How Philly Works: Councilmanic Prerogative

City Council members praise its virtues.  Newspaper editorials cast it as bad provincial politics.  You may not be familiar with the term, but chances are you’ve seen it in action.  Important building projects in Philadelphia – like the Sugar House Casino and the Barnes Museum – were impacted by Councilmanic Prerogative.  So even if you don’t know what it means, you already know what it does.

In a nutshell, Councilmanic Prerogative refers to the near-absolute powers wielded by City Council members over land development projects in their districts.  Each of the ten District Council members can help advance these projects or halt them in their tracks.  Though this practice is not written into any law or rule book, each District Council member receives full deference from their Council colleagues when making these decisions about their own district. It’s their prerogative.

Soon, Councilmanic Prerogative may become a household word (or words). 

One reason could be Philadelphia’s new zoning code which was signed into law last month.  This 21st century upgrade seeks to improve the world of Philadelphia development, but it sidesteps Councilmanic Prerogative. 

Another reason for increased attention about Councilmanic Prerogative is Mayor Michael Nutter’s interest in rehabbing thousands of blighted properties across the city.  And the new President of City Council, Darrell Clarke, has proposed “Development Districts” where you can buy land for well below market rate.  As these efforts move forward, Councilmanic Prerogative will be front and center.

Of all the powers used by Council, it’s perhaps the one with the most concentrated authority and the most visible effects.  Which is why we want you to understand it.

This installment of  “HOW PHILLY WORKS” will begin to get you up to speed on this important – if not hard to pronounce – practice of City Council.

- January 4, 2012




I think I already know about “Prerogative.”  Can’t you get this at the Italian Market?

That’s “Perogies.”  And they’re delicious.  But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

OK, so I don’t know about Prerogative.  Can you explain it to me?

“Councilmanic Prerogative” is an expression – pronounced per-ogative, despite the spelling -- used to describe the power of District City Council members over land use projects across Philadelphia.
 

That still doesn’t get me there.  What kind of powers are we talking about?

The power to crank up – or grind to a halt – the gears of the government conveyor belt that approves new buildings, businesses and other land development projects.

Can’t you just build or do what you want?

Not always.  Like most cities, Philadelphia has a zoning code which sets rules for what types of developments are allowed where.  Before you start setting up shop on property in Philadelphia, you need to make certain your plan fits within the zoning rules.     

Is that hard?

It can be.  Until the new zoning code got passed last month (you can read the Committee of Seventy’s summary of it here), Philadelphia followed development rules dating back a half-century.  The process became outdated, which made it hard for many new projects to go forward.

Can you give me an example?

The most prominent example in recent years was the long and bitter fight between Fox Chase Medical Center and Councilman Brian O’Neill.  That was a complicated mess, so let’s go with a simpler case.  Say you wanted to open a new restaurant with take-out service.  Technically, the old zoning code didn’t allow any new take-out restaurants.

That’s ridiculous!  How am I supposed to get my take-out perogies?

That’s where Councilmanic Prerogative comes in.  If a new building or business isn’t allowed under the zoning code, the District Council member can still make it happen.

How can they do that?

They can push for zoning rule changes – sometimes called “spot zoning.”  Under Prerogative, the other nine District Council members and the seven At-Large members will almost always fall in line behind the District Council member who wants to knee-cap or advance a project – regardless of size or its value to the rest of the city.

Why does everyone on City Council go along with each District Council member?

There’s a belief among Council members that the pertinent District Council member is in the best position to understand their constituents and what projects will work well in their districts.  Even more importantly, it’s good politics.  By supporting a particular colleague, each of the other Council members ensures support in return on issues that matter to them.

So this turns a District Council member into the go-to person for development projects in their district?

Yes.  It’s Prerogative that makes it so.

Why would they want that?

Think of each of the ten District Council members as the mayor of a city of 150,000 people.  Like any mayor, they want to know – and appear to control – what goes on in their town.  Prerogative is the best tool they have to know what’s going on in their districts and to exert their will before any shovels go in the dirt.

