What Society Hill’s totally “not racist” exclusionary zoning bill will actually do

Larry Spector has penned an impassioned and very lawyerly letter to the mayor about how he and his coalition have worked really hard to come up with a totally awesome bill that is totally not about keeping people out of Society Hill. They really need it to get passed because they worked really hard on it for two whole years.

We won’t go line-by-line through Spector’s screed, and we won’t try to guess at the coalition’s intentions or motivations. (They claim something to do with historic preservation, which they hope to accomplish by requiring new parking lots to be built.) We will lay out some facts of the bill, and the impact it will have. You can decide whether this bill would be “not racist” and “not exclusionary”.

  1. Block affordable housing in 7 different blocks of Society Hill, by limiting height thereby eliminating the affordable housing bonus.
  2. Prevent development specifically of the commercial properties at Positano Coast and the Landmark's Ritz Five, limiting any potential contributions to the Housing Trust Fund, by capping height.
  3. Require all new apartments in 24 different blocks of the neighborhood to build expensive private parking, driving up housing costs and trading more housing units in exchange for cars.
  4. Ban most signs & advertisements from the neighborhood, thereby entrenching existing businesses and limiting entrepreneurial opportunities for newcomers.


We won’t go point-by-point through Larry Spector’s screed, but here are a few takeaways we’ve talked about before when we try to explain why you should care about zoning.


  • Would new market-rate housing in Society Hill be affordable? Of course not! It would be some of the fanciest, most expensive housing in the city. And based on the total cost, developers would have to either contribute to the Housing Trust Fund, or bundle affordable units. Limiting development in Society Hill directly limits those potential contributions.

  • By excluding housing (yes, even luxury housing) in Society Hill, we force would-be new, rich neighbors to take their money elsewhere. Those rich white neighbors who couldn’t find a spot in Society Hill will now be looking in Grad Hospital, Northern Liberties, Brewerytown, etc. The choices we make in Society Hill do not happen in a vacuum - they have broad implications for the whole city. Demand for housing doesn’t go away just because we block developers from building it. The demand just spills over into other neighborhoods.

  • There aren’t any zoning changes that will somehow transform Society Hill into a bastion of affordability - nobody is suggesting this except for Spector’s straw man. But the proposed bill will drive up costs and prevent new housing from being built. By limiting height and requiring parking, you’re physically blocking space that could be housing, and trading new housing in exchange for more cars. This is exclusionary, by any definition.


  • Fun fact: at least 24 different blocks of Society Hill have RM-1 zoning, aka “Residential Multifamily”, which allows new, dense apartments to be built without any new parking. The Society Hill exclusionary zoning overlay would require 3 parking places for every 10 new apartments, not only driving up the cost of building new apartments, but physically taking up space that could be used instead for housing.

  • Furthermore, the environmental impact shouldn’t be overlooked. Requiring developers to build more parking spaces will entice people who own cars to move in, or entice car-free or car-light households to buy additional cars when they might otherwise have opted not to. Requiring private parking for apartment buildings is a mistake, especially in one of the densest and most walkable neighborhoods in all of Philadelphia.

Again, we’re just providing the facts. You can decide for yourself whether physically blocking new housing is exclusionary. You can decide whether you think preventing contributions to the Housing Trust Fund will have racist outcomes. You can make up your own mind about how adding cars to Society Hill supports the historic neighborhood character. And you can come to your own conclusions about the motivations of a group of predominantly rich, predominantly white Philadelphians from a tiny section of the city who want to more control over who can what build in their neighborhood, and how and where they build it. 

Mapping images via http://www.justicemap.org/ and http://aaron-bauman.carto.com/