SPIN or Get Off the Pot

UPDATE, DECEMBER 14, 2016: Philadelphia’s City Council passed Philadelphia University’s Master Plan, and then Mayor Kenney signed & approved their institutional zoning (SPIN).

It’s a done deal, folks! Congratulations to PhillyU and to the overwhelming majority of neighbors who voted to support legislation that streamlines the process for campus growth & development. 

Jeff Cromarty (PhillyU’s chief operating officer), expressed delight while thanking the community, “We are grateful to East Falls Forward, the East Falls Community Council, and all the residents who contributed to this process. With this designation, we look forward to remaining a valuable East Falls asset for many more years.”

According to Phillycode.org, “Special Purpose INstitutional” zoning was created to encourage the development of institutional uses and commercial-related facilities within established guidelines for things like setbacks, off-street parking, signage, and more.

View PhillyU’s current Master Plan here (images above from the pdf’s PhillyU provided to the City Council of Philadelphia, December 1, 2016). More details in July’s report from the Civic Design Review.

THURSDAY JUNE 16: With approval by both RCOs of specialized zoning legislation (SPIN) for PhilaU, it looked like the legislation was headed for easy passage on the final day of City Council session, June 16. But this is the SPIN we’re talking about, East Falls’ own Walking Dead initiative, so of course it’s been delayed again (until at least September, when Council is back in session). No word yet on why the legislation was delayed. Sounds like the handful of the U’s NIMBY neighbors have been hard at work.

WEDNESDAY JUNE 7: After five years of talks & meetings, Councilman Curtis Jones is poised to introduce Institutional Zoning for Philadelphia University, clearing the way for development plans. A vocal minority comes out a-swinging to EFCC’s “Emergency” meeting before their zoning committee officially weighs in. Ooh boy! 

Oh wow this meeting had it all:  paranoia, common sense, shouting matches, and a dramatic walkout (“You’re all wusses!”) — plus special guest star Barnaby Wittels as a former EFCC president taking names & kicking asses. I take back all the whining I did when I heard there was an extra zoning meeting this month.

Let’s recap! (Hopefully you’re near headphones cause you’re gonna wanna hear some of this video…)

EastFallsLocal Recap with Video Emergency PhilllyU meeting 6-6-16 Full House at EF Presby

Standing room only this Monday night, three days after EFCC announced a public meeting on Philly U’s “Special Purpose Institutional Zoning” (SPIN) in response to upcoming legislation that puts this issue on City Council’s June agenda.

EFCC zoning chair Todd Baylson explained that if Councilman Jones opted to move things further, there’d be two subsequent public hearings at City Hall and then the zoning would likely be approved this Spring (any amendments would need to wait until Fall sessions begin).

Meanwhile, EFCC’s zoning committee has focused efforts on a “Memorandum of Understanding” between Philadelphia University and the Community Council, because some members were concerned that permanent greenspace issues could overshadow other issues like lighting, landscaping, buffers, etc.

Todd further stressed their memorandum helps create positive rapport with PhillyU, to lay the groundwork for successful negotiations in good faith. Although right away, Schoolhouse lane neighbor Stephen Kish disagreed that any such memo could be helpful without being legally binding. Annnd we’re off!

Local author/paddler/environmentalist extraordinaire Jon Berger (Timber Lane) next stood to advise the room that recent terrain models mapped by a U of P geologist he hired show that four of the buildings on PhillyU’s current plan intrude on the 50′ buffers required by Wissahickon watershed ordinances.

The way he sees it, we have three ways to proceed:

  1. Philly U relocates the buildings,
  2. Philly U “reimburses” greenspace to the community to compensate for environmental impact,
  3. Philly U pushes plan through, opening itself up to lawsuits from environmental organizations & private citizens who could considerably delay and complicate development.

“Tomorrow is a hearing,” he told the crowd, “We don’t know what the bill’s gonna look like until we get a look at it… We’ll go from there.”

EFDC’s Gina Snyder had a different take:  “All these issues about the watershed are important but they are not going to be decided by this zoning decision. Watershed decisions are going to be made by the City of Philadelphia.”

Community Councils are not expected to be environmental experts! All development is subject to government inspections, requirements & restrictions — if we approve a nuclear reactor on PhillyU’s campus, that doesn’t mean they can build it. Ecological assessments probably shouldn’t be a neighborhood zoning body’s responsibility anyway, come to think. That’s what experts are for.

And the University has the wrong zoning! Every time they want to build, they have to ask the community — who always wants to know what ELSE they want to build, which seems to encourage suspicion.

This plan for moving forward is huge — finally, the neighborhood knows what to expect,  “As someone in planning… I’m glad to see the University leaves its residential zoning and goes into an appropriate zoning, and gives us a plan for what’s happening.”

And then… the unthinkable happened. Former EFCC president Barnaby Wittels stood and AGREED WITH GINA! His ground-breaking (for EFCC) speech deserves some transcription:

Well folks you better write this date in history down because I agree with Gina.

