The New Code: Big Changes for Zoning in Philadelphia (Part 3)

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

Part Three: Base Districts and Overlays

With the August 22 effective date for Philadelphia's New Zoning Code fast approaching, we continue our Five-Part Series exploring the big changes in store. In our previous installment, we looked at the New Code's requirements for community involvement, and a brand-new process called Civic Design Review. In this Part Three of the Series, we discuss Base Zoning Districts and Overlay Zoning Districts in the New Code.

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

Base Zoning Districts

Under Philadelphia's Old Zoning Code, properties were organized into Zoning Districts with names like R-10 Residential and C-5 Commercial. But that is all about to change. The New Code consolidates the overall number of Zoning Districts, and implements a new naming system. New Districts have names like RSA (for Residential Single-Family Attached), CMX (for Commercial Mixed-Use), and ICMX (for Industrial Commercial Mixed-Use). On August 22, 2012, every property in the City will automatically be switched to the new Zoning District that is closest to its former District. Conversion tables are provided in Chapter 400 of the New Code to ease the transition, and you can also type a property address into an online conversion map to determine the new Base District. This is just the first step in a two-step process, however. Over the next several years, the City Planning Commission will be re-mapping the entire City, neighborhood by neighborhood, updating Zoning Districts for properties where appropriate.

Some highlights of the changes contained in Chapter 400 of the New Code: 

  • Three new Base Districts are created, although they are not yet mapped and therefore do not yet apply to any particular properties:
    • Commercial Mixed-Use 2.5 (CMX-2.5) replicates rules previously contained in neighborhood commercial area overlay districts under the Old Code (e.g., Germantown Avenue, Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Main Street Manayunk). CMX-2.5 seeks to support revitalization of neighborhood commercial areas. The requirements are similar to the CMX-2 District, but with fewer allowed uses and with dimensional controls to promote a pedestrian-friendly area (e.g., minimum building height of 25' and maximum height of 55').
    • Industrial-Residential Mixed-Use (IRMX) is intended to help former industrial areas transition into mixed-use neighborhoods, with residential and commercial uses, along with some low-impact, neighborhood-friendly industrial uses.
    • Airport Special Purpose District (SP-AIR) seeks to support the development of airport uses while minimizing adverse impacts on surrounding areas.
  • The New Code updates Floor Area Ratio (FAR) limits for Commercial Districts. Properties in CMX-3 and CMX-4 are permitted a Base FAR of 500%, while properties in CMX-5 are permitted a Base FAR of 1,200%, and properties in a special "Super" CMX-5 area near Center City's main public transit nodes are permitted a Base FAR of 1,600%. In Part Five of this Series, we will look at the New Code's entirely new approach for granting FAR bonuses on an a la carte basis.
  • The 10 Industrial Districts under the Old Code are consolidated into just 6 Industrial Districts in the New Code to reduce complexity. Dimensional standards are more stringent for Industrial District properties that abut a Residential or Special Purpose District.
  • The New Code also contains several Special Purpose (SP-) Districts, such as the Institutional (Special Purpose) District (SP-INS), which are still organized as in the Old Code, with all use and dimensional controls included in a single "stand alone" section.

Overlay Zoning Districts

Under the Old Code, Overlay Districts seemed to pop up like wild flowers, creating an unwieldy and confusing web of controls. The New Code consolidates and streamlines things, creating three new "master" Overlays: one for Center City, one for neighborhood commercial districts, and one for neighborhood conservation areas. Some highlights: 

  • The Center City (CTR) Overlay consolidates and updates all of the various Center City neighborhood overlay districts into a single Overlay district, with a Table summarizing the controls applicable to different sub-areas. There will be a new minimum building height of 25' on most east-west streets; use controls are updated; and the ground floor of parking garages on many streets must include office, retail or commercial uses.
  • The Neighborhood Commercial Area (NCA) Overlay consolidates the controls from 16 neighborhood overlay districts (e.g., East Falls, Passyunk Avenue, and Germantown Avenue) into a single Overlay district, with a Table addressing controls applicable to sub-areas.
  • The Neighborhood Conservation (NCO) Overlay is initially applicable to just Queen Village and Overbrook Farms. It is designed to promote conservation and preservation, with guidelines for facades of existing buildings and design of new construction, requiring Planning Commission review. This Overlay will sunset for a neighborhood if it is ever designated as an Historic District, subject to Historical Commission review.
  • The North Central Philadelphia (NCP) Overlay separates the area around Temple University into a student area (where up to 4 unrelated persons may live in a dwelling, more density is permitted and less parking is required), and a non-student area (where fraternities, sororities and other types of student housing are prohibited).
  • The New Code also establishes three levels of Transit-Oriented Development Overlays, which promote increased use of public transit: TOD-1 (Regional Center), TOD-2 (Neighborhood Center) and TOD-3 (Park and Ride). This is a big change from the Old Code, which did not contain any sort of special districts to encourage transit-oriented development. While these TOD Overlays have not been mapped yet, the New Code anticipates the need for these special controls in areas around public transit nodes.

The New Code also has a place-saver for a Central Delaware Riverfront (CDO) Overlay, which has not yet been adopted by City Council. The CDO Overlay is expected to contain special controls that will regulate development in a manner consistent with the City's master plan for the Central Delaware Riverfront.

Follow us in coming weeks as we delve into some other key sections of the New Code.


Part One: An Overview

Part Two: Community Involvement and Civic Design Review

Coming Soon:

Part Four: Use Categories

Part Five: Dimensional Controls and Parking

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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