What does it take to get a District Council member on board with a project?

That differs from case to case.  The use of Prerogative – which isn’t mentioned in the City Charter – is entirely up to each District Council member.

Let’s say my neighbors and I meet with our Council member about a project planned for our neighborhood.  Then the result will be what we want, right?

Not necessarily.  Council members also hear from project developers.

Why?  We live here.  Shouldn’t we get the final say for what happens in our neighborhood?

Again, it’s complicated.  Sometimes a Council member will try to bring neighbors and developers to the table and find compromises that make projects a better fit for the neighborhood.  For example, they may add a requirement that take-out restaurants have limited hours to avoid late-night noise.  Or they can force the restaurant to ditch the take-out windows altogether.  Of course, there are times when the Council member will side with the building owner or developer, leaving residents to try to figure out why.  

So Prerogative can loop in neighborhood concerns, while allowing projects to move forward?

It can.  Former Councilman Frank DiCicco, who represented the First District for sixteen years before stepping down last month, was widely known for his use of Prerogative to help developers and neighbors see eye-to-eye, or close to it, on new projects in his district.  The Inquirer recently did a flattering article about DiCicco which you can read here.
 

Are there projects I would know that used Prerogative?

DiCicco secured zoning changes to allow the construction of the Sugar House Casino on Delaware Avenue, the first casino in Philadelphia, but only after holding up the project for months to address increased traffic at the site.  And Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell delayed the move of the Youth Study Center – needed to make way for the Barnes Museum on the Parkway – to her district until she received millions of dollars for a community center.  This was a help to the neighborhood, but led to a longer timetable and more costs for the Barnes.

I’m starting to understand what Councilmanic Prerogative is.  Does everyone like it?

No.  Neighborhood groups often like this practice because it allows them access to a single decision maker – their District Council member – who can serve as gatekeeper for new buildings and businesses in their part of town.  On the other hand, developers often raise concerns that they get forced into addressing too many individual demands by neighborhoods, along with the varying standards among District Council members, which can make the cost of development higher and less predictable.  Some people will go farther and call Prerogative a reason to create jobs outside the city.

Not everyone gets a fair shake under Prerogative?

In a perfect world – and Philly isn’t one -- everyone gets equal access to the District Council member.  But, for instance, if someone wanted to give campaign contributions to their favorite Council member – in whose district they either want or don’t want a development to succeed – you’d have to assume this could give them an added dollop of access.

What do the city’s leaders think about Prerogative?

Mayor Nutter, a former District Councilman himself who used to rely on Prerogative, supports it.  So does Council President Clarke, who also represents a District.  He recently wrote an opinion piece for The Inquirer that listed projects he believes benefited from Prerogative, which you can read here.

You mentioned there’s a new zoning code.  Won’t that change Prerogative?

The new code is supposed to make it easier to get zoning approval for new projects.  It might make Prerogative a little less potent, but it won’t make Prerogative go away.  Even DiCicco, one of the biggest users of Prerogative, pushed for the new zoning code so Council wouldn’t always be in the middle of development decisions.  And noted Inquirer architecture and planning writer Inga Saffron recently wrote that Prerogative may be on its last legs.  Cynics like us aren’t so sure that Council members will happily give up their leverage.

Do other cities have Prerogative, too?  Or is this just a Philly thing?

It’s not just a Philly thing.  But like cheese steaks – if not perogies -- we serve up more than anybody else.  

* * * * *

The non-partisan Committee of Seventy wants you to get more involved in local issues -- especially since you pay the bills in this town.  That is why we regularly publish this feature, now called, “HOW PHILLY WORKS.”  (We used to call it “In The Know,” but who knew what that meant?)

We’ll be telling you more about Councilmanic Prerogative and other complex issues.  If you have thoughts, ideas or – heaven help us – criticism, or if you have friends who might want to directly receive "How Philly Works”, too, please e-mail us at futureofthecity@seventy.org.

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