priority for the new Department of Planning and Development. Although the exact scope of the effort is yet to be defined, Fadullon hopes that by this time next year the nascent process will be complete.
Many of the distinct agencies now comprising the new department have had their hands full with the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirement and other federally-required reports. But she says these plans mandated by Department of Housing and Urban Development focus on low-income housing and housing subsidies.
Fadullon would like to see the forthcoming report broadened to cover market-rate housing as well and to additionally focus on the the preservation of Philadelphia’s “naturally occurring” affordable housing. That would entail both improving the condition of the city’s aged housing stock and incentivizing landlords to keep their rents affordably low. When it comes to the subsidized housing stock, a worrying percentage of which is reaching the end of its compliance period, Fadullon wants to find creative ways to extend the affordability of units.
“I’d rather try to figure out these issues now, as opposed to be in the situation San Francisco is in—they are at a crisis point,” said Fadullon. “We have pressures, and some are more severe in certain areas, but the city as a whole isn’t at a crisis point. It’s the time to have this conversation.”