Common Ground for Rebuilding Our City

Report Format

Moderator names: Chris Satullo & Joan Davis 

Developers Forum Group Overview: 

This group had 15 participants, all male except a lone female representative from the Norris Square Civic Association. The rest were industry professionals: 3 Developers, 1 specific to mixed-use; 5 Attorneys; 2 University Affiliates – Temple University, Director of Facilities and University of Pennsylvania, Real Estate Dept.; 3 Urban Design/Development Professionals;  and 1 Architect.

Their conversation revealed similar experiences and concerns.  Of common interest was finding ways to reliably minimize the risk of development projects.  Describing the current process as a “paralyzing uncertainty”, the group repeatedly called for replacing the current influence-based process with reasonable standards and “by right” designations, and a predictable project review process timeline and lifecycle. Another topic that generated great energy was how difficult it is to identify the true voice of the public.

 Key questions remained unanswered for this group:

      Who should speak for the community?

      What determines “common good? 

Principles/Factors participants said contribute to productive public participation in the project/development review process.

  • A predictable process. Important elements include:
    • the duration of process is known in advance;
    • the outcome is not dependent on the personalities involved;
    • the sequence of activities is known in advance;
    • it should rely on “planning”, not an ad hoc, reactive process.
  • Transparency. 
    • Codifying the process produces a reliably consistent outcome and a process that is understood by all stakeholders. 
    • Appropriate notification for variances is also an aspect of transparency.
  • If a proposed project is developing to standards, that should mean approval.
  • If a proposed project requires variances, approval should be based on consideration of benefits versus detriments as well as hardships.
  • Useful public input.
    • Public input has value to developers and needs to be heard and addressed. However having a voice should differ from having influence or veto power.
    • Project success is often dependent on being able to get to the right group together.
  • Development professionals can play a role by vetting public input, and ensuring citizens are able to articulate their issues.


Principles/Factors participants said impede quality development.

  • Timid architecture.  Inventiveness is discouraged and design is compromised in the absence of professional leadership setting the standards. 
  • Paralyzing uncertainty.
    • The public process gets close to “extortion”.  Acquiescing to a “community group wish list” should not be a part of the process.
    • The few can derail huge investments; individual weight to veto should be eliminated.
    • The process lacks finality.
    • Councilmatic Privilege that’s absolute.
  • The process lacks a timetable.
    • The duration of negotiation narrows public participation. Can end up with just the immediate neighbors, who may have the ear of local council. 
    • Once council approval is needed, the duration extends more.
  • Developers are unable to determine which public voice has the greatest weight.
  • Failure of officials to govern unrealistic expectations from the community.
  • Limited public notification decreases participation and access to information for those directly impacted but not locally notified. 
  • Only the zoning hearing supports voicing community concern. There should be other venues and entry points.


Characteristics/elements to include in a new project/development review process, and why.

  • Recognize the necessity to streamline development projects and have a predictable project review timetable.
    • Elevate the role of the Planning Commission. 
    • Model after the ‘find a way attitude” exhibited in the development of public housing.  Make the private housing process just as expeditious [with emphasis on market rate housing].
    • Promote efficiency with a minor claims process.  Minor zoning issues don’t hold up / delay major projects.
    • An efficient project review process has a positive impact on community involvement and investor/developer’s risk.
  • Create an environment of standards-based outcomes.
    • Maintain consistency to a “Grand Plan”.
    • Limit whimsical power of other players (i.e. Council).  There should be no “automatic veto”.
    • Accurately reflect “By Right” in the zoning code. This would lessen the developer’s exposure to rejection.
    • Understand that capital will not invest in a “crap shoot”. 
    • For national builders to be willing to build in the City despite tax issues and union costs, the project review process must reliably minimize developers’ risks.
  • Have a strong comprehensive development plan based on robust, informed public input.
    • Understand who will benefit from the project and who is of direct concern.
    • Mediate the concerns of directly impacted entities.
    • Must ensure that By Right projects are not missing the community voice.
    • Gather “useful input” from the public to improve development plans. The public can help developers understand what may fly in a community.
    • If a proposed project requires variances, base approval on consideration of benefits versus detriments as well as hardships.
    • Development professionals within city should take a more active role as mediators.
    • City professionals can help neighbors understand the zoning rules.
  • Get the right people in the room early in the process.
    • A proposed “Major Plan” plus a By Right situation should invoke the requirement for public notice.  This could trigger an early opportunity for public input.
    • Historical Commission should gets its say right up front – not at the tail end of the process.
    • The process should include clarification of what is meant by “Community” interests.
    • Identify the legitimate community voices of direct concern.
    • Avoid being overly influenced by the “loudest voice”.
    • When the cast of characters shifts so do the critical issues, impacting investment and development timelines, often causing projects to derail.


Other areas of agreement.

  • Don’t empower the noisy few to dictate results for the entire community. 
  • The public should provide input to the process, not control it.
    • Communities that tend to presume “veto power” were identified as Northern Liberties, Society Hill, Queen Village, and Center City.
  • Don’t change the rules from one administration to another.
  • Don’t put the sole burden for communication on the developer.