Zoning is totally innocent and not about segregation, episode 5238

In the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mayfair, Next City reports, some people want to create a new zoning overlay for the local commercial district. What would this overlay do? Would it, say, prevent those glue factories that zoning textbooks are always concerned about? Would it preserve the existing neighborhood character? Promote, I don’t know, more pedestrian-friendly, or car-friendly, or cat-friendly development? No. Ha ha.

The Mayfair zoning overlay would ban everything from barbershops and hair and nail salons to daycare centers, laundromats, and dollar stores.

The list reflects a typical range of businesses that you might find in lower-income communities. It also represents 34 percent of the existing businesses in Mayfair according to Philadelphia’s planning commission, which declined to give the neighborhood alteration its nod of approval. If City Council approves the overlay, existing businesses would be grandfathered in, but they’d be prevented from expanding — and it would be the most restrictive overlay in the city.

“I think if you take [away those stores], there’s nothing left. There’s really nothing besides that on the Avenue,” Angel Medina, proprietor of Hair Wizards, told me.

Efficiency! Democracy! Good Planning! Thank God for Local Control! Otherwise, it might turn out that virtually every city in the country had confiscatory, punitive laws that attempt to eliminate poor people, non-white people, and their livelihoods and accoutrements. Thank God we don’t live in that sort of dystopia.

The prophetic words of an observer of cities’ new zoning powers – in 1920:

Planners and zoning experts often appeal…that zoning…will protect them from ‘undesirable neighbors.’ In fact, …no height restriction, street width or unbuilt lot area will prevent prices from tottering in a good residential neighborhood unless it helps at the same time to keep out Negroes, Japanese, Armenians, or whatever race most jars the natives.

And so it has.

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One thought on “Zoning is totally innocent and not about segregation, episode 5238

  1. Rarely are motives so baldly transparent in the world of zoning. Daycares, really? Daycares are one of the few non-residential uses that are allowed even in the the “R-1” zones in the exclusive towns of Fairfield County, CT, along with schools and churches. Banning them from *commercial* zones is just … I can’t.

    I reported a year or so back on how another Philadelphia neighborhood, Yorktown, had successfully lobbied for an overlay which actually prohibited landlords from renting to students. The state courts affirmed that law against challenge both at the trial court level and on appeal, and it seems to have raised little controversy.

    I’m not sure how much more obvious it can be that delegating plenary zoning powers to neighborhood-level political entities (even if the city has a chance to veto their proposals) is an especially bad idea even by the already low standards of American zoning practice.

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