Friday, November 04, 2005

Michael Sklaroff: Leave Planning to the Developers.

During the last mayoral election, John Street dispatched Michael Sklaroff, the politically wired zoning lawyer from Ballard Spahr, to serve as his stand-in at a candidate's forum. Sklaroff spent a good part of the evening vigorously defending several controversial Center City garage projects. Or, rather, his defense was vigorous until he was outed by a questioner, who wanted to know why he never disclosed that he was the attorney for the developers of those projects.

Now Sklaroff, who is also chairman of the city Historical Commission, has a new crusade. He has gone on the attack in the Daily News to defend the honor of the city Planning Commission from such critics as yours truly, who have suggested that too many building projects are green-lighted without serious planning consideration. In a classic example of circular logic, Sklaroff argues that Philadelphia planners must be doing a good job because plenty of stuff is being built. "The marketplace has arrived," he chortles.

Sorry, but a strong market is not the same as planning.

The great tragedy of Philadelphia's current building boom is that it taking place in a planning vacuum, without any serious discussion of where high-rises should be located, whether it makes sense to build 40-story towers in neighborhoods outside of Center City, how to handle the increasing demands for parking, or how to protect views of the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers.

Sklaroff praises the city's "waterfront plan." But it's not a plan at all. There was a waterfront bill - introduced by Councilman Frank DiCiccio - that created residential zoning on the Delaware. It also required a 50-foot setback from the water's edge so that a recreation path could someday be constructed. Anyone who has spent any time in Vancouver, Seattle, or even in Wilmington, Del., knows that a waterfront plan needs to include some sort of financial strategy for realizing such a path. It also needs clearly articulated guidelines describing how tall and wide those new waterfront towers should be. The Planning Commission's "plan" includes no such strategy and no such guidelines.

Sklaroff's arguments - which sound good as long as he is the only guy in the room - prompted a strong rebuttal in the Daily News from architect Harris M. Steinberg, executive director of the Penn Praxis School of Design. "Sklaroff would have you believe that the development world has the public's best interests at heart," Steinberg writes.

Sklaroff argues that the The Plan for Center City, prepared in the mid '80s, provides all the planning guidance that downtown needs. Though a wise and enlighted document when it was published in 1988, that plan is terribly out of date. As a result, developers are frequently forced to seek variances for perfectly reasonable projects. And who do you think gets paid for acquiring such variances? The absence of modern planning and zoning laws is like having a license to print money for zoning lawyers like Sklaroff

All you have to do is walk past some of the new garages in Center City to see what the lack of planning is doing for Philadelphia. Powerless planners are a real estate lawyer's best friend.


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