Thursday, April 28, 2016

Putting Some Park into Old Parking Lots

For some time I've been mildly annoyed by the parking lot in the 1700 block of Rittenhouse Square Street - it's right behind the Art Alliance on what should be one of the prettiest blocks in the city.

I scrounged around online and found a 2010 document from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission that goes over design requirements for new parking lots. There are nice fences and planting beds, even trees. I'm not a landscape architect, but it seems that lots built to these specifications would actually look reasonably nice, for parking lots. I'm mindful of the Penn lots on 19th and 20th, west of the old Graduate Hospital.

But I couldn't find anything about requirements for existing parking lots. I was talking about this with my brother, whose experience is in New York, not Philadelphia. John suggested that existing parking lots are probably grandfathered, meaning they don't have to do anything when new regulations come along. Or perhaps they only have to conform if they do a major renovation. This second option may be worse than the first, because it gives the lot owner an incentive not to fix anything.

John suggested that a better way was sunsetting, giving the owner a transition period of several years, at the end of which the lot needs to conform to the current guidelines.

I have several full-frontal shots of this lot, and I can't post them. They're just too depressing. I'm also leaving out the razor wire on the other side of Manning.

I still couldn't figure out what the story was with existing lots in Philly, so I asked my friend Jim Campbell if he could help, and he sent me on to David Perri, commissioner of licenses and inspections and former streets commissioner. Commissioner Perri got right back to me and confirmed my worst fears: Existing lots in Philly are grandfathered, unless they do a major renovation. No sunset provision. The execrable parking lot behind the Art Alliance can sit there, unchanging, until the crack of doom.

There has to be a better way. There is. Once again I went begging to my brother, and once again he came through and sent me the link to Section 52-70 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, Termination of Certain Non-Conforming Uses After Amortization. This is New York's sunset provision.

Now all we need is some bright young lawyer to craft similar legislation that would apply to existing surface lots in Philly. And then we need to assemble a coalition to get it passed.

To give this little venture a reasonable chance of success, I suggest aiming the sunset provision at a limited geographical area and applying it only to commercial surface parking lots. So schools, for instance, would not be affected. And perhaps the legislation could be an amendment to an existing district. The Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District covers the 1700 block of Rittenhouse Square Street. Perhaps the legislation could be attached there. I don't know if that's the right approach, but at least it's a place to start.

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