Before I say anything substantive, I am very upset if we can’t be civil. It’s absolutely beneath us to be anything less than civil. To over-talk. If you insist on repeating and repeating, asking question after question after question. I understand that passions run high. I understand there are several agendas operating, here. I understand that neighbors have passionate and strong feelings. That’s all natural and normal. That does’t mean we can’t continue to converse with each other.

In his opinion as a neighbor, PhillyU’s plan is good — not great, but certainly we need to work with them as partners and honor them as a “jewel” in our community. No side should expect to move forward completely satisfied, that’s how negotiation works.

EASTER EGG: At about a minute in, he gets snarky with current EFCC president Bill Epstein seconds before unironically declaring, “We lose everything we have as a community” when we talk to each other uncivilly. Ha!

Moving on, angry Michael Stipe impersonator Brendan Siltman shared his spectacularly uncompromising petition for preserving PhillyU’s greenspace. We are not making this up:


  1. No parking garage or other high-density land uses will be built in areas prohibited by any section of the Wissahickon watershed ordinance.
  2. Current open space on the campus will become permanent zones of open space not to be built upon for any reason at any time.
  3. New development will take place only in the designated zone agreed upon by the University and the community.
  4. Suitable buffers from development of any kind will be set in all surrounding neighborhoods, and also the University will engage in a consultative process with the community based on the practices of sustainable development and design.

He claimed 350 signatures on the printed petition he brought around to his neighbors — a rate of one signature every ten minutes. So, clearly, a good number of other East Fallsers feel they have a right to control all development concerns on property they do not own. (Why am I not surprised..? )

Brendan also canvassed the University, reporting back shocking news of professors & students feeling left out of campus planning and the Jefferson merger. Perhaps more shocking, though, is his gall to make unbelievably negative claims right to President Spinelli’s face! And wow he says this stuff like it’s pure fact, not opinion:

“They (the students & faculty) don’t see it so much as a merger as much as the school being sold… There won’t be a PhillyU in ten years… I don’t think President Spinelli or his team really represent that community… I don’t think this plan represents their interests at all…  

“This plan has no ecological sensitivity whatsoever…. In my eyes, it has no imagination or reverence for a natural environment…”

Brendan actually visited the site of every proposed building on PhillyU’s map, and counted over 150 trees that would be felled for each project. BTW, the U’s own calculations are closer to 80, and they will replant 2 trees for every 1 taken down. Furthermore, they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars maintaining historic trees on campus.

To Meg Greenfield, though, it’s laughable to think a couple of seedlings can replace century-old growth. She also scoffed at Bill’s praise for PhillyU’s revamped plan, considering how ridiculous the first one was. She demanded the University create a new plan providing specific protections for neighbors, including binding stipulations against any added noise, light, traffic, parking, shade, signage…

Sure, their campus is great now, but how do we know it’ll stay the same? The zoning committee’s toothless memorandum is just an agreement to talk — it doesn’t say what happens if we disagree. And it doesn’t give the community any recourse if we dislike what the University does. Meg did not like this!

Also: once she could hear music from PhillyU in her own backyard. Seriously — music! In her ears, guys!

Speaking of horrors:  BALLS ARE A REAL MENACE TOO! (Speakers highly recommended for the video below:)

Did you know Philadelphia University’s Ravenhill campus is a death-trap of wayward balls speeding into cars, windshields… human heads!! Schoolhouse lane’s Stephen Kish warned the room to keep a careful eye on PhillyU’s sports & recreation development.

“I’ve had balls all over my lawn,” he announced. Evidently, it was not pretty.

But yet Oliver Franklin, a resident from nearby Apalogen, stood to counter that he actually LIKED PhillyU’s students, who he called the “nicest college kids I have ever encountered.” Seeing them play ball, hearing their music — this near neighbor felt happy, seeing young people out having fun on a beautiful campus everyone enjoyed.

But even if Philly U’s students weren’t so well-behaved, is SPIN zoning an appropriate means to control stuff like noise and light levels? Nope, says Todd.

He disagreed with Meg last night, explaining he does not feel that issues such as noise, lighting, landscaping, etc. should be a part of PhillyU’s SPIN zoning. Community Council should focus on land use, building locations, approximate heights, and other things related to institutional development.  And building good faith between both parties.

Back to Barnaby Wittels for a quote-able summary:

“I think we’re at a certain crossroads. Whether we continue down that path of trust, or whether we retreat into what we do far too often in this Community Council, which is immediately assume an adversarial stance, with whomever. Any proposal for change… The default position of many people in this organization has been ‘I’m against it.'”

And then he marched right up to Dr. Spinelli and shook his hand, “I want to move forward with you.”  (Awwww…)

Not so fast! Apparently, we’re all wimps. Seriously! Stephen Kish is wise in the ways of University negotiations, and he’s very disappointed in us. After calling us all “wusses,” he stormed out of the meeting in a glorious huff.

