The New Code: Big Changes for Zoning in Philadelphia (part 5)

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Part Five: Dimensional Controls and Parking

Previously, in our Five-Part Series on Philadelphia's New Zoning Code, we provided an Overview, explored changes in Community Involvement and Civic Design Review, outlined new Base Zoning Districts and Overlay Districts, and reviewed the new approach to Use Categories. With less than one week to go before the August 22, 2012 effective date of the New Code, we wrap up our Series with a discussion of the new Dimensional Controls and Parking standards.

Where can I find the New Code? You can find the entire text online here.

Dimensional Controls

Chapter 700 of the New Code retains many of the Old Code's standards for dimensional items such as lot area, set back and height. Some key changes have been made, however, to reduce the number of Variances. For example, the height limit for townhomes is raised from 35' to 38' to better accommodate modern construction. Useful Dimensional Tables provide information at a glance. You will find separate Tables for Lower Density Residential Districts, Higher Density Residential Districts, Commercial Districts and Industrial Districts. Here are some highlights of the New Code's approach to Dimensional Controls:

  • Residential: For the first time, the New Code introduces contextual standards for certain row home Residential Districts (RSA-5 and RM-1), with dimensional controls for a particular property tailored to reflect the existing character of the block where it is located. Contextual standards allow for smaller lots in some cases, require front setbacks to match nearby structures, mandate a 3rd story setback when abutting two-story homes, and set rear-yard depth based on overall lot depth. In the RM-1 District, the Code introduces a new concept of limiting the maximum number of residential units based on lot size.
  • Commercial: The New Code introduces contextual rear-yard depth controls in the CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 neighborhood Commercial Districts. The CMX 2.5 District has a "build-to" requirement to promote pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented neighborhoods. In the higher density Commercial Districts, Floor Area Ratio (FAR) density limits are updated: CMX-3 (500% FAR), CMX-4 (500% FAR), CMX-5 (1200% FAR), and "Super CMX-5" (a specially mapped area in Center City / University City near major transportation nodes) (1600% FAR). Bulk and massing controls in higher density areas are also updated (see "Bulk and Massing Controls," below).
  • Industrial: Generally buildings in Industrial Districts have no height limit, but the New Code imposes a 60' height limit if the property is abutting a Residential or Parks and Open Space (SP-PO) District. Dimensional controls are also updated for open space between structures, and between a structure and lot line.
  • Green Exceptions: As part of an overall goal of encouraging a greener, healthier City, the New Code grants exceptions to certain dimensional standards for environmentally friendly structures such as wind energy conversion devices; solar collectors; green roofs; rain barrels; and composting equipment.

Design and Development Controls

Several big changes are found in the New Code's approach to design standards for various types of buildings, protections for natural resources, updated landscaping and tree requirements, and new controls for walls and fencing:

  • Design Controls: In Part Two of this series, we discussed the new Civic Design Review (CDR) process for certain types of projects. Even if a project is not subject to CDR, however, it may need to comply with modest new design controls. Section 14-703 provides basic standards to promote good urban design (for example, in attached buildings, utility meters must be hidden from view). Design standards for multi-family, commercial and institutional projects include screening of mechanicals and articulation of exterior facades. Professional certification is required to document compliance with the design controls.
  • Natural Resources: Under the Old Code, certain controls were used to protect natural resources in the Wissahickon Watershed. The New Code expands these protections citywide, to protect steep slopes in watersheds from inappropriate development. The Code provides for a 50' buffer from streams identified on a Hydrology Map to be maintained by the Water Department (but requiring City Council approval).
  • Landscape and Tree Standards: The New Code feature enhanced landscaping and tree standards for certain lots larger than 5,000 s.f. The standards require a landscape plan with professional certification, showing trees proposed for removal and replacement trees, with buffering between different types of uses. For the first time, cutting of "heritage trees" (with a diameter at breast height of 24 inches) is prohibited without a Special Exception from the Zoning Board. To obtain a Building Permit, Applicants will need to post a deposit or bond to ensure the required new tree planting. There is also a landscaping maintenance requirement.
  • Fencing, Walls and Lighting: The New Code includes new fencing and wall requirements for Commercial Districts, and outdoor lighting requirements for certain buildings and parking lots, with energy efficiency requirements.

