Friday, September 13, 2013

Zoning - Some Answers, Probably More Questions to Follow

Yesterday, I spent an hour and a half talking to John Cover, Chief of Community Planning for Montgomery County. I was the only attendee at his question and answer session in that time. I suspect I may have been the only attendee all day. Henry Sekawungu, Norristown's Assistant Director of Planning stopped by, and I'm glad he did because he helped to answer my first question:

Why is the County running these workshops and not the Norristown Planning Commission?
The County authored the proposed zoning document, but only after input from a Zoning Steering Committee that met 28 times between April 2010 and July 2013. The members of the committee were

Rick Gallo, contractor
Brian Billings, an architect who was Zoning Board Chair
Paul Piantone, realtor
Gary Simpson, councilman
David Hodo, former councilman
Jayne Musonye--Norristown's Planning Director
Henry Sekawungu, Norm Windle--Norristown Planning
Joe Januzeli, Code Enforcement
Esare Pierre, resident
John Cover, County Planning

Since MontCo authored the document, it was felt that Mr. Cover ought to be the one to explain it to the public. I pointed out that it gave the public the impression that the County was running the whole show, and that we needed to hear from the people who would be accountable for following the zoning codes, ie., Norristown's Planning Commission. I asked if Jayne could lead the next workshop, or Henry. That idea seemed to fall flat, but I think I communicated the need well enough that our Planners will be more a part of the next workshop (Thursday, Sept 26th at 6 pm, at the Human Resources Building, Fornance and Dekalb). That session will cover mainly the hospitals/healthcare area, Logan Square and the coding for apartment complexes.

I asked, "Why the trend toward walkability?" The answer was "Young people want to live in walkable neighborhoods," and that Norristown wants to attract new young residents. While I don't think it's a bad thing to attract first-time homebuyers, I have to wonder about making sweeping statements that stereotype a chunk of the population. Mr. Cover defined "walkable" mainly as neighborhoods having sidewalks and businesses oriented to the street, with their parking in the back or elsewhere. He said all of Norristown was walkable. As I've said here on the Diary before, I don't agree. I go with the industry standard definition: that destinations like stores, and transit stops, need to be within 5 minutes, and driving has to be a pain for that area, or people simply won't walk. You have to have destinations. People will do recreational walking regardless--they'll just drive to the Farm Park or to one of the malls.

Some welcome clarifications:

Downtown's great mixture of architecture
1. Buildings in the Town Center district (downtown--really do we have to have a fancy, and incorrect, name?) will have a maximum height of 10 stories (120 feet high), rather than the 15 stories we were told at the last workshop. 15-story buildings may be constructed on the Riverfront, so we'll have more of a step-down transition as you approach the historic areas from the south. The old bank building on the corner of Swede and Main is about equal to 8 stories -- One Montgomery Plaza is 10 (not that THAT's a good role model for new construction). I'd just like to see the character of the older architecture preserved. That would help make our downtown unique.

2. New business construction in the neighborhood commercial zones MUST include parking, just not in a lot right on the street. Parking can be on the side or in the back, depending on the situation. So we won't end up with a bunch of new stores unable to attract customers from outside their neighborhoods because of lack of accessibility.

3. The residential zoning within the mixed use districts on Dekalb, West Main and the like, will follow the R2 guidelines with block-by-block zoning. This means, with the new zoning, developments like Arbor Heights and 1202 Dekalb would absolutely not be allowed. When I pointed out that they aren't allowed under the present zoning either, but that variances were granted, Mr. Cover's answer was that we just have to hold the Planning Commission to following the zoning codes. I don't think his answer was a cop-out--I think we DO have to do better.

As I told Mr. Cover, I think we (Norristown's residents) have a complete lack of trust in our elected and appointed officials where planning is concerned. We have a long history of disastrous development decisions in Norristown--like all of the historic buildings our government allowed to be demolished (to the detriment, and not advantage, of our economy), and all of the poor quality construction, like the original facade on the library that needed replacing, and now One Montgomery Plaza's defects. All of the pipe dreams, like Studio Centre, that always end badly for the taxpayers. We've come to expect more of the same every time development is mentioned.

As much as anyone, I'd love to be optimistic about new development in Norristown, but I think most residents have more of a "Show Me" attitude right now. Government has to earn back our trust.

You can download the proposed zoning here:

1 comment:

  1. While I agree we need to hold planning to following the zoning regs, my question for Mr.Cover would be how? When it starts at council then zoning, then planning and back to council and all three bodies perpetuate the bogus passing of variances. Oh, we can go and present valid facts but short of hiring a lawyer and appealing the decisions, all voices of the people fall on deaf ears. They would rather commit HARI KARI than admit they are wrong.