And finally — thank god for EFCC zoning committee member Emily Nichols, who called for an end to five years of hemming and hawing and mulling over PhillyU’s plans,

“The discussion has been had. Hopefully we’ve all had an opportunity to ask our questions and listen to the comments & opinions of other people. At this point, a decision needs to be made. Not everyone is going to be happy with it…. Let’s take that vote tonight and decide. And move forward.” 

So we did! Not an official vote, of course (EFCC didn’t have a list of paid members eligible for voting), but they informally polled the whole room. The tally:  28 in favor, 6 against, and 4 for “no position.” Quite clearly, the audience seemed to agree it’s time to move forward with PhillyU’s SPIN.

After this meeting, EFCC’s zoning committee gathered privately where we’re told they voted to approve (!) PhillyU’s plan. Tuesday June 7, Curtis Jones presented the legislation to City Council’s Rules Committee — it was passed out of Committee (click here to see the amendment) and next goes to a general session of city council on Thursday 6/9 to be read into the record as an ordinance.

The following week (probably Thursday the 16th), it will be voted on by the Council and, if approved, passed into law. (Keep an eye on phila.legistar.com for more info, and EF Local too!)

We’re also adding more links & comments as we go thru more video. Thanks for following along! Props to Todd for a well-wrangled meeting!


How does the Friends of Wissahickon feel about PhillyU’s plan? Some buildings apparently encroach into watershed buffer zones; both Bill Epstein & Jon Berger have been in contact with Maura McCarthy, the group’s executive director, concerning the FOW’s position. According to an April NEWSWORKS article, the Friends support a 30-year plan but only if it “very tightly adheres to the Wissahickon Watershed Overlay.”

In the grumbly video above, Bill — who’s “not a dummy” — maintains that although the plan impedes the watershed boundaries “in a minor way,” the Friends are not opposed to PhillyU’s plan.

Jon Berger blatantly disagrees, “I’m afraid that’s not the substance of her (Maura’s) remarks or emails, the full content I can furnish to anyone in this room.”

“I can furnish the same!” Bill shoots back, annnnnd then the meeting reduces to “He Said/He Said” shouting until Todd reminds them they’re on video and begs them to stop.

(Somewhere in the middle of this, Gina Snyder whipped out her phone and made a comment about text messaging Maura, who no doubt would’ve been thrilled to get pulled into this conversation. Unfortunately, seems this issue has not been settled — it’d be nice to have some sort of official statement from the FOW, we’ll share here if one is posted).


  1. The smug pollution emitted from the mouths of these faux-greenies is enough to melt the polar ice caps long before carbon dioxide will.

    This whole SPIN saga is yet another example of bike shedding among a long list of examples I’ve seen just in my two years as a resident.

    • Thanks, Morgan, I learned a new word today:

      BIKESHEDDING, v. The term was coined as a metaphor to illuminate Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively.

  2. Hi there. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I’m concerned about the changing tone. Are things really so bad in the community that we need to be so snarky? For example, this is now the second article I’ve read in which youve called Brenda Siltman a name: first Andy Kaufman now Michael Stipe, both comments on his appearance or mannerisms. We get it, you just don’t like this kid or his concerns, but this is bully language. While this may be okay for the charade of national politics: “Little Marco”, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren”, it worries me that you’re using this tactic to dismiss someone’s ideas by making fun of elements of their person which they probably don’t have much control over. Someone that you might meet on the sidewalk. Do you say hi to this person in passing? Everyone mentioned in your article are all community members that may hold different ideas than you do but all believe they’re looking out for East Falls, just like you. And I’m worried you’re losing that thread.

    • Totally agree that “name calling” is not ideal.

      I was a little split on how we handled Brendan this time around — you’re right that snark can backfire. We certainly don’t want to lose readers — or hurt Brendan’s feelings, even. We are actually both big fans of Andy Kaufman’s comedy and Michael Stipe/REM. As far as name-calling goes, we think we could’ve stooped much lower.

      But you’re right — why name call anyway? Two reasons, since your comment kinda asks:

      1. Humor! Zoning is sooooooo boring. It’s important to know what’s going on in your neighborhood, but man are these meetings long & full of tedious details and complicated planning protocols etc. We feel strongly that humor — even the “snarky” kind — helps folks get the info they need in what we aim to make a fun, light-hearted read.

      2. Defense! People who opt to speak at meetings here can be downright rude and disrespectful, and they can dominate meetings with their own agenda. Brendan is unfortunately often a fine example of this. At Monday’s meeting, he made outrageous claims that PhillyU didn’t have their students’ best interests in mind — WTF? That kinda talk could turn off potential students, and hurt the University at the heart of our community. How does that help us in negotiations?

      By poking at Brendan, we hope to deflate any weight his harmful words might carry. And also, we’d like to give him a heads up: Dude! Relax!

      If you’re gonna speak up at a public meeting, be civil. Be polite. Be positive. And take turns. If you’re not going to follow these basic guidelines, you’ll probably wind up goofed on in our recap.

      ps We like Brendan and hope he sees the light. Hello and thanks for chiming in!! 🙂

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