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More questions surround zoning of Philly courthouse

The construction of a family court building at Arch and 15th streets in Philadelphia -- long shrouded in controversy -- has hit another snag, with neighbors questioning whether zoning laws allow for an additional floor the architect wants to build.

With the structural foundation almost complete, the architect told the Philadelphia Art Commission that he wanted to add a 15th floor to the building to allow for additional courtrooms and offices. But the Philadelphia Art Commission is not a zoning board. Instead, it approves the design of public structures and gave the green light to the addition at a recent meeting.

When neighbors told the committee that they were not given the opportunity to speak at the meeting, which is required by law, the committee members rescinded their approval. The committee members said they would discuss the change to the building at the panel's Feb. 1 meeting.

Legally, area residents should have been notified about the meeting and given a chance to comment. It was only when one alert person notified the Logan Square Neighborhood Association that the matter was on the commission's agenda that neighbors learned of the meeting, they said.

While changes to architectural plans at the last minute are not uncommon, neighbors didn't anticipate the proposed addition of an entire floor. Officials previously had said the new building could not exceed 14 floors because of zoning rules. At the Arts Commission meeting, the architect said laws allowed the addition, but no city lawyer was at the meeting to confirm that.

At least one neighbor, the owner of a luxury apartment building, said any addition to height would impact his property values.

The courthouse was plagued by ethical questions regarding a city zoning attorney's relationship with the initial developer, which led to the city changing developers. The neighbors may want to consider consulting with an attorney who is experienced in real estate and zoning laws to see if there is anything they can do to have their concerns addressed.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Quashing an attempt at another Family Court fast one," Inga Saffron, Jan. 5, 2012

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