Bulk and Massing Controls

One of the biggest changes in the New Code is the approach to Bulk and Massing controls in the City's higher density Zoning Districts. Under the Old Code, properties in the old C-4 and C-5 Districts could seek more Floor Area Ratio (FAR) density by qualifying for an FAR Bonus. The process was all-or-nothing, however, and many properties could not qualify due to property constraints or other factors.

The New Code adopts an entirely new a-la-carte approach to FAR Bonuses, which will allow more properties – particularly, smaller and odd-shaped properties – to take advantage of Bonuses. And FAR Bonuses will now be available to more Zoning Districts: RMX-3 (up to 100% FAR Bonus); CMX-3 in a Transit-Oriented Development area (up to 300% FAR Bonus); CMX-4 (up to 700% FAR Bonus); CMX-5 (up to 800% FAR); and "Super" CMX-5 (up to 1,000% FAR Bonus). Among the a-la-carte items that can be used to earn FAR Bonuses are some familiar items (Public Art, Public Space, Transit Improvements, and Underground Parking/ Loading), as well as some new items (Mixed Income Housing and LEED-Certified Green Building). The a-la-carte items available for a project vary by Zoning District, and a project can earn FAR Bonuses by providing available Bonus items in any combination.

Regardless of a project's FAR density, the Code also regulates the shape of the building's mass to limit its impact on public access to light and air. Under the Old Code, building mass was primarily regulated through a "wedding cake" standard that permitted smaller and smaller lot coverage at higher elevations. The New Code retains the "wedding cake" standard, but also offers developers a newer, more modern option called "Sky Plane" controls, which are intended to offer more flexibility. The Sky Plane controls are highly technical and require a skilled architect to analyze them and certify that a building will meet the controls.


The New Code encourages development near transit nodes, promotes walking and cycling, and generally reduces parking requirements in an effort to discourage unnecessary automobile use. Section 800 of the New Code provides convenient Parking Tables that clearly show parking requirements by Use Category and Base District. Some notable Parking changes:

New "preferential parking" rules require certain types of uses to provide at least 5% of parking spaces close to the building for carpool / vanpool parking and for hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.

The New Code provides more flexibility in meeting parking requirements, offering adjustments for sharing of parking spaces and for reduced-need populations (such as seniors or disabled persons), and proximity to public transit. Credits are available for providing auto-share parking spaces and bicycle parking.

Under the Old Code, mechanized garages (which use automated equipment to park cars much more densely than traditional garages) were prohibited. The New Code changes that, removing the standard dimensional parking requirements for mechanized garages.

Certain garage structures must meet new design standards, requiring 30% of the façade to be non-opaque, and a ground floor ceiling height of at least 10.5' to permit active retail, office, commercial or institutional uses.

Finally, certain surface parking lots must comply with new landscape requirements, which specify a minimum of 10% landscaped area; provide that parking spaces be broken up into smaller clusters of 20 or fewer spaces; and require landscape areas to be at least 6' wide. To add flexibility, however, the New Code also provides that landscaping requirements may be offset by 1 square foot for every square foot of green roof installed on the principal structure on the same lot.

As we bring this Five-Part Series to a close, we thank you for following along, and invite you to contact us at any time. During the transition to the New Code over the next six months or longer, we are all in for a bumpy ride. But rest assured that one thing will not change: We will be here to help you navigate the process, answer questions and find solutions.


Part One: An Overview

Part Two: Community Involvement and Civic Design Review

Part Three: Base Districts and Overlays

Part Four: Use Categories

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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